By The New York Times
prominent Pakistani journalist has been ordered to face a court hearing on
accusations of treason next week, in a case the country’s press corps says is
one of several recent attempts under the new government to intimidate the news
media into silence.
journalist, Cyril Almeida, a leading columnist for the newspaper Dawn, has been
summoned to appear before the High Court in Lahore on Monday. The accusation
stems from an article he wrote in May that featured an interview with former
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was at loggerheads with Pakistan’s powerful
military until he was ousted last year.
interview, Mr. Sharif appeared to reinforce India’s accusation that Pakistan’s
military aided the militants who carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which
killed more than 160 locals and foreign tourists.
Almeida’s summons to stand trial on a potentially capital offense for simply
conducting an interview was instantly alarming to veteran Pakistani
journalists, who were already worried that the country’s new government will
continue the intimidation tactics favored by the military in the lead-up to the
parliamentary election in July. Pakistan’s opposition and European observers
said the military created an unlevel playing field before the polls, censoring
the news media and pressuring candidates to secure a victory for Imran Khan,
who became prime minister in August.
Tuesday, journalists, editors and other civil society groups will stage a
demonstration against the court’s action against Mr. Almeida and what they say
is pressure on media organizations to stifle criticism of the government and
is the darkest period for journalism in the country’s history, no doubt about
it,” said Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.
months before the election, several journalists were beaten or abducted, with
only one thread tying them together: their criticism of the military.
June, the columnist and political commentator Gul Bukhari was abducted in an
army-controlled area of Lahore by unknown attackers, including men in military
uniform. And Dawn, which Mr. Almeida works for, was prevented from being
distributed in military cantonments, which make up large residential areas of
most Pakistani cities.
Almeida and the editors at Dawn declined to comment for this article, citing
the coming trial.
the election, while most parties decried the pressure on the news media, Mr.
Khan was silent. In an interview with The New York Times weeks before the
polls, he said that the pressure certain media outlets came under was deserved,
as they supported Mr. Sharif, the ousted prime minister.
the same breath, Mr. Khan The Dawn newsroom in Karainsisted that the news media
media is one of the most vibrant medias in the world,” he said in the
interview. “Watch the programs every evening. There are 10 current affairs
programs going on; everyone expresses their views.”
journalists and editors say the current hostility is more dangerous than pressure
seen under previous governments: They see it as coming from all pillars of the
state, with Mr. Khan’s government considered closely in sync with the courts
and the military. The military is accused of pressuring the courts to block any
opposition — or even criticism — of Pakistan’s powerful army, and military
pressure was seen as a factor in the court’s ruling last year removing Mr.
Sharif from office on corruption charges.
after the inauguration of Mr. Khan’s new government, Information Minister Fawad
Chaudhry raised hopes among the international news media when he said in an
interview in August that he would ease visa restrictions for foreign
journalists. But since then, editors and reporters have been on edge.
mid-September, Mr. Khan created the Content Committee, a board to coordinate
and oversee the distribution of state advertisements to local newspapers and
electronic media. The government is the country’s largest media advertiser and
has not paid its recent bills, several newspaper publishers said, leaving
hundreds of journalists and other media employees without salaries for the past
and publishers fear that the Content Committee may favor media outlets deemed
to be supportive of Mr. Khan’s government while indirectly punishing those that
are critical by withholding needed advertising.
have to wait and see if this is a monitoring body to favor some groups and
curtail advertisement for others that in the past or present were critical to
government,” said Mazhar Abbas, the former secretary general of Pakistan’s
tactics are now different, to financially cripple strong media houses, unlike
before where they may ban a newspaper for some time. By crippling the media
houses, newspapers are curbing their reporting, reducing their pages,” Mr.
Almeida is not the first journalist to be charged with treason, and Mr. Khan is
certainly not the first Pakistani leader to be accused of hostility toward the
news media. During Mr. Sharif’s second term as prime minister in 1999, Najam
Sethi, a prominent journalist and editor, was beaten and arrested on suspicion
of treason after he gave an inflammatory speech while visiting India. He was
detained for several weeks, but the Supreme Court ordered the charges against
Mr. Abbas and others say Mr. Almeida’s case is unique because his treason
charges stem directly from an interview he conducted.
interview is now a crime, how can we do our jobs?” Mr. Abbas asked.
month, the Ministry of Information started a Twitter account called Fake News
Buster, supposedly to debunk social media rumors. The move was a chilling
reminder of the army’s warning to journalists before the election that their
social media accounts were being monitored, hinting that they would be punished
for any posts that were unfavorable to Pakistan.
and spreading completely baseless news is a malicious activity & in
violation of journalistic ethics & code of conduct. Such behavior is highly
condemnable. It is the collective responsibility of social media users to
discourage and reject all such elements. #FakeNews pic.twitter.com/uR21H7HNwZ
FakeNewsBusterMoIB (@FakeNews_Buster) October 3, 2018
seems to be a well-thought, sinister move on the part of both government and
military to remodel and regulate the country’s print and electronic media
industry to strengthen the military’s narrative about politics and the economy
at the cost of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms,” said Matiullah Jan, a prominent
talk show host.
tendency of officials to “paint critics as anti-state and traitors is
pressurizing and endangering the lives of journalists,” Mr. Jan added.