The case against Andamans journalist Zubair Ahmad was quashed by Justice Shivakant Prasad of Calcutta High Court’s Circuit Bench in Port Blair , providing some sense and justice for the most absurd of the spate of cases lodged against journalists reporting on the pandemic!

On April 27, 2020, Ahmad had tweeted about the administration’s response to the pandemic and asked on what grounds were members of a family under quarantine also put into quarantine for merely calling to enquire about the condition of their relatives!

Zubair Ahmad

The court held that allowing the criminal proceedings against him would amount to sheer abuse of process of law and abuse of power’ and further said that the allegations in the FIR lodged against him appear to be absurd and that no prudent person can ever reach a just conclusion that there is sufficient grounds for proceeding against him.

On April 26, 2020, Ahmad had tweeted:

“Request #Covid 19 quarantine persons not to call any acquaintance over phone. People are being traced and quarantined on the basis of phone calls. #StaySafeStayHome”

and on April 27, 2020 he followed it up with another tweet:

“Can someone explain why families are placed under home quarantine for speaking over phone with covid patients?.”
@MediaRN_ANI @Andaman_Admn”.

For merely posing this question, he was arrested the same day and released on bail the next day. The Aberdeen police lodged an FIR levelling charges under Indian Penal Code sections 188, 269, 270 and 505(1) that relate to disobedience of a public official and a malignant act aimed at spreading infections. He was also 2 charged under sections 51 and 54 of the Disaster Management, which entails punishment for obstructing government efforts to contain a disaster. police accusing him of spreading false information with an intention to obstruct the administration’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the islands.

The genesis of his tweet was a report in the Andaman Chronicle, on April 26, ‘#AndamanFightsCOVID19: Entire Family Put on Home Quarantine After One Calls Up a Relative in Bambooflat’, about a resident K.A. Rehman, who called up his relative who had tested positive for Covid-19. Hours after he called, his four member family was put on home quarantine by the authorities.

Ahmad, who ran a weekly newsmagazine, The Light of Andamans, for several years and a news site, The Sunday Islander , is well known for his investigative work on the policies and projects of the administration in the Union Territory.

The Union Territory’s director general of police (DGP) Deependra Pathakhad had told The Wire that Ahmad was charged with spreading fake news and added that the idea of charging him would “nip the danger in the bud.”

On his part, Ahmad told Free Speech Collective that he was very glad and relieved at the order. “This FIR was just purely malicious and beyond ridiculous. I had to deal with this level of absurdity and unfairness. I just feel relieved that the ordeal is over. This is a good order indeed.”

In the wake of the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, over 50 journalists had been arrested, interrogated, detained or charged for their coverage of the pandemic. Jittery local administrations were hostile to independent reportage and several state governments issued notifications about the spread of panic over social media networks, often conflating news with misinformation.

Also Read “Behind Bars: Arrest and Detention of Journalists in India 2010-20

Read “India; Media’s Crackdown during Covid-19 lockdown” Report of the Rights and Risks Analysis Group

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