After A Sensitive Story, A Pakistani Journalist Is Barred From Leaving

Oct 12, 2016
Originally published on October 12, 2016 2:20 pm

Cyril Almeida has a reputation for being one of Pakistan's most astute political observers. His columns for the venerable English-language Dawn newspaper are widely read by South Asia-watchers. More than 100,000 people follow him on Twitter.

So it was inevitable that the decision by the Pakistani government to ban him from leaving the country would be met with widespread indignation.

Almeida revealed Tuesday that he had been placed on Pakistan's official "exit control list" after writing an article delving into one of his nation's murkier corners.

He was, he tweeted, "saddened" and "puzzled" by the ban. "This is my life, my country. What went wrong?" he asked.

His story, published Oct. 6, alleged that Pakistan's elected government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had confronted military leaders over the presence on Pakistani soil of militant groups that carry out attacks on neighboring India and Afghanistan.

Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, has long been accused of covertly supporting "proxy" militant organizations in the region, a strategy that emerged after the success of mujahedeen groups to which the U.S. funneled support through Pakistan during the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Although Pakistani officials privately admit this covert support happens, it remains a sensitive issue that the Pakistani media usually handles with caution — or simply avoids.

Almeida's story said that civilian leaders issued a "blunt warning" to the military that the country is facing diplomatic pressure over these militant groups, and is at risk of isolation on the world stage unless it acts.

Some of that pressure is coming from the U.S., which has long called for a crackdown on the Haqqani network, a powerful insurgent group that operates in Afghanistan. The government in Kabul has also demanded action. And India, with whom tensions have spiked in recent weeks, wants Pakistan to rein in militant groups New Delhi accuses of staging attacks in Indian Kashmir.

Citing unnamed sources, Almeida claimed there was a highly unusual meeting in which a top civilian leader complained that when government law enforcement agencies moved against certain militant groups, the security establishment "worked behind the scenes" to set free whoever was arrested.

Almost as sensitive is the other big issue within Almeida's story: the strained relationship between the army, which in effect controls defense and foreign policy, and the elected government.

Pakistan has spent much of its history under military rule. During an earlier term as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif was toppled in a military coup in 1999. The sweeping powers still wielded by the army — and its ability to manipulate civilian politics — are a subject of much private debate among Pakistanis, who are on constant alert for signs of another military takeover.

Pakistan's government has denounced Almeida's story as a "fabrication" and is vowing "stern action" — without specifying what.

Dawn is standing by its story, saying it was "verified, cross-checked and fact-checked." It's calling on the state to refrain from maliciously scapegoating "the country's most respected newspaper."

All eyes are now on what happens next. Pakistan is one of the toughest places in the world to be a journalist, and reporters can face threats from all sides. Various governments — including a previous one led by the current prime minister — have used the exit control list to intimidate reporters, jailed journalists and expelled foreign correspondents.

When Almeida's story first appeared, he was vilified on social media — and even accused by some Pakistanis of being a traitor. The travel ban is now triggering sympathy, including a #StandByCyril hashtag on Twitter — and condemnation from journalists and rights activists both in Pakistan and outside.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Being a star columnist in Pakistan is a tricky business. The stuff you want to write about, like militant groups, can make the government unhappy, something one of the best-known journalists there just found out. He's been banned from leaving the country. As to why, we spoke to NPR's Phil Reeves in Islamabad.

Good morning.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with who this journalist is.

REEVES: He's a guy called Cyril Almeida. He writes for Dawn newspaper, which is the most prestigious of the daily English-language newspapers here. He has a reputation of being one of the most astute political commentators in the country. He's read widely here. But he's also followed by South Asia watchers all over the place.

MONTAGNE: And what did he write that's landed him in such trouble with the authorities?

REEVES: Well, basically he wrote a story that's about the presence in Pakistan of militant groups who carry out attacks in the neighborhood in Afghanistan and in India. I'm not talking here about al-Qaida. I'm not talking here about the Pakistan Taliban. The authorities here have cracked down very heavily on those. This is about groups that are perceived by some elements in the security establishment to be proxy militias that pursue the national interests of Pakistan in the neighborhood. So some people see them not as terrorists, but as patriots.

Now, Cyril Almeida's story detailed meetings between the civilian government, civilian leaders and the army in which senior government officials, he says, expressed concern that if Pakistan carries on allowing these groups to operate inside the country, there is a strong risk that the country will be diplomatically isolated. The U.S., for example, has for a long time been pressuring Islamabad to crack down on the Haqqani network.

So that was what his story was about. And it drew a very strong reaction from the government, that said it was a fabrication. And the newspapers responded by saying it was thoroughly checked and is standing by the story.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, Phil, I've read Dawn. And they do put out regular stories on such things. Why did the government react so strongly to this?

REEVES: Yes, this issue is discussed here. The government doesn't like it, but it's an open secret that these militant groups exist. And indeed, their leadership is allowed to move freely and even appear in public in Pakistan.

The reason it's really sensitive now is because there's a crisis in relations between India and Pakistan. The tensions were driven up last month when an attack was carried out in Indian-administered Kashmir, in which 18 soldiers were killed by militants who attacked an army base there. India accused Pakistan. Pakistan denied having any link.

But discussing this issue, the presence of militant groups who carry out attacks in Kashmir on Pakistani soil is very, very sensitive terrain right now and is likely to attract allegations from some quarters that you are being, you know, unpatriotic, you're betraying the country. And indeed, such allegations have been made on the internet against Cyril Almeida.

MONTAGNE: And of course he, as you said, is a star journalist and very popular. What's been the reaction?

REEVES: Well, he's got some considerable support, particularly overseas from Amnesty International and from the Committee to Protect Journalists, who say that the travel ban against him is wrong. And here, some journalists are arguing that it's actually a violation of the constitutional right to a free press. So there's been a reaction in favor of him. Not universal by any means, but there is a reaction in favor of him. Indeed, there's a Twitter hashtag that's labeled stand by Cyril.

Whether this support will actually matter to Mr. Almeida and to Dawn newspaper isn't clear. Cyril Almeida's tweeted that he's - today that he's concerned that the government's planning to take further uglier, as he puts it, action against him and the newspaper.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad. Thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.