Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida, known for his courageous and hard-hitting coverage of civil-military tensions in the South Asian country, has been named as the International Press Institute’s 2019 World Press Freedom Hero, the press freedom watchdog says.
Almeida was awarded for “his tenacious coverage of the Pakistani state’s patronage of militant groups”, the Vienna-based IPI said in a statement released on Wednesday.
The Pakistani journalist has been at the centre of a marked increase in attacks on media freedom in Pakistan, facing treason charges, travel restrictions and other forms of intimidation for his reporting on tensions between Pakistan‘s military and its civilian leaders.
In September, the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) said that Pakistan’s military – which has ruled the country for roughly half of its 71-year history – “restricts reporting by barring access, encouraging self-censorship through direct and indirect acts of intimidation, and even allegedly instigating violence against reporters.”
Since last year, media organisations and newspapers have been subjected to a sustained campaign of outright censorship, financial sanctions, disruptions to their distribution networks and intimidation, journalists and editors have told Al Jazeera.
“The pressures are the worst in decades and unprecedented for an era of civilian governments,” Almeida told Al Jazeera on Wednesday. “There is no indication of a let up anytime soon.”
The editor and columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s most widely read English language newspaper, was first censured when he was subjected to a government investigation that demanded he expose his sources following a story that revealed differences between civilian and military leaders on the issue of cracking down on armed groups.
During that investigation, he was placed on the Exit Control List, a legal mechanism that allows the government to bar Pakistani citizens from international travel.
Almeida continued to report on the issue and often tackled the question of the military’s role in politics in his weekly column.
In May, as the country prepared for a general election, he interviewed overthrown two-time Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who implied that fighters from armed groups were “allow[ed]” to cross Pakistan’s border with India.
Sharif, his successor, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and Almeida were subsequently accused of treason, with a case filed at the Lahore High Court. Hearings in the case are ongoing.
In January, Almeida announced that he was suspending writing his weekly column on Sundays – which has become a staple for readers of Dawn.
IPI said it was Almeida and Dawn’s scrutiny of Pakistan’s military-security complex that “made [them] a target”.
“Cyril Almeida has demonstrated tremendous resolve in tackling – at great risk to himself – deeply contentious issues that are nevertheless of central importance to Pakistan’s democracy, not least the role of the military in shaping the country’s present and future,” said Barbra Trionfi, executive director at IPI.
Dawn has also been subjected to financial sanctions by the government, in addition to widespread social media campaigns equating its journalism to “treason”.
Asked what constituted “acceptable” reporting to those censoring the media in Pakistan today, Almeida said the lines could be amorphous, but specificity in journalism drew quick reaction.
“At a level of generality and in the abstract, militancy in Pakistan and interference in the democratic process can be alluded to,” he told Al Jazeera. “The problem quickly arises if granular detail and specifics are reported on or commented on.
“The battering of Dawn is calculated and intentional – if the internationally recognised independent media voice can be bludgeoned, is anyone safe in the mainstream media?”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.