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Press freedom across the divide

Islamabad has decided to bar senior journalist Cyril Almeida from leaving his country after writing an exclusive report for the reputed Dawn newspaper about the differences between Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership. The journalist is on an “exit control” list for writing a report describing a high-level meeting, in which the Pakistani civilian government allegedly told military chiefs that the country would face international isolation if homegrown militants—particularly the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Toiba, and the Haqqani network—were not controlled. 

At the meeting, Almeida reported that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and Punjab province Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif confronted ISI Chief Rizwan Akhtar on the issue of home-grown militancy. Sharif reportedly complained to Akhtar that even if civilian law enforcement agencies detain militants, “the security establishment has worked behind the scenes to set the arrested free”. It is not the first time that the Pakistani media has come under fire. In April 2014, Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most famous journalists, was shot for allegedly criticising the ISI. 

In its defence, Islamabad (civilian leadership) has issued multiple statements that the Dawn report is “factually incorrect”, “speculative”, and “an amalgamation of fiction and fabrication”. Nonetheless, the civilian leadership has also stated rather paradoxically that the report “was clearly violative of universally acknowledged principles of reporting on national security issues and has risked the vital state interests”. If the report is patently false, how does it compromise national security? 

Meanwhile, the publication has stood by its journalist and said the report was “verified, cross-checked, and fact-checked”. The sources, which Almeida had cited in the story, were government officials that apparently sat in during the meeting. For obvious reasons, their identities remain a secret. What makes Islamabad’s defence even more untenable is that it did not contest specific details of the story. 

On what grounds has Islamabad rejected the story and placed Almeida on the “exit control” list? Speculation suggests that Islamabad had wanted the story to go public. The aim was to tell the world that Islamabad is doing its part to defang home-grown militancy and embarrass the military establishment. Some commentators in India have even suggested that the report was part of Islamabad’s strategy to regain some control over national security. 

But the civilian leadership has seemingly been unable to follow through on its gambit. Islamabad is now punishing Dawn to save itself from the military’s wrath. Both the publication and Almeida have been subject to ugly abuse from many among the Pakistani public on social media. Is it any surprise that Almeida on Tuesday tweeted that he feared that his government would take "uglier action" against him? 

It seems that the Pakistani media suffers for merely doing their job. By throwing the media under the bus, one can only conclude that the civilian leadership exercises little power, especially in matters of foreign policy and national security. 

The image Pakistan always seeks to project is that it has a free and fair press. Recent events, however, suggest that this is not the case. The Indian media’s response to the entire affair has been one of righteous indignation. Television studios vociferously defended Almeida and went hammer and tongs against Islamabad’s attempt to muzzle reports confirming the presence of militants bred on Pakistani soil. 

However, the assertion that freedom of the press in India is an inalienable right respected by the state does not entirely seem genuine. Last week, the coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir barred the Kashmir Reader from publication. It was yet another indicator of the state government’s recklessness and incompetence in times of crises. In the last three decades of armed conflict in the region, one cannot recall a time when news publications were banned. The government’s decision to shoot the messenger is reminiscent of the methods used to muzzle the press during Emergency.

The Kashmir Reader had put out material which “tends to incite acts of violence and disturb public peace and tranquility", according to the state government. Of course, no specific report was mentioned, and the charges remain utterly vague. At the beginning of the protracted unrest in July, the government banned the publication of Valley-based newspapers for three days. 

The state government’s spokesman Nayeem Akhtar said that it was not a ban, but an “enforcement of curfew”, which prevented the distribution of newspapers. “The undesirable step was taken to ensure peace,” he added. However, it does not explain why police raided media houses and shut down a major printing press. There was little righteous indignation on the part of mainstream Indian media and no shouting matches about press freedom.

Relatively speaking, the Indian media does enjoy a lot more freedom than their Pakistani counterparts. But there is a growing trend in the establishment across both India and Pakistan that journalists who do not toe the government line risk public abuse, punitive measures or being called anti-national. This does not augur well for either country.
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