Pakistan stands by travel ban decision on leading journalist

Pakistan's press is vibrant, but rights activists say reporting on national security issues is heavily controlled.

Photo by: AFP (Archive)
Photo by: AFP (Archive)

Uncertain security conditions, risk of terrorism related activities and overwhelming political influence are reasons behind Pakistani media’s lack of freedom.

The Pakistani government on Thursday stood by its decision to place a travel ban on a prominent journalist over an article he wrote about an alleged rift between the the country's powerful military and its government.

Pakistan's Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan branded the report, which sparked an uproar with its claims that top civilian officials had warned the army to stop supporting proxy fighters abroad, the "narrative of our enemies."

He said an inquiry was being held that would determine whether journalist Cyril Almeida should be prosecuted.

Amnesty International slammed the ban as "crude" and called on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to "remember his promise" to improve conditions for journalists. 

Human rights activists and large sections of the Pakistani media have also urged the government immediately to lift travel and other restrictions on Almeida.

The interior minister told reporters that Almeida would not be allowed to leave the country until the completion of a government committee's inquiry into the story, which authorities have repeatedly denied.

The committee would decide if anyone was to be prosecuted in relation to the story.

Almeida, a leading columnist and assistant editor at one of Pakistan's most respected and biggest English-language newspaper Dawn, filed a story on October 6 that gave an account of a tense, high-level security meeting between civilian and government officials.

Quoting anonymous sources, the story said civilian government officials called for the military not to interfere if law enforcement authorities tried to arrest members of anti-India outlawed militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

Pakistan has detained founders of the proscribed organisations several times in the past. JeM's Masood Azhar and 2008 Mumbai attacks accused Hafiz Saeed of the LeT were released by courts for lack of evidence.

For years Pakistan has been accused of cracking down on only those militant groups which have turned their guns inward towards the state, while turning a blind eye towards those who fight for its strategic ends specifically in the disputed border regions with India and Afghanistan.

The government has issued three denials of the story, and on Thursday Khan reiterated them.

Pakistani media quoted Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan (above) as saying that Cyril's tweet to stand by his story worsened the situation. Source: AFP/archive

Almeida's newspaper Dawn, which was set up by the country's founding father Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, ran the  government's denials but stands by the story, saying it was verified with multiple sources.

The government placed a travel ban on Almeida late on Monday under the Exit from Pakistan (Control) Ordinance 1981. Khan said the step was taken to prevent Almeida from leaving the country while the inquiry was ongoing.

Calling the committee "informal", Khan said it was gathering evidence and would complete this task in about four days.

"If this committee feels that there is enough evidence to prosecute, then a formal (law enforcement) committee will be made."

Khan said Almeida's name could be removed from the Exit Control List once the inquiry committee had presented unspecified "evidence" to him to respond to.

"We do not want to pressure him - if he says he does not want to share his source, then should we extract it from him with a stick? No," said Khan. "But we want to share some evidence with him, whether he owns or disowns it."

Khan said the travel ban was placed on Almeida because he was due to fly to Dubai on October 11, suggesting that he was fleeing the country.

Almeida said his travel plans to Dubai had been made a month in advance, and were for a family vacation.

Pakistan ranks 147th of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index. At least 59 journalists have been killed in targeted attacks since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The travel ban divided opinions on social media, with some threatening the journalists and arguing that the article endangered national security while others calling for upholding the freedom of press.

Sensitive timing

Almeida's article also came at a sensitive time for the military after its arch-rival India claimed it had crossed into Pakistan-administered Kashmir to carry out "surgical strikes" in September.

The disputed Kashmir region has been divided between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan since they gained independence from Britain seven decades ago.

India is also seeking to diplomatically isolate Pakistan following a raid on one of its bases in Indian-administered Kashmir's Uri town that killed 19 soldiers, with New Delhi claiming the group behind the raid was based in Pakistan. 

Pakistan's foreign policy is widely believed to be guided by the military, particularly towards India and Afghanistan with whom it shares border disputes.

The colonial-era Pakistan-Afghanistan border, also known as the Durand Line has long been porous and disputed. Afghanistan refuses to recognise the border, which was demarcated in 1893 under an agreement between the then Afghan emir and a British colonial civil servant.

Afghanistan, accuses of Islamabad of failing to bring its influence to bear over the Afghan Taliban and has blocked repeated attempts by Pakistan to build a fence along the Durand Line. Islamabad says the fence is meant to stop cross-border militant movement.

TRTWorld and agencies