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Dangerous: Journalism in Pakistan

By Gul Bukhari

Pakistan has long been considered one of the most dangerous countries to do journalism in, but matters have now attained ludicrous proportions with the arrest warrant against journalist Cyril Almeida. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently issued its report on the dangers Pakistani journalists face. Added now to the always-looming threat of physical harm is the spurious use of the treason charge in Pakistan. And that carries a death penalty.
“Spoke to the lawyer, there is a warrant, am back on the ECL and will have to appear before the court on Oct 8…. how was your Monday” tweeted Dawn’s Cyril Almeida after news broke of his non-bailable arrest warrant. It was issued by the Lahore High Court while hearing a case of treason against former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and ShahidKhaqanAbbasi.
Cyril Almeida has been accused of treason and put on the Exit Control List (ECL) twice in two years. In the recent episode, the Lahore High Court reportedly summoned him thrice in the case against the prime ministers and he did not appear and hence the warrant was issued. However, Zafar Abbas, the editor of Dawn newspaper clarified, “The notice served on Cyril Almeida was delivered at Dawn’s Islamabad bureau in the middle of last week, and journalists and officials at the bureau say the earlier two notices were never delivered,” adding, “Mr Almeida, like all Dawn staffers, is a law abiding citizen, and sincerely believes in the rule of law. He is a seasoned journalist and has never shied away from such matters.”
While the case of treason is not against Almeida, the nature of the case itself showcases how treason charges are flying about willy-nilly to suppress dissent, and how the law is being made into a joke. A private citizen filed the case of treason against the two former prime ministers and the court is hearing it.
The contents of the interview Nawaz Sharif gave to Almeida in May 2018 have been deemed treasonous. Sharif had outlined the reasons for Pakistan’s isolation and asked why the trial of Hafiz Saeed, accused in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, is not going anywhere. “We have isolated ourselves. Despite giving sacrifices, our narrative is not being accepted. Afghanistan’s narrative is being accepted, but ours is not. We must look into it,” Sharif had said. He continued: “Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?”
The two realities that make this charge a farce are: First, only the federal government can bring treason charges against any individual and courts have no jurisdiction to hear such petitions from anyone other than the federal government. According to the High Treason (Punishment) Act, 1973, ‘No court shall take cognizance of an offence punishable under this Act except upon a complaint in writing made by a person authorised by the Federal Government in this behalf’. Recently a similar petition was thrown out on the same grounds by the Islamabad High Court. The court had stated, “The High Treason (Punishment) Act, 1973, prescribes a procedure for the initiation of proceedings for high treason. This court is bereft of the jurisdiction to direct the federal government to initiate proceedings for high treason”.
The second reality is that according to the Pakistani constitution, treason only pertains to abrogating, suspending or holding in abeyance the constitution itself, or colluding with its abrogation, or for a judge to validate such abrogation. No other act can be termed treason. And while every child and their aunt knows these two realities, some judges sitting in courts are either not aware of these or think that the law should not get in the way of their zeal.
The case against ShahidKhaqanAbbasi is even more laughable. He is charged with treason for telling Nawaz Sharif the concerns of the security establishment with regard to his Dawn interview. I am at a loss to understand who else he would have discussed this with if not with the subject of the national security council meeting that followed the interview of Nawaz Sharif. The petitioner in the treason case claimed that it was “a clear violation of his (Abbasi’s) oath”. Needless to say, Abbasi had not revealed any state secrets to Sharif.
The earlier witch hunt against Cyril Almeida was in 2016 when he did an exclusive story revealing the discussions in a meeting of top officials of the civil government at the time with the top brass of the military. The story struck the government like an earthquake. It spoke of the government wanting to control militancy and terrorism and directing the military to not hinder its efforts as Pakistan was facing increasing isolation from the world. Ironically, Almeida was then accused of treason for “leaking national secrets” in a “fabricated news story” in a classic act of shooting the messenger.
To this day it is not clear as to who gave that story to Dawn, since the inquiry was never made public. Cyril Almeida had merely done his job, which was no act of ‘treason’.
Despite the worldwide furore over Almeida’s arrest warrant, another FIR was lodged against three other journalists— NajamSethi, Muneeb Farooq and AbsarAlam— together with Mir ShakeelurRehman, the owner of Jang-Geo newsgroup. This was for a news show conducted in January 2017. The language of the FIR clearly indicates that this could turn into another case of treason against journalists if it lands into the hands of a zealous judge.
AbsarAlam, referring to the FIR against him, told me, “This is nothing new, we have faced all these before, faced and survived even under martial laws. We remain determined to survive this one as well. But this kind of labelling someone as a traitor or filing sedition cases against journalists is unprecedented. If it is aimed to silence dissent, it will fail.”
These threats of cases against journalists have the community feeling jittery and claustrophobic— no one knows what will be construed as treason or contempt. The petitioners in these cases are widely seen as front men and women of the establishment since all these cases cite ‘defamation of institutions’.
Speaking to me, Ahmad Noorani the journalist who was viciously attacked with knives and iron rods in October 2017 said, “The press is completely controlled at the moment with threats, direct or indirect, to us and our families. No mention of the military’s involvement in politics can be written or talked about now, although in past eras it was commonplace, even by retired military men.”
Several journalists and human rights organisations have condemned these cases and FIRs.
What is frighteningly conspicuous is the absence of any government statement on these developments, which could point to, at best, Imran Khan’s quiesence, and at worst, his probable complicity. An important thing to note is that all those journalists who have been targeted thus far are professionals and have taken public stances in favour of democracy and transparency.
Lawyer Reema Omer very aptly tweeted, “Treason, blasphemy and contempt – three allegations continue to hold critical thinking, rational debate and free expression hostage in Pakistan”. It is high time for this to stop and for the focus to turn to the real issues Pakistan is facing.
(The author is a columnist and human rights defender based in Lahore.)