On Monday, journalist Cyril Almeida who is with Pakistan’s leading English daily Dawn, appeared before the high court in Lahore city in a treason case, along with Pakistan’s two former Prime Ministers, namely Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who both held the office in the last government.
The court was hearing a petition moved by a “concerned” citizen.
The first two, ie Almeida and Sharif have been accused of sedition over an interview conducted by the journalist of the former prime minister, which the petitioner said defamed state institutions (read: the Pakistan Army). Abbasi is accused of violating the oath of his office by sharing details of a National Security Council meeting with Sharif. The meeting had discussed the publishing of the above-mentioned interview.
Onslaught Upon Media by Pakistan Army
The court had earlier ordered the Almeida’s arrest and placed his name on an Exit Control List that forbade him from leaving Pakistan, but reversed the decision on 8 October. The hearing has been adjourned until 22 October and Almeida has been asked to reappear in person again before the court, while Pakistan's Attorney General has been asked to present a report on the matter, so that the courts can decide further action against the three individuals.
While Sharif and his party’s troubles are said to be linked to the clash with the military over foreign and domestic security policy, (with Sharif wanting it to be independent of military influence), dragging a journalist into this whole affair reflects a larger sinister scheme at play here.
Pakistan’s mainstream media has been facing an invisible and visible onslaught since the last few years from the Pakistan Army, but many had thought that the military was doing that to ensure that the media did not highlight the institution’s rigging efforts to bring Imran Khan, Pakistan’s current prime minister into office.
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One of Pakistan’s leading news channels Geo News was one of the first to be forced to reconsider its editorial policy when it started to disappear from cable networks around the country earlier this year. Geo was critical not only of the military but of Khan, and was considered pro-Sharif prior to the general elections held in July, a few months ago.
Pakistan’s ‘Free’ Press in Shackles
Geo's distribution network was disrupted, causing it huge financial losses, and it was reportedly forced to make a deal with the military to come back on air. The military has also been accused of being involved in the kidnappings of and attacks on journalists, and we saw many such cases leading up to the elections. But this was all before the elections, and many thought that things will become calmer once the elections are over.
But with the latest treason charges against journalist Almeida, it appears that under Khan, the press will continue to be intimidated to not report critically on issues deemed sensitive.
While the notion of not allowing certain topics to be discussed is altogether wrong and should not happen in any democratic setup (that Pakistan claims itself to be), the issue becomes graver when there is no clear outline of what is allowed and what is not allowed.
For example, in Almeida’s case – how can printing an interview of a former prime minister be deemed as treason? That is why many Pakistani journalists feel that the issue is not about the said interview or about the former PM alone.
This is about creating an environment where journalists operate in constant fear of backlash from the authorities and therefore, heavily self-censor their work.
But Dawn newspaper, founded by the country’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, has resisted this remodeling to a large extent. And this pursuit of independence has cost them. Not only is one of their journalists being hounded by the courts through a frivolous petition, the military has also been accused of disrupting the paper’s supply, and reports suggest that it has even asked advertising companies to stop providing it with ad revenue, so as to financially strangle it too.
Pakistan Govt’s Role in Media Censorship
Earlier, there was some hope that media could push back against this pressure, given that the elected government was not supporting the military in its pursuit to silence the press. But now that the new government is playing the role of second fiddle to the army, the judiciary also seems supportive of such censorship.
While the roles of the new government and the judiciary have been disappointing, the Pakistani media industry itself is also partly responsible for the troubles being faced by news practitioners.
Many of the media organisations have not only bowed down to the pressure but actively allowed their platforms to be used against their own brethren, creating divisions that have further weakened the freedom and independence the press once enjoyed in Pakistan.
Even with Almeida’s treason case, while many of the media blacked out the news altogether, others justified these actions saying that the newspaper was a threat to national security. While primarily such news organisations' editorial policies emanate from military diktat, they also are motivated by the idea that it is fair game to do this to competitors in the market.
What they don’t see in this short-sighted strategy to drive out competition is that if it’s someone else today facing the clampdown, it could be them tomorrow.
However, the recent announcement by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists for a nationwide protest on 9 October against curbs on press freedom is a welcome step. One can only hope that Pakistani journalists and more importantly the news organisations they work for realise that the only way to beat the “invisible forces” silencing them today is to fight back with a united front.
(Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist, living in self-imposed exile in Paris, France. He is the founder of safenewsrooms.org – a digital media platform documenting media censorship in Asia. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)