Those denouncing Islamabad’s travel ban on Dawn’s Cyril Almeida must also take a candid look at the tolerance for dissent in India.
Cyril Almeida, a well-known and highly-rated columnist for the Dawn newspaper, has been placed on an ‘exit control list’ by the Pakistani authorities and prevented from leaving the country. This follows his sensational story on a “extraordinary verbal confrontation” between Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif and the director general of the ISI, Rizwan Akhtar, during a recent meeting where the civilian government apparently told the military that Pakistan risks being isolated unless it takes certain actions on terrorism.
The story sparked a furore in Pakistan; Almeida was viciously trolled on social media, the story embarrassed both the army and the military and the Nawaz Sharif government issued three statements denouncing the story , once calling it an “amalgamation of fiction and fabrication”.
The Dawn has reacted sharply to Almeida’s travel ban. It reiterated that senior officials and participants at the meeting confirmed and verified the details and said that the government “should refrain from targeting the messenger, and scape-goating the country’s most respected newspaper in a malicious campaign”.
This story is bound to generate a lot of interest in India. It will confirm to many their impressions that Pakistan is a nasty place. There is indeed an irony in the Pakistani State allowing LeT’s Hafiz Saeed to roam freely and it lobbying China to prevent Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Masood Azhar from being on UN list of terrorists while preventing a journalist from heading abroad just because he highlighted the rifts within the establishment. Since Pakistan gets an exaggerated amount of mind space in India, many on social media will no doubt be telling Indian liberals that they ought to be treated similarly for arguing with the Modi government or they will likely gloat that India is so much better than Pakistan when it comes to press freedom.
On both counts they need to think again – as India is not the exemplar of press freedom and individual liberty as many would like to believe. Take the case of the travel ban for Almeida for example. The idea evidently, from the Pakistani establishment point of view, is to prevent potential interactions with media peers and diplomats abroad who would be interested in civil-military dynamics in Pakistan, which is of great interest to those in Western and Asian capitals.
But fear of uncomfortable stories getting out is also a big concern for India. Priya Pillai, then working for Greenpeace, was offloaded from Delhi airport in January 2015 just as she was heading to the UK to brief its parliamentarians on mining and human rights violations in Madhya Pradesh, an act the ministry of home affairs felt was tantamount to projecting India negatively abroad.
More recently, police raided media houses and shut down newspapers in Kashmir for three days in July “to ensure peace”, in the words of the government spokesman. The daily Kashmir Reader was banned, on Gandhi Jayanti, for “publishing content that can incite acts of violence” and “disturb public tranquillity”, even though the state government is yet to explain what content it is referring to.
India is ranked 133rd out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The RSF conceded that India’s media is “dynamic and much more capable of playing the role of democracy’s watchdog than the media in most other countries” but says the situation is worsening. It says that “frequent lawsuits against journalists by local officials and draconian legislation on defamation and online publications impose major constraints on the media and encourage self-censorship”. It also reports that “violence has emerged as the main brake on media activity in recent years, especially for reporters in the field and investigative journalists. Wherever they work, Indian journalists are exposed to growing violence. As well as frequent verbal and physical violence, attacks by armed groups are on the rise in several states and the local authorities have had little success in reining it in.”
As the RSF states there are threats to press freedom from State and non-State actors in India. The latter is having an especially deleterious effect on India’s democracy. This trend has been initiated by those at the top. Ministers and political leaders not only refuse to subject themselves to rigorous media scrutiny but some choose to attack journalists using derogatory terms. Hordes of party faithfuls take cues from political leaders and relentlessly troll journalists who challenge the government’s policies and narratives. All this is evidently done with a view to create a chilling, self-limiting climate. Journalists have been recently targeted for questioning the government’s version of the surgical strikes against Pakistan and those questions have been projected as an attack on the army itself. Overall, this is not a climate that nurtures the scrutiny of the establishment which is what the media is supposed to do in a democracy.
Those denouncing Islamabad’s action against Cyril Almeida must take a candid look at the tolerance for dissent in India. We smugly proclaim that Pakistan is not a benchmark for India in anything. But in the books we don’t tolerate, the films we censor or ban, the meat we are forbidden from eating, the clothes we aren’t allowed to wear, and the other we are not allowed to embrace, India is increasingly and in effect aspiring to be Pakistan. It is not enough to declare that the Indian media is freer than Pakistan or that India’s democracy is bigger. The point is to check if democratic institutions are getting better. They are not at this point.
The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @SushilAaron