Asia & Australia

October 10, 2018

Pakistani Journalist to face court hearing on accusations of treason


Who would have thought that taking an interview would land up a journalist into trouble. However, in a distinguished case, a journalist, Cyril Almeida, a leading columnist for the newspaper Dawn, was ordered to face a court hearing on accusations of treason as he was held for writing and publishing an article featuring an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who 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.

According to the country’s press corps, this case is one of several recent attempts under the new government to intimidate the news media into silence.

Cyril has been summoned to appear before the High Court in Lahore. His 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.

In this regard, Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists’ President Afzal Butt said, “This is the darkest period for journalism in the country’s history, no doubt about it.”

Afzal added, “Pakistan’s media is one of the most vibrant medias in the world. Watch the programs every evening. There are 10 current affairs programs going on; everyone expresses their views.”

According to journalists & editors, 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 in 2017 removing Sharif from office on corruption charges.

Previously, Khan had formed a Content Committee, a board to coordinate and oversee the distribution of state advertisements to local newspapers and electronic media. Also, many newspaper publishers commented that the government is the country’s largest media advertiser and has not paid its recent bills, thus leaving hundreds of journalists and other media employees without salaries for the past four months.

With concerns from the editors and publishers that the Committee may favor media outlets deemed to be supportive of Khan’s government while indirectly punishing those who are critical by withholding needed advertising, Pakistan’s journalist union’s Former Secretary General Mazhar Abbas stated that “We 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 the government.” Abbas then said, “The 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.”

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