Zubair Ahmed, a journalist working in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, has been arrested allegedly for a tweet asking why a family was put under quarantine for speaking over phone to a COVID-19 patient. Zubair in a tweet had asked, "Can someone explain why families are placed under home quarantine for speaking over phone with Covid patients?" (Update: Zubair was granted bail by a court on Tuesday afternoon.)
Zubair's tweet was based on a news report that said that four members of a family in Haddo, a town in Andaman, were forced to remain in home quarantine after one of them called up a relative who had tested positive for coronavirus over the phone, to ask about his well-being. The report was published in Andaman Chronicle on April 26. While Zubair did not mention the report, he raised the issue on Twitter on April 27. He was arrested around 7 pm on the same day (Monday).
Andaman Chronicle editor-in-chief Denis Giles told TNM that four people from Bambooflat police station reached Zubair’s home and told him he had been summoned to the Aberdeen police station as the Superintendent of Police there wanted to question him about his tweet. Zubair formerly worked as an associate editor with the Andaman Chronicle and now works as a freelance journalist.
“Zubair called me and told me that he had been picked up by the police. A special ferry was arranged to take him to the police station (ferries have been stopped due to the COVID-19 outbreak). I, however, felt suspicious and asked him to clarify why he was being taken. I heard him speak to someone, and after that I was not able to get in touch with him, all calls were getting forwarded. An hour later we found he had been arrested,” Denis told TNM.
Zubair has been booked under Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (Punishment for obstruction) and Sections 188 (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) 269 (Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life), 270 (Malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life), 505(1)(b) (Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause fear or alarm among the public). He was later also booked under Section 54 (Punishment for false warning) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
“How can they register an FIR just for asking a question? There’s a complete monopoly on the way information is disseminated in Andaman. The only information we get is through tweets by Chetan Sanghi, the Chief Secretary. There are no press briefings, no bulletins, so where do we get information?” Denis asked.
Andaman DGP Dependra Pathak later on Tuesday issued a statement on Zubair's arrest.
“Such messages instigate distrust among public for the well-established and universal health and contact-tracing protocols, thus motivating people to conceal correct information, falsify their statements, do not cooperate and/or protest against medical protocols and even break the lockdown and gather in large numbers publicly,” the DGP’s statement says.
“Legal action was essential so that members of public in the territory do not panic or give any false statement or create wrong data or gather in large numbers in protest endangering life at large. The action has absolutely been taken impartial. Even government officers and their spouse and child have not been spared,” the statement adds.
Quarantined for speaking over the phone
TNM spoke to one of the four family members who have been asked to remain in home quarantine. Zara* (name changed), who is a government employee, told TNM that she was in her office on April 25 when her father-in-law got a call from authorities asking whether they had spoken to anyone over the phone. When he said yes, the authorities later asked them for their address and reached their residence to paste a notice outside their home that they must remain in home quarantine for 28 days.
“We spoke to one of our relatives, who has COVID-19, over the phone to ask him about his well being. We did not have any physical contact with anyone who was infected or was a contact. We asked, can a telephonic conversation spread COVID-19? They just said we have done our duty by pasting this notice and we don’t know anything else,” Zara said.
Zara added that the quarantine notice was from April 24, a day when Zara was in office. Zara’s work comes under essential services.
“Now this notice may create panic among the neighbourhood, at my workplace, as to why this family has been placed under home quarantine. But we only had a telephonic conversation and the authorities are not being clear as to why we have been quarantined,” Zara said.
Zara then reached out to Denis to ask whether there were rules about home quarantine, which is when the report was published in Andaman Chronicle. She told TNM that now the family is apprehensive about asking any more questions to authorities since a journalist has been arrested for asking the same.
(Note: This article has been updated to include bail granted to Zubair and the DGP's statement which was issued later)