A prominent journalist has been put on Pakistan’s Exit Control List after the respected Dawn newspaper published his scoop that appeared to confirm long suspected rumours of a rift between the country’s civilian and military leaderships.
The Exit Control List is a system of border control maintained by the Pakistan government under an ordinance which allows it to bar people whose names appear on the list from leaving the country.
Cyril Almeida, Dawn’s assistant editor, pointed via Twitter on Monday to his name’s appearance on the list.
The Pakistani authorities have yet to comment on the development.
I am told and have been informed and have been shown evidence that I am on the Exit Control List.
— cyril almeida (@cyalm) October 10, 2016
In the October 6 exclusive news report, Almeida said some in the civilian government complained at a top-secret meeting that they were being asked to do more to crack down on armed groups, yet whenever law-enforcement agencies took action “the security establishment … worked behind the scenes to set the arrested free”.
Insisting that the law should apply equally to all, the civilian government’s representatives at the meeting gave warning that Pakistan risked international isolation if the security establishment did not take the recommended course of action, according to the Dawn report.
Almeida’s story came against a backdrop of heightened tension in the region following a claim by the Indian government of a cross-border “surgical strike” by army commandos on September 18, apparently in response to a deadly assault on an army post in Indian-administered Kashmir.
India blames Pakistan-based armed groups for the attack, a charge rejected by the Pakistani government led by Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister.
The report said that the arguments made by the foreign secretary and the Punjab chief minister during the meeting in the prime minister’s offices were designed to trigger a debate with the military leadership.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office later disputed Almeida’s account, labelling it “not only speculative but misleading and factually incorrect” and describing it as an “amalgamation of fiction and fabrication”.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said that participants at a meeting of the top civilian and military leadership on Monday expressed concern over the publication of what it termed as a “fabricated news story” pertaining to security issues purportedly discussed in a meeting of the National Security Committee.
Had @cyalm shredded the Constitution; acquired properties abroad via offshore companies, dodgy wealth he'd be free to travel abroad.
— Abbas Nasir (@abbasnasir59) October 10, 2016
The statement said: “The participants were unanimous that the published story was clearly violative of universally acknowledged principles of reporting on national security issues and has risked the vital state interests through inclusion of inaccurate and misleading contents which had no relevance to actual discussion and facts.”
The statement further said the “prime minister took serious notice of the violation and directed that those responsible should be identified for stern action”.
Late on Monday Zaffar Abbas, Dawn’s editor-in-chief, published an editorial note confirming that Almeida had been placed on the Exit Control List.
Abbas stood by Almeida’s report, saying that it was “verified, cross-checked and fact-checked”.
“Dawn would like to clarify and state on the record several things,” the editorial note said.
“First, this newspaper considers it a sacred oath to its readers to pursue its reporting fairly, independently and, above all, accurately. The story that has been rejected by Prime Minister’s Office as a fabrication was verified, cross-checked and fact-checked.
“Second, many at the helm of affairs are aware of the senior officials, and participants of the meeting, who were contacted by the newspaper for collecting information, and more than one source confirmed and verified the details.”
The government’s decision quickly drew strong reactions from senior journalists and rights activists on social media.
So banned outfits can roam around freely,do rallies but a journalist has been put on ECL fr a story.really Prime minister?? #StandWithCyril
— Shahzeb Khanzada (@shazbkhanzdaGEO) October 10, 2016
Hundreds of people, including dozens of Pakistani journalists, have declared that they are supporting Almeida and press freedom by tweeting under the hashtag, #StandWithCyril.
The action against Almeida is being seen by many public intellectuals as the latest in a long line of steps by which clear parameters have been set for the country’s news media.
I hv my take on Cyril story but to put hs name on ECL is ridiculous,unacceptable. Also if there is an issue catch the leaker not the writer.
— Syed Talat Hussain (@TalatHussain12) October 10, 2016
Amnesty International denounced the move on Tuesday.
“The travel ban on Cyril Almeida is a crude intimidation tactic designed to silence journalists and stop them from doing their jobs,” said the rights group’s Audrey Gaughran in a statement.
“Journalism is not a crime. They should be able to work freely and without fear. The Pakistani authorities must break with a longstanding practice of subjecting media workers to intimidation, threats, restrictions on movements, enforced disappearances and violence.”
Earlier this year, Reporters without Borders ranked Pakistan 147th out of 180 countries for press freedom, the lowest position in South Asia.
Pakistan’s English-language newspapers are viewed as one of the last enclaves of relative media freedom, hence the move against Almeida has fuelled fears on social media of the establishment’s assertion of complete control over the press.
Recently Pakistan also passed the controversial Cyber Crime Act which grants sweeping powers to regulators to block private information they deem illegal.
— Adil Najam (@AdilNajam) October 10, 2016
Government officials say internet restrictions under the new law are needed to ensure security against growing threats, such as “terrorism”.
But the law has alarmed human-rights and pro-democracy activists, who fear that its vague language could lead to the curtailment of free speech and unfair prosecutions.