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Treason Trial for Pakistani Journalist Signals New Pressure on Media

Category: Asia,World

A prominent Pakistani journalist has been ordered to face a court hearing on accusations of treason next week, in a case the country’s press corps says is one of several recent attempts under the new government to intimidate the news media into silence.

The journalist, Cyril Almeida, a leading columnist for the newspaper Dawn, has been summoned to appear before the High Court in Lahore on Monday. The accusation stems from an article he wrote in May that featured an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was at loggerheads with Pakistan’s powerful military until he was ousted last year.

In the interview, Mr. Sharif appeared to reinforce India’s accusation that Pakistan’s military aided the militants who carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed more than 160 locals and foreign tourists.

Mr. Almeida’s summons to stand trial on a potentially capital offense for simply conducting an interview was instantly alarming to veteran Pakistani journalists, who were already worried that the country’s new government will continue the intimidation tactics favored by the military in the lead-up to the parliamentary election in July. Pakistan’s opposition and European observers said the military created an unlevel playing field before the polls, censoring the news media and pressuring candidates to secure a victory for Imran Khan, who became prime minister in August.

On Tuesday, journalists, editors and other civil society groups will stage a demonstration against the court’s action against Mr. Almeida and what they say is pressure on media organizations to stifle criticism of the government and military.

“This is the darkest period for journalism in the country’s history, no doubt about it,” said Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

In the months before the election, several journalists were beaten or abducted, with only one thread tying them together: their criticism of the military.

In June, the columnist and political commentator Gul Bukhari was abducted in an army-controlled area of Lahore by unknown attackers, including men in military uniform. And Dawn, which Mr. Almeida works for, was prevented from being distributed in military cantonments, which make up large residential areas of most Pakistani cities.

Mr. Almeida and the editors at Dawn declined to comment for this article, citing the upcoming trial.

But in the same breath, Mr. Khan insisted that the news media was free.

“Pakistan’s media is one of the most vibrant medias in the world,” he said in the interview. “Watch the programs every evening. There are 10 current affairs programs going on; everyone expresses their views.”

Many journalists and editors say the current hostility is more dangerous than pressure seen under previous governments: They see it as coming from all pillars of the state, with Mr. Khan’s government considered closely in sync with the courts and the military. The military is accused of pressuring the courts to block any opposition — or even criticism — of Pakistan’s powerful army, and military pressure was seen as a factor in the court’s ruling last year removing Mr. Sharif from office on corruption charges.

Soon after the inauguration of Mr. Khan’s new government, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry raised hopes among the international news media when he said in an interview in August that he would ease visa restrictions for foreign journalists. But since then, editors and reporters have been on edge.

In mid-September, Mr. Khan created the Content Committee, a board to coordinate and oversee the distribution of state advertisements to local newspapers and electronic media. The government is the country’s largest media advertiser and has not paid its recent bills, several newspaper publishers said, leaving hundreds of journalists and other media employees without salaries for the past four months.

Editors and publishers fear that the Content Committee may favor media outlets deemed to be supportive of Mr. Khan’s government while indirectly punishing those that are critical by withholding needed advertising.

“We have to wait and see if this is a monitoring body to favor some groups and curtail advertisement for others that in the past or present were critical to government,” said Mazhar Abbas, the former secretary general of Pakistan’s journalist union.

“The tactics are now different, to financially cripple strong media houses, unlike before where they may ban a newspaper for some time. By crippling the media houses, newspapers are curbing their reporting, reducing their pages,” Mr. Abbas added.

Mr. Almeida is not the first journalist to be charged with treason, and Mr. Khan is certainly not the first Pakistani leader to be accused of hostility toward the news media. During Mr. Sharif’s second term as prime minister in 1999, Najam Sethi, a prominent journalist and editor, was beaten and arrested on suspicion of treason after he gave an inflammatory speech while visiting India. He was detained for several weeks, but the Supreme Court ordered the charges against him dropped.

But Mr. Abbas and others say Mr. Almeida’s case is unique because his treason charges stem directly from an interview he conducted.

“If an interview is now a crime, how can we do our jobs?” Mr. Abbas asked.

This month, the Ministry of Information started a Twitter account called Fake News Buster, supposedly to debunk social media rumors. The move was a chilling reminder of the army’s warning to journalists before the election that their social media accounts were being monitored, hinting that they would be punished for any posts that were unfavorable to Pakistan.

“This seems to be a well-thought, sinister move on the part of both government and military to remodel and regulate the country’s print and electronic media industry to strengthen the military’s narrative about politics and the economy at the cost of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms,” said Matiullah Jan, a prominent talk show host.

The tendency by officials to “paint critics as anti-state and traitors is pressurizing and endangering the lives of journalists,” Mr. Jan added.


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