Sunday, August 23, 2020

Vilification of Muslims in India during COVID-19: From Tablighi Jamaat to the Bombay High Court judgement

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Adnan Abbasi

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Vilification of Muslims in India during COVID-19: From Tablighi Jamaat to the Bombay High Court judgement

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Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 23, 2020

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Indian Media’s reaction to the Tablighi Jamaat controversy

March 2020, when coronavirus was a new occurrence in India, an Islamic organization—Tablighi Jamaat—was accused of spreading it across the country. Criminal proceedings were registered against Tablighi Jamaat members—some of them belonging to foriegn countries as well—for acting against law during the pandemic. This accusation was then used to further spread hate against the whole Muslim community of India.

On August 22, 2020 however, the Bombay high court struck down all criminal charges against Tablighi Jamaat’s members stating that they were scapegoated by the government.

The Bombay high court mentioned in their judgement:

"A political Government tries to find the scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity and the circumstances show that there is probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats. The aforesaid circumstances and the latest figures of infection in India show that such action against present petitioners should not have been taken. It is now high time for the concerned to repent about this action taken against the foreigners and to take some positive steps to repair the damage done by such action."

Let us understand how the events unfolded in the Tablighi Jamaat saga and its impact on Muslims of India.

The Markaz Nizamuddin Event

Tablighi Jamaat is headquartered at Alami Markaz, Banglewali Masjid in Nizamuddin, New Delhi which is often referred to as Markaz Nizamuddin. Markaz Nizamuddin is where members of Tablighi Jamaat often congregate to discuss and deliberate about their outreach plans.

One such meeting was held in early-March 2020 which drew members not only from various parts of India but also from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries. The people from foriegn  countries entered India on a valid tourist visa to attend the congregation much before the time March 13, 2020, when Indian Health Ministry claimed “COVID-19 is not a health emergency, no need to panic.” In fact most of the  attendees left Delhi around March 11, 2020 itself.

However, on March 24, 2020 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown so some of those attendees who were still staying at Delhi Markaz got stranded as they could not leave in the wake of sudden nationwide lockdown of transportation services.Tablighi Jamaat officials asked for permission to send stranded members to their destination but the permission was denied.

This was then followed by a series of fake news stories of which major Indian media houses were a part of. Sudheer Chaudhary of Zee News claimed that Tablighi Jamaat members are somehow linked to Al Qaeda and are working similar to the “suicide bombers” by spreading COVID-19 deliberately. The stories about Tablighi Jamaat members misbehaving with Quarantine center staff and spitting in the open were broadcasted on Times Now and several other news channels. This story was proven to be incorrect by fact checking website AltNews.

Rohini Chatterjee (2020) describes India TV News coverage of Jamaat in these words “In a video, one of India TV’s anchors says, “God knows how many members of the jamaat are roaming around in the country like corona bombs”. The other anchor chimes in, ‘they can detonate the virus bomb at any moment, putting large numbers of people in danger.’ All of this was also announced in high-pitched, dramatic tones aimed at spreading fear and panic in the minds of viewers”.

Cartoon published in Indian leading news paper, Dainik Jagran portraying Tablighi Jamaat members as willful spreaders of COVID-19 pandemic | Source: Indian Journalism Review

Indian print media also ran hoax news reports. For instance Danik Jagran—India’s leading Hindi Daily—published 156 stories, eight editorials, and five cartoons over 15 days spreading misinformation and half truth about the Jamaat. Another widely read Hindi daily, leading, Amar Ujala, claimed Tablighi Jamaat members defecated in the open after being denied non-vegetarian food at quarantine centre. This story was again proven incorrect by the fact checking website AltNews.

Aftermath & Discrimination

Source: Adnan Abbasi via Archiving the Times

The fake news on the Jamaat further led to more structural forms of violence against Muslims in India. Islamophobic hashtags like #CoronaJihad were over twitter in hundreds of thousands. Time Magazine reported that over 165 million people saw the hashtag #CoronaJihad on Twitter—which as explained earlier was done at the behest of the Indian media.

These include countless incidents like that of Mehboob Ali—a 22 year old who attended the Jamaat’s function—and was brutally thrashed over rumours of deliberately spreading COVID-19.

30-year-old Rizwana Khatun lost her child to hate infodemic. She writes “I was abused on the lines of my religion and was asked to wipe the blood. I could not because I was shivering. I was beaten up with slippers. I was shocked and rushed to a nursing home.there it came out that my child had died.”

BJP Legislator Suresh Tiwari with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath | Source: Dainik Bhaskar

In Indian state of Karnataka, Muslims distributing food to migrant labourers were beaten over a rumour of them spreading COVID-19 through food distribution. In Uttar Pradesh—the most populated state of India, the ruling party—Bharatiya Janata Party’s elected legislator—named Suresh Tiwari—appealed to people not to buy vegetables from Muslim vendors.

In Punjab, Muslim Gujjar dairy farmers were beaten and boycotted in their villages over similar rumours. There are many more such post-jamaat incidents of violence against the Muslims reported by the media.

Some Reflections

The way Tablighi Jamaat was vilified and blamed for spreading coronavirus in India may seem to be atrocious and plain hate speech as per any globally acceptable norm. However in Indian context, this is just one more example of the continued onslaught of misinformation; disinformation, half truth, plain lie, and slander, which in the last few years, has become acceptable to be peddled by the mainstream print and electronic media.

Let us hope that the Bombay High Court  judgement on Tablighi Jamaat will create enough pressure on the mainstream media which will make them scale back the blatant Islamophobic fake news pedling on their platform.

During the time contemporary to the Tablighi Jamaat controversy, I was part of a research group that was working towards archiving COVID-19. We also did a case study on Tablighi Jamaat (this part was handled by me), so some parts of the article are referred to and reproduced from this archive, to learn more visit archivingthetimes.webflow.io.

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January 19, 2021 8:34 AM

Internet privacy in Brazil: An example of already weakened state of Democracy

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro’s ascent to power attracted international attention for their potential impact on human rights. His highly controversial positions on Brazil’s past military dictatorship, civil rights and his greater support for conservative agenda is very likely to jeopardize freedom of expression and the nation’s fragile democracy. Bolsonaro’s ascent to power has not been welcomed by people around the globe.  His blind eye towards democracy has created a human rights crisis in Brazil. In 2017, violence reached a new record in the books of Brazil with an estimated 64,000 killings. More than 1.2 million cases of domestic violence were pending in the courts at the start of 2018. About 5,144 people were killed due to police brutality in 2017 and weakening state control of prisons has facilitated gang recruitments. Brazil has lost over 100,000 people to COVID-19, the pandemic which Bolsonaro strongly repudiated as a conspiracy. The president’s desperate authoritarian attempts to forcibly seize control has pushed the nation into a political crisis inter alia free fall of the economy, a pandemic, a human rights crisis and a democratic recession. “This is the worst crisis Brazil has faced in its history. It’s a political crisis, an economic crisis, and a public health crisis. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I can’t think of another moment when the country was in worse shape than it is right now.” These are the exact words of Professor James Green, a Brazilian studies teacher at Brown University, a man who has lived through the military dictatorship in Brazil which lasted from 1964 to 1985.

Amidst these crises, Bolsonaro has periled the integrity and autonomy of Brazil’s most vital democratic institutions. In May 2020, the scandalous president even contemplated ramping up the military to shut down Brazil’s Supreme Court as they continued investigations into his network of advisors and his family. The anti-terrorism bills pushed in the senate after the ascent of Bolsonaro is another key example of endangerment to democracy. The vague and broad definitions of terrorism in the bill potentially criminalizes protests and even basic social movements. These are inconsistent with the standard of precision that Brazilian criminal law maintains. The capricious characterization of a “terrorist act” leaves the door open to subjective and arbitrary decisions which is not new to the nation.

The anti-terrorism bill says that it is “terrorist act” to interfere or tamper computer systems or databases with any political or ideological motivation even without a malicious intent. This would jeopardize the work of several security researchers and journalists in Brazil. Unfortunately, they are not alone.

On 30th June 2020, the Senate of brazil passed the PLS 2630/2020   (Law of Freedom, Liability, and Transparency on the Internet) popularly known as the fake-news law. Fake news has definitely been a problem all over the world. 17 states have passed some form of regulation directing disinformation during the pandemic. The term “fake-news” has been engraved in the global political discourse in the last half decade. With the decline in global levels of press freedom, the domino effect of so-called “fake-news laws” is attracting some serious risks to press freedom and freedom of expression. It is certain that Bolsonaro took advantage of the pandemic situation and passed the fake-news law with the excuse of COVID-19 misinformation. There are several underlying concerns and apprehensions about this law.

  1. Traceability requirements for private messaging services like WhatsApp and Signal would require the apps to store the logs and records of “broadcasted messages” which implies all the messages sent by over 5 users which reaches at least 1000 people within the span of three months. Messaging service companies are required to report most of the information to the government of Brazil hence creating a centralized log of data interactions. This breaks the end-to-end encryption service provided to the users by some of the messaging apps. If companies do not oblige to weaken the technical protection given to the users of Brazil, the bill forces them to leave the country.
    This imposition of “tech mandate” was condemned by Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as they called it out for weakening privacy protection. Attached to this is a “technical capability derivative”, whether or not platforms will be able to trace back individual messages.
  1. Article 37 of the law mandates all the private messaging and social networking apps having a customer base in Brazil to appoint a legal representative who will have the power to remotely access user logs and databases. This pseudo attempt to localize the measures not just gives rise to privacy concerns but also questions if the Brazilian Senate has undermined United States’ laws such as Electronic Communication Privacy Act and CLOUD Act. Both of these laws mandate US-based social networking service providers to follow and check certain legal safeguard before handing the private data to any foreign law enforcement agents.
  1. If any social media account is reported to be inauthentic or automated, the online platform would have to confirm the identity of the user and verify the identity with any government ID in Brazil or a passport for a foreigner. The government can also demand confirmation of identity for any account through the means of a court order. This provision broadly attacks anonymity and privacy of users online and ignores its benefits on the internet such as whistle blowing and protection from stalkers.
  1. This law also makes it illegal to create or share any content online which may pose a risk to” economic order or social peace” in Brazil. Both of these terms are vaguely defined and even vaguely present. This opens gates to a wide range of content creators to be called out as “illegal”. The law also criminalizes intentionally being a member of an online group whose main activity is sharing defamatory content. This includes all meme groups which primarily share memes about anyone in an authoritative position in Brazil. This definitely puts a subjective cap and poses significant challenges to the freedom of expression and restricts basic ability of Brazilians to engage in discourse on online platforms.

The fake-news law makes social media companies legally liable for content published online on their platforms which acts as an incentive to them to restrict the freedom of speech of Brazilians at the time of any social or political unrest or even times like the present. While Brazil faces a real problem of fake news, this hastily written statute is not the right solution. At the time of a pandemic, when most of the world is functioning on a virtual sphere, the reckless fake-news law has added weight onto the fragile thread holding Brazil’s democracy. Jair Bolsonaro has managed to push democracy to a breaking point even without the drastic steps that he earlier contemplated.

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