Cyril Almeida, an editor and columnist at Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper and the International Press Institute (IPI)’s 71st World Press Freedom Hero, faces treason charges following his tenacious coverage of the Pakistan state’s patronage of militant groups.
In Pakistan, treason is a capital offence. There is only one punishment for the charges against Almeida: death by hanging.
Almeida’s troubles began in October 2016, when Dawn – Pakistan’s most widely read English-language newspaper – published a story on discord between the civil and military leadership in Pakistan. His hard-hitting coverage of tensions between Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders has made Almeida the target of unprecedented treason charges, travel restrictions, and other forms of intimidation. Since 2016, he has been placed on Pakistan’s Exit Control List, barred from leaving the country twice, been the target of an arrest warrant, and summoned to the High Court in Lahore for treason hearings.
The treason charges are a result of an exclusive 2018 interview Almeida conducted with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In the interview, Sharif encouraged action against active militant groups in Pakistan and indirectly implied that Pakistan’s military aided militants in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.
Social media has been harnessed to exacerbate societal divisions and target Almeida online. “There would be days when I would wake up and we would be a national trend (on Twitter). Posts would say ‘Hang Cyril Almeida!’ or ‘Dawn is a traitor’ or ‘Dawn is an Indian agent!’. In the context of South Asia, to be a Pakistani being accused of being an Indian agent can immediately jeopardize your safety”, Almeida told IPI earlier this month in Geneva, where he received the 2019 IPI World Press Freedom Hero award.
While the personal threats were unsettling, Almeida was more concerned about the ramifications for his colleagues. “At the personal level, you may want to shrug it off. If I personally am a target, you can accept that. But I work for an organization that has offices and bureaus across the country. When you wonder if the things you are writing about are potentially causing problems for other people, colleagues, that’s when it becomes much more difficult.”
Almeida emphasized that it was vital to have the support of a news organization or editor willing to stand up to powerful and threatening state pressure. “My editor, Zaffar Abbas, has been tremendous through all of this”, he said. Almeida issued a call for journalistic solidarity: “To editors everywhere: Stand by your reporters, stand by your journalists, stand by your columnists, stand by your people. Because if you’ve done no wrong, surely you should not have to back down.”
Media freedom in Pakistan has been under severe and systematic attack for the past five years. “In the Pakistan media, there have been spells of more censorship and less censorship”, Almeida told IPI. “Pakistan is experiencing the worst spell of media censorship in at least a generation. For people who practice journalism in Pakistan, it’s an increasingly tough time.”
The current threats to press freedom are varied and include physical attacks on journalists, legal harassment, the widespread disruption of newspaper distribution, and the effective blockading of independent broadcasters. IPI warned in 2018 that the Pakistani military had stepped up efforts to control the flow of information and quell scrutiny of its activities.
However, state smear campaigns and intimidation will not succeed in shaking Almeida’s belief in his work. “The issues I primarily cover in my journalism are national politics and security. In those two domains the choices the state has made over the past 30 or 40 years have altered the DNA of both the Pakistani state and society. Penetrating and independent coverage of those issues are fundamental to the future of Pakistan”, he said.
Almeida remains resolute: “You need to keep fighting to bring that information to the public and let the public decide.”
He emphasized the value of international recognition, stressing that IPI’s support genuinely makes a difference to press freedom in troubled corners of the world. “Once something becomes an international issue and is taken up by the wider journalistic community, there can be salutary local effects inside Pakistan”, Almeida affirmed. “IPI’s recognition will help shine a necessary and important international spotlight on the Pakistani media’s struggle against censorship. I truly appreciate the award and I thank IPI for it.”