By Meena Menon
What happens when you interview a former Prime Minister who makes candid revelations or even report a ‘leak’? It just gets to be a great story. But not in Pakistan, especially if these revelations involve the military. Then, retribution from the all-powerful security establishment is guaranteed.
Journalist Cyril Almeida is the latest victim of the relentless efforts by the powers that be to clamp down on the truth. Even against a background of deteriorating media freedom in Pakistan (the country ranks ninth on the Global Impunity Index 2018), the ongoing petition to press treason charges against Sharif, which has dragged Almeida into it, is a low point.
Almeida is no stranger to trouble from the establishment but this time, it was his crucial interview with Nawaz Sharif ousted from power after he and his family were named in the Panama leaks, published in ‘Dawn’ newspaper (which is also facing controls from the establishment).
In his interview on May 12 to Almeida, Nawaz Sharif’s frank statement on the Mumbai terror strike of 2008 seems to have grabbed the most attention on both sides of the border.
The excerpt which landed Sharif in trouble:
“Asked what he believes is the reason for his ouster from public office, Mr Sharif did not reply directly but steered the conversation towards foreign policy and national security. “We have isolated ourselves. Despite giving sacrifices, our narrative is not being accepted. Afghanistan’s narrative is being accepted, but ours is not. We must look into it.” He continued: “Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?” — a reference to the Mumbai attacks-related trials which have stalled in a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.”
At the very beginning of the interview, he said: “You can’t run a country if you have two or three parallel governments. This has to stop. There can only be one government: the constitutional one.” Predictably, this drew flak from the National Security Council : “The participants observed that it was very unfortunate that the opinion arising out of either misconceptions or grievances was being presented in disregard of concrete facts and realities. The participants unanimously rejected the allegations and condemned the fallacious assertions.”
For Almeida, as a journalist, the interview was a goldmine. He tweeted on May 14, “The ttiming of the interview was pure dumb luck, was already in Multan in search of a story on south Punjab when learned of Nawaz’s jalsa the next day and reached out for an interview… That said, he clearly wanted to speak and wanted to be heard… Happy enough to have been there..”
There was much speculation on why Almeida was singled out for an interview with rumours of him being flown by a special chartered plane etc to Multan, and endless talk time devoted to why Sharif who was very much against Dawn in the past would do him such a favour.
That is irrelevant to the reason why a journalist has to respond to a case of treason for merely doing an interview. Is it treasonable to interview someone? And in what way are you to be held responsible for his words?
This time around, the petition demanding treason proceedings against Sharif was filed by Amina Malik, of the Civil Society Network, in the Lahore high court. This means Almeida has to make the journey from Islamabad, every time there is a court hearing, a common enough harassment procedure. The petitioner said that the statements made by Sharif defamed the state and could be used against Pakistan by its enemies. It was filed after the interview appeared. Sharif’s successor Shahid Khaqan Abbasi too has been dragged into the matter for allegedly violating his oath of office as Prime Minister since he informed Sharif about concerns raised by the military after the interview appeared. The petitioner contended that this was a violation of his oath.
In September, the Lahore high court issued a non- bailable arrest warrant and put Almeida on the exit control list, after he didn’t respond to three court notices but the Dawn newspaper clarified that the two notices sent earlier were not received. His name has also been removed from the ECL in October after he appeared in court and explained his earlier absence.
The next hearing of the case is on December 11.
Of ‘leaks’ and ‘exit control lists’
In October 2016, two years before his much- publicised interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Almeida was already in ‘trouble’. Then, in an exclusive to Dawn, the newspaper where he works as assistant editor, he had reported on a meeting of the All Parties Conference where blunt words were exchanged between the Mr Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif, then Punjab chief minister, and the government and the military on action against terrorists.
After the meeting was informed of Pakistan’s increasing isolation and the need to curb military interference, orders were issued to the “military-led intelligence agencies not to interfere if law enforcement acts against militant groups that are banned or until now considered off-limits for civilian action.”
In another move, Nawaz Sharif also ordered “that fresh attempts be made to conclude the Pathankot investigation and restart the stalled Mumbai attacks-related trials..”
Sharif was desperate to end Pakistan’s isolation and show the military a civilian upper hand, but that was not to be.
Almeida was put on the exit control list (ECL) prohibiting him from leaving the country. This sparked much protest and a seven- member committee was formed to probe the leak and identify who was behind it. It recommended that an independent trade body take disciplinary action against Dawn which didn’t happen.The source of the leaks was not revealed.
The story sparked off a flurry of denials from the Prime Minister’s office calling it fiction, among other things, and Shehbaz Sharif’s office too denied he had uttered the words attributed to him. Dawn editor Zafar Abbas later told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that the military said they undermined its powers by publishing the report. “The military’s reaction to the article, which exposed behind-the-scenes activities that it routinely denies, was fierce, ” CPJ pointed out.
Pakistan media (un)freedom
In Pakistan, the government boasts of a vibrant media but the shine was taken off long ago. Journalists face death, a barrage of threats, bodily harm, being placed on exit control lists, all cramping the freedom to report and write. You can only cross those “red lines” with impunity. But the culprits in attacks on the media are rarely punished.
Not for the first time has a journalist grappled with treason. The case of Friday Times editor Najam Sethi is well- known. Ironically it was Nawaz Sharif who was the culprit in 1999. Sethi was released a month later after charges were withdrawn. Amnesty International had called him a prisoner of conscience. Even a hardened militaryman like Pervez Musharraf refused to obey his Prime Minister’s instructions to take over the case and keep Sethi in ISI custody. Sharif felt it was okay to do so since it was a case of treason, as Musharraf narrates in his memoir “In the Line of Fire’. The shoe is on the other foot now.
Offending or exposing the military in Pakistan doesn’t go unpunished. The last time in power, in 2013, Sharif filed a case of treason against Pervez Musharraf for imposing emergency. Something that didn’t go down well with the establishment . Musharraf managed to leave the country after the farce of the trial went on for some time in a special court and it is unlikely he will be back again. Sharif is paying for standing up to the military, something he tried to do when he was elected, and failed.
There have been vociferous protests by journalists’ organisations in Almeida’s case and Dawn itself has been taking a tough stand on the freedom of the press but the media is shackled in many ways. In Almeida’s case the harassment has been renewed. For many other journalists, still alive and faced with the brute power of the military, it has meant going easy on reporting or questioning the army. For others, like Taha Siddiqui, it has meant leaving the country.
A situation that is unlikely to change despite many the many brave journalists in Pakistan and a media that is critical and has been standing up to pressure and power.
(Meena Menon is an independent journalist, writer and former deputy editor of The Hindu. She was posted to Islamabad, Pakistan, from August 2013 till May 2014, when she was expelled. ‘Reporting Pakistan’, her account of her years as a journalist in Pakistan, was published in 2017. She is the author of Riots and After in Mumbai, Organic Cotton: Reinventing the Wheel, co-author of The Unseen Worker: On the Trail of the Girl Child, and the forthcoming A Frayed History: The Journey of Cotton in India).