By Archit Mehta

Last month, on India’s 75th Republic Day, the state of Tamil Nadu (TN) honored Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of Alt News and a globally recognized journalist, with the Kottai Ameer Communal Harmony Award (Md Zubair, 2024). The award was given after India’s leading fact-checking website Alt News fact-checked a viral video that falsely claimed that migrant workers were under attack in TN.

This is not the first official recognition of Alt News’ significant journalistic contributions by a government. The streets know that in 2020 the Bureau of Police Research and Development, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, had listed Alt News for a brief while before it was deleted “after much furor” by right-wing social media users. (TNM, 2020)

However, the award to Zubair was kind of unexpected because Alt News has garnered recognition as a key debunker of misinformation in India. Its focus on exposing hate speech targeting minority groups has led to a “collision course” with the government (NYT, 2022). If you are someone who does not follow geopolitics of India, the two metrics you need to keep in mind are —

  • Declining Press Freedom Index: As of 2023, India ranks 161 of 180 countries. It’s been declining each year since 2016 — two years after the Bharatiya Janata Party won with a clear majority (RSF, NPR 2023, Statista). In 2022, Minister of State for Home Affairs of India Nityanand Rai said, “The Government does not subscribe to its views and country rankings and does not agree to the conclusions drawn by this organisation for various reasons including very low sample size, little or no weightage to fundamentals of democracy, adoption of a methodology which is questionable and non-transparent, lack of clear definition of press freedom etc.” (MHA, 2022)
  • Rampant Hate Speech Targeting Muslims: In 2023, India Hate Lab (IHL) documented 668 hate speech events targeting Muslims. Similarly, IHL recorded 255 of the events in the first half of 2023, while the number rose to 413 events in the second half of the year, a 62% increase. About 75% (498) of the events took place in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states.

What happened after Zubair won the award?

Shortly after, K Annamalai, the BJP TN President — one of the leaders of the political opposition in the State — opposed the decision. He called Zubair a “Biased Manipulator” and accused the government of wasting taxpayers’ money. (Annamalai, The New Indian Express, 2024)

The Kottai Ameer Communal Harmony Award comprised a medal worth Rs 2000 (~25 USD), a cash prize of Rs 25,000 (~300 USD) and a certificate (TNM, 2024, TN website). Annamalai’s concern for taxpayers money is questionable considering his concern for taxpayers money does not have the same scrutiny as his party. Last year, Delhi High Court ordered to quash the Central Information Commission’s request for information disclosure of the Prime Minister CARES Fund. This fund includes at least 380 million USD of taxpayers money. (The Wire, 2023)

The reason why politicians, mainstream media, and social media influencers from the counterfactual community discredit Zubair and Alt News is because the impact of their journalism is exposing the power dynamics of Indian politics.

Here are four posts on X that target Zubair after he won the ward. The examples just cover the tip of online harassment Zubair faces.

  • Example 1: An obscure but verified X account alleged Zubair was awarded for killings of Rajasthan-based Kanhaiya Lal and Andhra Pradesh-based Umesh Kohle in 2022. Both men were beheaded by men from the Muslim community in 2022 after a former BJP spokesperson made controversial remarks about the Prophet Muhammad in a prime-time debate on Times Now. Though this post does not have much engagement, the edited image can easily be shared on messaging apps like WhatsApp.
  • Example 2: Another account falsely said, “Zubair is a Rohingya settled illegally in India.” This is straight from the far-right playbook against former US President Barack Obama — where it was alleged Obama is not an American.
  • Example 3: Mona Patel, Head of Department of Architecture, Property & Business at Berjaya Group of Companies said, “Mohd Zubair, who is famous for spreading misinformation, running Islamist propaganda and attacking Sanatani people.”
  • Example 4: Sanjay Dixit, an influencer from counter factuality ecosystem, “satirically” reposted a rape crime incident where the accused also named Zubair. He posted, “Zubair? Which one?”

Media Analysis: Video by News24 and YouTube channel Nitin Shukla Latest Video

On January 26, around 2330 EST, only a few videos related to Zubair’s award were available on YouTube. The top results on YouTube included — 1) a breaking news clip by News24, a channel owned by B.A.G. Films and Media Limited, and 2) a video by the channel ‘Nitin Shukla Latest video’, which has about 300,000 followers. The peg for both these videos is that suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma was trending on X because Zubair won the award.

News24: The 90-second clip by News24 has a 40-second script. Around the 27-second mark, the voice-over draws attention to the “interesting bit” — “On social media, there is an argument and on social platform X Nupur Sharma began to trend.” News24 described the targeted harassment of Zubair as an online “argument.” In doing so, News24 has suppressed the impact of harassment. After the 40-second mark, the video continues to play with dramatic breaking news music and air information for the voiceover in text on TV.

Nitin Shukla Latest Video: This video incites people from the Hindu community especially those eligible to vote in TN. Around the 50-second mark, a voiceover states, “… offered award to the one who ensured that Nupur Sharma lives the rest of her life in danger. The one responsible for the deaths of Kanhaiya Lal, Umesh Kohle, and others. The one who protects terrorists openly…” In the total, the YouTube channel makes thirteen allegations. The chart below breaks down the baseless allegations made in the short video. The most frequent allegations were about Zubair being responsible for the deaths of Hindus and danger to Nupur Sharma.

Substantial Support For Zubair

Last year, Zubair won the Freedom of Expression award (Index on Censorship, 2023). A year prior to that being shortlisted for the “prize focused on combating religious extremism and intolerance” by Henrik Urdal, director of Peace Research Institute Oslo, in the annual shortlist for nobel prize (PRIO, 2022).

In 2022, Zubair was arrested by Delhi Police for allegedly hurting religious sentiments based on a meme from a 1983 comedy film that he had tweeted in 2018. Soon after, the hashtag #IStandWithZubair trended in the top spot-on Twitter following his arrest. (Scroll, Mashable, IAMC)

Zubair was released after 23-days — though at that time it was anyone’s guess when Zubair would be released. The Supreme Court bench said, in Zubair’s case, “How can a journalist be restrained from tweeting and writing? If he violates any law by tweeting or for that matter any citizen speaking in public or private, then he can be proceeded as per the law. It is a settled principle of law, that the existence of the power of arrest must be distinguished from the exercise of arrest and the exercise of the power of arrest must be pursued sparingly.”

Shortly after Zubair’s arrest former Times Now chief Rahul Shivshankar had posted a blog titled — ‘The Left is wrong. Zubair does not serve the cause of free speech but has imperiled it’. Last year, as a first year student at Georgetown University, I selected this artifact to deploy a newly learnt research methodology called ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’.

An approach to the analysis of discourse which views language as a social practice and is interested in the ways that ideologies and power relations are expressed through language. Critical discourse analysts are particularly interested in issues of inequality, sometimes keeping in mind the question ‘who benefits?’ when carrying out analysis. Unlike many other forms of linguistic analysis, CDA is not only concerned with words on a page but also involves examining social context – for example, asking how and why the words came to be written or spoken and what other texts are being referenced by them. The approach was first developed by Norman Fairclough (1989), who adopted a three-dimensional framework to analysis. (Key Terms in Discourse Analysis, Paul Baker and Sibonile Ellece)

Media Analysis: Rahul Shivshankar’s Blog Post Following Zubair’s Arrest in 2022

Shivshankar’s blog post on Mohammed Zubair illustrates a discursive practice aimed at delegitimizing Zubair’s journalistic credibility through strategic lexical choices and narrative framing. By labeling Zubair as “self-proclaimed” and skeptically quoting “fact-checker,” the blog engages in othering, positioning Zubair outside the realm of legitimate journalism. This is further compounded by exclusion, where significant support for Zubair, both nationally and internationally, is omitted, thereby marginalizing voices that validate his contributions to combating misinformation. The portrayal of opposition to Zubair’s arrest as part of an “anti-Modi space” and the dismissive treatment of anti-Muslim rhetoric in India reflect strategies of marginalization and minimization, aiming to discredit concerns over press freedom as partisan rather than principled. This discursive approach not only targets Zubair but also reflects broader ideological battles within Indian media, challenging the integrity of journalism and free speech in a contested political landscape.

Analyzing the means of production

Times Now is the digital arm of Times Network. As per the official website, Times Network is the TV division of Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited, the parent company of India’s largest media conglomerate, the Times Group, which owns and operates leading print publications like The Times of India, Economic Times, and Mumbai Mirror. Around mid-March 2022, Times Now had the highest weekly viewership.

Alt News’ 2022 annual report found that The Times Group published 45 instances of misinformation — the most by any media outlet as per the newsroom’s data in public domain.

Figure 1 Infographic by Alt News showing instances of misinformation by Indian media outlets in 2022.

Shivshankar’s blog is published under the series called ‘Beyond the Headlines.’ This creates an impression that the articles in the section are not “just headlines” but something more. It’s worth noting that the blog is published on the domain of “The Times of India” (TOI) instead of “Times Now.”  As a result, the blog benefits from TOI’s goodwill dating back to the early 1830s. Some of Shivshankar’s blogs have been “From TOI Print Edition ” indicating they were published in the print edition. However, the blog in question is not tagged.

The unmoderated comments section mirrors the narrative set by politicians and journalists like Shivshankar. Mapping sentiments from the comments section shows the most common theme — was blaming Zubair for the killings of Kanhaiya Lal and Umesh Kohle. However, replies to his tweet sharing this blog shows that Twitter audience was more critical of him.

Interpretive and Explanatory Analysis

 Para 1: “ALT NEWS co-founder and self-proclaimed “fact-checker” Mohammed Zubair has been arrested by the Delhi police.”

In the blog’s lede, the author Shivshankar answers three questions — Who is Zubair? What does Zubair do? And what happened to Zubair? While the responses to the first and the third questions are factual, the second question’s response is an opinion. The phrase “self-proclaimed” manipulates the readers to question the legitimacy of Zubair as a journalist. The author further asserts his framing by using the phrase fact-checker in double-quotes. This lede captures the state of journalism in India where misinformation and facts often go hand in hand. After Zubair’s arrest and a day before Shivshankar’s blog went live, Member of European Parliament Pierre Larrouturou tweeted, “The government of India must stop suppressing journalists and human rights defenders, and respect personal liberties of all its citizens.” Germany’s state-owned news outlet DW also tweeted in solidarity. Shivshankar does not need to consider views from overseas; there are many who support Zubair and recognize him as a journalist across India and no matter which newsroom he joins.

Para 2: “Zubair has been charged with hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity in a tweet that drew the ire of a Hanuman bhakt.”

When reporting on an accusation or claim made by someone, without confirming its truth or validity, the usage of the word “allegedly” serves as a crucial tool to support accuracy and fairness. However, Shivshankar does not follow this rule while mentioning the charges against Zubair. In fact, a day prior, The Times of India reported the same incident with the headline “Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair arrested for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.

Para 3: “Zubair’s arrest has greatly exercised the anti-Modi space.”

In the blog, Shivshankar has labeled anyone and everyone who is concerned about Zubair’s arrest as “anti-Modi space.” In doing so, he has turned Zubair’s arrest about Prime Minister Modi. Moments after Zubair’s arrest, #IStandWithZubair was the top trending topic worldwide on Twitter (now X). The arrest was also condemned by the Editors Guild and the Press Club of India. The latter pointed out “It is ironic that Mohammed Zubair’s arrest came on a day when India joined G7 and four other countries to protect free speech, online and offline.” Shivshankar’s suppression of the actual scale of dissent towards Zubair’s arrest exposes his and Times Now’s bias on the breaking story. Does this mean that Shivshankar alleges that the Editors Guild and Press Club of India is also a part of “anti-Modi space”?

Para 3: Opposition parties and several known Modi critics have slammed the arrest as the result of a vengeful “Islamophobia” that purportedly pre-disposes the BJP and its supporters to gun for Muslims.”

In the same paragraph, Shivshankar also claimed that opposition parties and Modi critics have “slammed” the arrest. By using the verb “slammed” instead of neutral terms like condemned, criticized, denounced, rebuked, disapproved, objected, protested, and challenged, he creates an impression that the critics are emotional, aggressive, or irrational.

Shivshankar mockingly used “Islamophobia” in quotes. As a result, some readers might think Zubair’s identity had nothing to do with the arrest. He was not the only one who shared the meme which led to his arrest. About three months prior to Zubair’s arrest, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum interviewed Waris Husain, a human rights attorney and adjunct professor of international human rights law at the Howard University School of Law. Husain had said, “I’m most concerned that targeted attacks on Muslims, which have occurred recently but have not been criminally prosecuted, could become more systematic and widespread.”

Para 4: “Even the British paper The Guardian’s headline reads “Delhi Police arrest Muslim Journalist Mohammed Zubair…” Like Modi critics the Guardian obviously believes that Zubair’s identity is relevant to the story.”

By marking The Guardian as “Modi critics” he has bundled the UK-based news outlet with the “anti-Modi space”. Furthermore, he reiterates that there is absolutely no relation between Zubair’s arrest and his religious identity.

However, about a month prior to Zubair’s arrest, Times Now held a debate about the Gyanvapi controversy despite the sub-judice status of the issue and added to a trend of confrontational religious debates. Nupur Sharma, a former Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson, made controversial remarks on Times Now that were seen as offensive to Muslims, concerning the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha. Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of Alt News, highlighted the divisive nature of such debates and shared a clip from Times Now.

Sharma’s comments led to widespread protests in India. Some of them turned violent and also killed two men who supported Sharma (India Today, Free Press Journal). The protests also took place in several countries in the gulf (The Wire). The Supreme Court said that Sharma’s “loose tongue” is “single-handedly responsible” for igniting tension across the country. Justice Kant said that Sharma was not arrested despite the case against her, and this reflected her clout. “What if she is the spokesperson of a party? She thinks she has back up power and makes any statement without respect to the law of the land.” “When you register a FIR against someone then they are arrested but not you. This shows your clout,” the court said.

Para 5: “Perhaps taking a cue Zubair’s legal team too invoked his Muslim identity saying had he not been one he would also not have been arrested just like others who have issued far more inciteful and hurtful statements.”

In para 5, Shivshankar alleges that Zubair’s legal team took the cue from The Guardian. Thus implying that the legal team were following The Guardian’s narrative. In doing so, he establishes a hypothetical link between Zubair’s legal team with the “anti-Modi space” without being explicit. At the same time, this sentence was manages to undermine the legal team’s credibility.

It is interesting to note that Shivshankar does not mention who was defending Zubair. In doing so suppresses yet another piece of information which establishes Zubair’s credibility. Zubair was represented by advocate Vrinda Grover who has over three decades of experience in continual law and human rights.

In 2023, as the United Nations press reported, “The President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Václav Bálek (Czechia), has appointed Vrinda Grover of India as a member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine.”

Para 7: “For a while now Zubair has shaped his “fact-checking” into a dog whistle. Very often this impish raconteur has called for action against those who he has claimed have deliberately hurt sentiments, especially of Muslims.”  

From para 7 onwards, Shivshankar pens down why he thinks “Zubair has not served the cause of free speech but actually imperiled it”. Just like in the lede, Shivshankar uses double quotes to discredit Zubair’s expertise in information verification. He also called Zubair an “impish raconteur.” In doing so, he has engaged in bullying, like name-calling. In addition, he alleged that Zubair has weaponized fact-checking for political dog whistles.

Here is what Zubair tweeted regarding Times Now’s controversial debate in 2022, “Prime Time debates in India have become a platform to encourage hate mongers to speak ill about other religions. @TimesNow’s Anchor @navikakumar is encouraging a rabid communal hatemonger & a BJP Spokesperson to speak rubbish which can incite riots. Shame on you @vineetjaintimes.”

As per Oxford Language, the phrase dog whistle in politics means, “a political message that is only intended for and heard by a particular group of people.” In 2019, in the backdrop of protests against the Citizens Amendment Act (CAA), Prime Minister Modi said, “Brothers and sisters… those who are engaging in arson… the visuals of them shown on TV… those engaging in arson can be identified with their clothes”.

About a month later, prior to the election in the national capital, The Print reported BJP leader Anurag Thakur, incumbent Minister for Information and Broadcasting, said “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko (shoot the traitors of our country).” The report stated that this slogan has come to be associated with supporters of the controversial CAA who have lobbed it at those opposing the law.

A month after Thakur’s speech, BJP leader Kalip Mishra said, “Delhi stays on fire… that is what they want. That is why they have blocked the streets and created a riot-like atmosphere. No stones have been pelted from our side. DCP sahab is standing next to us — on behalf of you I am saying that until Trump leaves, we will proceed peacefully. But after that, we will not even listen to you if the streets are not cleared. We are requesting you to clear Jafrabad and Chand Bagh before Trump leaves… after that, we will have to get on the streets. Ok? Bharat mata ki…”

Shivshankar did not report these incidents as dog whistles.

Para 7: “In the Nupur Sharma case for example Zubair pointedly mentioned that she hadn’t been punished by the BJP for merely hurting minority sentiments but was suspended for something far graver – tarnishing the image of the Prophet himself.

Shivshankar alleged that Zubair said Sharma was “punished” whereas he actually said suspended (Zubair, 2022).  The word “punish” does carry a harsher connotation compared to the word “suspend.” Shivshankar has framed Sharma as a victim, using the word “punish” may lead to additional sympathy.

Para 7: Zubair was obviously fully aware of the implications of casting Nupur Sharma as a blaspheme. “Islamists” were soon threatening to behead her on TV and in a grisly video after actually carrying out the act on a tailor who supported Nupur.” (para 7)

In the next sentence of para 7, Shivshankar claims that “Zubair was obviously fully aware of the implications of casting Nupur Sharma as a blaspheme.” In doing so, he positioned the way that Zubair knew that events would transpire in future as a result of him questioning the nature of Times Now’s prime time debate. However, he does not extend the same hindsight capabilities for Sharma. As a result, positioning Sharma as an “innocent victim” and Zubair as an “instigator”.

Shivshankar also draws attention to threats made by Islamists towards Sharma. He also emphasizes the word Islamists by using double quotes. However, he makes no mention of the threats made by Hindus towards Zubair (Zubair, 2022). In doing so, Shivshankar yet again strengthens Sharma’s framing as a victim.

In the remainder of the article, he blames Zubair for his arrest — “Today, after giving voice to the furies of religious obscurantism, Zubair is hoist on his own petard.”  He also added, “The trouble with a society where everyone invokes the right to feel offended at the slightest provocation to quash inquiry or debate is that it stops being a democracy”.

Reading those two sentences, it is difficult to make a case for Shivshankar as a free speech absolutist. Yet, the blog ends with the statement — “The cases against Nupur and Zubair only underline the urgency.”

I must admit, I did not see that coming. After spending most of the article framing Zubair negatively — Shivshankar feels his arrest is a cause of concern. If that is indeed the case, why not write about the bizarre circumstance under which Zubair was arrested?


Last year, The Hindu reported ‘Over 50% Indians are active internet users now’. This also means, about half of the country will experience the internet for the first time. Despite Zubair gaining over one million followers on X, there are many people who will only learn about him through what’s reported by the mainstream media. Instead of recognising the journalism done by Zubair, the mainstream media continues to position him as a bad actor.

The critical discourse analysis of the anti-Zubair rhetoric highlights a disturbing trend towards the normalization of targeting of journalists. The recognition of Mohammed Zubair’s work by the state of Tamil Nadu is juxtaposed against the vilification he faces from political opponents and sections of the media. This underscores a deep-seated struggle over freedom of speech in India’s democratic framework.

As we stand at the crossroads of digital expansion and democratic integrity, the case of Mohammed Zubair serves as a poignant reminder of the power of journalism as a pillar of democracy and the perils it faces in an era of increasing authoritarian tendencies. The discourse surrounding Zubair not only reflects the state of journalism in India but also signals the critical importance of supporting a free, fair, and independent press.

Fact-checking faces challenges in capturing nuances of content rooted in dis/misinformation generated — tactics deployed by the source of misinformation and the feelings it generates within a large target audience. This analysis aims to encourage journalists to explore critical discourse analysis to address narratives rooted in disinformation.

(Archit Mehta is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s MA Communication, Culture, and Technology program. He worked as a journalist. From 2019-2023, he worked at Alt News. In addition to journalism, he is interested in critical discourse analysis.)