Op-ed: In Defense of Cyril Almeida

On October 10, 2016, the Pakistani government placed a reputed and well-known columnist on the “Exit Control List,” banning the journalist from leaving Pakistan. The journalist was Cyril Almeida, who, only four days earlier, had published a widely-circulated article on a closed-door meeting of national security committee.

Almeida’s article reported on a growing rift between the civilian government and the military establishment in Pakistan over the Indian “surgical strikes” in Pakistani territory on the night of September 29. Almeida went on to report that the civilian government had pressured the military, particularly the director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to acknowledge the need to act against extremist groups operating against Afghanistan and India, which had previously been allowed to act with impunity.

The prime minister of Pakistan’s office issued three denials against the notion that there was any rift between the civilian government and the military or that pressure had been placed on the latter. Each denial was stronger than the previous one. The office has declared the entire story a fabrication, and has also threatened “stern action” for a news story that “risked the vital state interests through inclusion of inaccurate and misleading contents which had no relevance to actual discussion and facts.”

However, Almeida’s employer, Dawn, a highly respected newspaper in Pakistan and internationally, has stood by him, stating that it, “will continue to defend itself robustly against any allegation of vested interest, false reporting or violation of national security,” and that Almeida’s information was, “verified, cross-checked and fact-checked.”

Almeida was slated to leave Pakistan on a pre-planned family vacation when he was informed that he could not travel outside the country. This measure seems to be the beginning of a government-led campaign against him. Almeida tweeted that he was “…concerned, possibly convinced, more than 24hrs after the travel ban was imposed that govt is planning to take further, uglier actions.”

Almeida has cause for concern. In 2014, an Urdu journalist Hamid Mir published a number of articles against the ISI for alleged support of the Afghani Taliban, supplying information for U.S. drone strikes, and disappearances in the separatist region of Baluchistan. Mir was shot and wounded by unidentified gunmen in April of that year.

Pakistan has a long history of intimidation and threats against journalists. Journalists in Pakistan have had their movements restricted and some have faced violence or even death. The Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) reported that between 2001 and 2015, 47 journalists were deliberately targeted and murdered. Over 160 journalists were injured, 88 assaulted, 21 abducted and 40 detained.  

Article 19 of the Pakistani Constitution ensures freedom of press. However, this move by the Pakistani government to harass and discredit a journalist for reporting an important story represents a threat to that freedom and a violation of this core tenet of democracy to which the civilian government is bound.

Almeida did nothing wrong. He pursued an important story with passion and professionalism, reported the facts and exposed nothing that would impact the national security of Pakistan. His reporting was fair, independent and accurate.

The government of Pakistan should immediately reverse its decision to place him on the Exit Control List.

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