The Cyril Almeida episode, in which the Nawaz Sharif government first rubbished the report by the Dawn journalist and then imposed a travel ban on him to find out who leaked the story, gives some idea of the games played by Pakistan’s civil and military leadership.
Observers say the report by Almeida, which suggested serious differences of opinion between the civil and military leadership over policies for tackling militancy and terrorism, may have been leaked by the Sharif government to show the army in a bad light and to hint to the world who was behind the reluctance to go after terrorists within Pakistan.
But to cover its tracks, the government then came down strongly on Almeida. What the government didn’t take into consideration was that Dawn would stand by its writer – which is usually not the case in most Pakistani media houses – and that most media groups would rally around the journalist as well.
A delegation of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society and the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors finally persuaded interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on Friday to withdraw the order putting Almeida in the “Exit Control List”.
There are others, however, who insist Almeida may have been used by the army, given that it now emerged stronger after the episode. In the past, Almeida has done reports that used information from military sources. In one instance, he detailed a meeting between former army chief Ashfaq Kayani and newspaper editors and owners at which the general propounded the idea of “good” and “bad” Taliban. Only the Dawn carried that story as the army had asked the meeting not be reported.
While the government goes about looking for the people who leaked the story, (with some suggesting that it was Nisar Ali Khan who did this in the first place), the debate in Pakistan is now turning to whether Almeida should have done the story at all. On social media and TV channels, Almeida is being attacked for falling into a trap and being fed a story from an “enemy power” (read India).
A strongly worded statement issued on Friday after army chief Gen Raheel Sharif chaired a meeting of his Corps Commanders, the military said such a “false” story was a breach of security. The army also insists Almeida played into the hands of vested interests who wanted to show the country in a poor light after the surgical strikes India says it conducted and which Pakistan has rubbished.
The Express Tribune newspaper, a rival to the Dawn, reported the military’s statement made it clear that the controversy is far from over and that the army is now calling for the head of those who leaked the story.
For its part, the Sharif government is cutting a sorry figure – on the one hand, a united media is pressuring it not to give in to any sort of process that will silence or threaten media freedom.
On the other, using the mantra of national security, the army wants the source to be punished. Interestingly, the army has not demanded action against Dawn or Almeida. This is in contrast to the spat with the Jang Group in 2014 after an attempt on the life of popular TV show host Hamid Mir, who accused the ISI of orchestrating the attack.
In that instance, the army went in for confrontation with that media houses. Possibly this time round, it has learnt not to do the same as the fallout affects the standing of the military.
For the time being, Almeida and Dawn have emerged unscathed. They have been praised by industry colleagues and the international media for the story and for standing by it. But in some ways, the story has weakened democracy in Pakistan as it has given the army one more stick with which to beat the civilian government, say observers.
Given that the army chief is set to retire in November, and that opposition leader Imran Khan plans to start a dharna in Islamabad at the end of this month, it is very likely this will add to pressure on the Sharif government to follow what the army asks it to do on the choice of the next army chief or on other issues of national interest and security. That is the biggest worry for civil society now.