Pakistani media organisations and journalists’ groups have condemned the government’s decision to bar journalist Cyril Almeida from travelling abroad after he reported on differences of opinion between the civil and military leadership.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and Amnesty International demanded the government immediately withdraw all restrictions on Almeida, who was included on the interior ministry’s Exit Control List (ECL), a document that includes people who cannot leave the country.
Almeida is an assistant editor with the Dawn newspaper, which said in an editorial on Wednesday the fallout of his report “has been intense”. While a media organisation can commit an error of judgement, the newspaper “believes it handled the story in a professional manner and carried it only after verification from multiple sources”, the editorial said.
The Dawn added it had twice carried denials from the Prime Minister’s Office. Journalism has a long tradition of keeping its promise to its audience in the “face of enormous pressure…from the corridors of power” and some of the “most contentious yet historically significant stories” were told by news organisations while resisting the “state’s narrow, self-serving and ever-shifting definition of ‘national interest’”, the editorial said.
Noting that “decades of a militarised security environment have undermined the importance of holding the state to account” in Pakistan, the Dawn said it would continue to defend itself against allegations of vested interest, false reporting or violation of national security.
The editor of Dawn “bears sole responsibility for the story in question” and the government “should at once remove Mr Almeida’s name from the ECL and salvage some of its dignity”, the editorial said.
The editorial was well received and hundreds welcomed it on social media. “This puts into perspective what has happened and what needs to be done,” said HRCP director Zohra Yusuf.
The Nation daily, in its editorial titled “How to lose friends and alienate people”, said it was “disturbing” when the civilian and military leadership “meet to lecture the media on how to do their job” while couching it in the “familiar and nauseating mantra of protecting ‘vital state interests’”.
“What was not expected – possibly because the government was incorrectly credited with better judgement – was a witch-hunt. If the government and military top brass were affronted by the implication in the report that Pakistan was facing growing international isolation, they can now congratulate themselves on a coup de grace that unreservedly confirms this fact,” The Nation said.
Critising the government for not explaining why lawmakers were protesting against the presence of banned groups or why “action against Masood Azhar, or Hafiz Saeed is a danger to ‘national security’”, the government and military had lectured the press “on how to do their job” and treated “a feted reporter like a criminal”, it added. “Worry a great deal about Pakistan’s image abroad – some of our actions and inactions as a country are indefensible – everyone knows it, no matter how much we may pretend otherwise,” The Nation said.
A statement on Amnesty International’s website demanded that the media should be allowed to “operate freely and without fear”. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) too issued a statement supporting Almeida.
Newspaper editors slam govt
The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists joined the chorus of condemnation against the interior ministry and said the ban on Almeida’s travel should be lifted immediately.
Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors president Zia Shahid and secretary general Ajaz Ul Haq issued a joint statement that demanded the government reverse its decision. “The organisation representing the editors of Pakistani newspapers considers that the Constitution ensures freedom of expression. The rejection of the Dawn story by the prime minister and chief minister house was issued in all newspapers including Dawn,” the statement said.
It added that if the government still considers the report as false, the government has the right to take legal action and it is up to the judiciary to decide what is right.