New Delhi: Andaman-based freelance journalist Zubair Ahmed, who was arrested Monday for allegedly posting a tweet on Covid-19, was granted interim bail Tuesday afternoon.
While the police said Ahmed was arrested for posting an “inciting, false and instigating tweet” that created panic among people, the journalist told ThePrint all he did was ask “uncomfortable questions”.
“The local officials only entertain queries on Twitter till the time they are comfortable. If you ask questions that aren’t at their level of convenience they accuse you of rumour mongering,” Ahmed told ThePrint from Wimberlygunj in the South Andaman Islands.
Ahmed had Monday posted a question for the Andaman administration, whom he tagged, asking why families who spoke to Covid-19 patients over the phone were put under home quarantine.
Can someone explain why families are placed under home quarantine for speaking over phone with Covid patients? @MediaRN_ANI @Andaman_Admin
— Zubair Ahmed (@zubairpbl) April 26, 2020
Ahmed, who lives with his family in a Covid-19 red zone at Wimberlygunj, was summoned to police station late Monday evening. But he couldn’t go by himself due to the lockdown and was picked up from his residence by the police around 8 pm.
He was subsequently arrested under sections 188, 269, 270 and 505(1) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The first three sections are bailable offences, which pertain to disobedience against an order by a public servant and negligent/malignant acts to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.
But Section 505(1) of the IPC is a non-bailable offence with an imprisonment of up to three years, for publishing or circulating any statement, rumour or report. Aside from the above mentioned offences under the IPC, Ahmed was also booked under sections 51 and 54 of the Disaster Management Act.
Zubair Ahmed was granted bail after his lawyer Mohammed Tabrez challenged the Section 505(1) in court. “Tabrez challenged the Section 505 which is a non-bailable offence and the court agreed, and he was granted bail,” said Najib Siddique, Ahmed’s friend.
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‘Wanted to teach me a lesson’
The journalist said the local police first tried to “intimidate” him over his tweet questioning the quarantine rules.
“There has been news of people put under home quarantine for speaking on call to relatives who tested positive for coronavirus. But these families haven’t even been in physical contact with the patients. Why put them under quarantine then?” Ahmed asked.
He said he was first taken to Bambooflat and then to the Aberdeen police station in a ferry.
“It looked like everybody there was ready to lock me up. Otherwise, why would they make me travel so far via a ferry from one police station to the other? They made me go from a red zone police station, i.e. the Bambooflat station which is about 4 km from my house, to the Aberdeen police station which is in a non-containment zone. The officials said the superintendent of police wanted to question me. But nothing like that happened. All they wanted to do was to teach me a lesson,” Ahmed said.
Monday’s tweet wasn’t his first on Covid-19. On Sunday too (26 April), the journalist had requested coronavirus patients not to call any acquaintance, stating that people were being home quarantined on the basis of their phone calls.
Request #Covid19 quarantined persons not to call any acquaintance over phone. People are being traced and quarantined on the basis of phone calls. #StaySafeStayHome
— Zubair Ahmed (@zubairpbl) April 26, 2020
Ahmed said his tweets were more “like a query” to the government after he read reports of people being quarantined for 28 days based on their phone calls.
‘Home quarantine on basis of call records has led to panic’
Ahmed also said this wasn’t the first time that local officers have “targetted and tried to stop him” from posting queries on social media.
“They don’t understand that if they carry on with this attitude, people will never come out and identify themselves for the Covid-19 test. How will they contain the virus like this? Home quarantining people for 28 days only on the basis of their call records has only led to panic,” he added.
Ahmed also said the police had seized his phone but he hasn’t been summoned for a court hearing yet.
False information jeopardise containment efforts: Police
Dependra Pathak, Director General of Police (DGP), Andaman and Nicobar Islands, told ThePrint that Ahmed was arrested for posting an “inciting, false and instigating tweet”, which was creating panic among people.
Pathak added that the police have also learnt that he was “informally” telling people not to inform authorities if they had contacted any Covid-19 patient.
“Our entire process gets jeopardised by acts like these and then it is very difficult to contain the spread of the virus or conduct contact tracing,” he explained.
Pathak said tweets like Ahmed’s instill distrust among the public and provoke people to conceal information, falsify their statements and not cooperate with medical protocols. Such messages can also instigate people to “break the lockdown and gather in large numbers publicly”, he added.
Also read: The Hindu journalist questioned by J&K police in 2nd FIR against media personnel in Kashmir
Action against others
The DGP said legal action is only taken to prevent people from creating law and order problems, making communal statements or causing disruptions which come in the way of containing the spread of coronavirus in the island.
Not only Ahmed, legal action has also been taken against the wife of a fire department personnel, a government employee and the son of a police constable, as they had all posted communally-sensitive tweets regarding the spread of Covid-19, Pathak said.
“The specific mention of a mediaperson is being made to give it a colour of violation of the right to speech and expression and that they have been specifically targeted. Law is community, profession and gender neutral. It has to take its own course,” he said.
In an earlier statement, the Andaman police had advised people to refrain from posting or forwarding any “mischievous” message that contains malicious, communal or fake news.
Also read: I’m speechless, says J&K journalist Masrat Zahra after being booked for ‘anti-national’ posts