Slapping treason charge no way to treat a journalist in Pakistan

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By Shahab Jafry

When it rains, it pours. Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif would think so. Sure, he got bail in the Avenfield case, but it’s pretty conditional and, with the other two NAB (National Accountability Bureau) references hanging over his head, probably temporary, too. And now he must appear in the Lahore High Court on October 8 to answer treason charges going back to his controversial interview to local daily Dawn in May.

It turns out that Nawaz is charged with treason for allegedly trying to defame state institutions in the interview. Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Nawaz’s handpicked replacement for himself, is also facing charges for allegedly dishonouring his oath of office by disclosing minutes of a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to Nawaz.

In the interview Nawaz spoke out against Pakistan’s handling of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack in India, which spread like wildfire in the international media.

“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?” Nawaz said in May.

But that’s not what lit the local press on fire this time. Strangely Cyril Almeida, senior journalist and Dawn staffer who carried out the interview, is also being charged with treason. Non-bailable arrest warrants are already out for him and his name has been duly placed on the Exit Control List.

He must also accompany the two former prime ministers to the Lahore High court come October 8.

To say that practically everybody is suddenly very cross with the honourable court for ‘shooting the messenger’ would be something of an understatement. The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors expressed concern over the treason case, noting, “It is not proper to prosecute a journalist for interviewing a former prime minister.

It is not a crime to perform journalistic duty.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found the whole business quite “regrettable”, since the poor journalist was “being hounded for nothing more than doing his job by reporting facts.” Even Pakistan People’s Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was dismayed. “Treating Mr Almeida like he is a criminal and trying him for treason no less is shocking!” he tweeted.

Nobody, in Pakistan or elsewhere, can deny Dawn’s credentials – or Cyril’s, for that matter.

The paper is the country’s most respected English language daily, where Cyril usually appreciates everything about Nawaz, when he’s not attacking everything about Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a no-nonsense style pretty much in the mould of New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner Maureen Dowd. Yet from a strictly journalistic point of view, perhaps somebody can clarify a few points that the popular pro-press steamroller seems to pass right by.

There’s still a lot of mystery, for example, about just why the interviewer was given special protocol at Multan airport, lending weight to rumours that the story might be planted.

When others, like the Khaleej Times, asked for an interview around that time the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz would always say “Send us your questions in advance, please.” Cyril was also the journalist who featured in the infamous Dawn Leaks, which highlighted an alleged confrontation between civil and military leaders in October 2016 over the handling of militant groups. Later the prime minister’s office – this was before Nawaz’s disqualification – rejected the story as baseless.

Similarly, when the NSC was convened to limit the fallout of the Nawaz interview, its participants “unanimously rejected the allegations and condemned the fallacious assertions.”

Then prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who headed the Council, explained that Nawaz’s original statement had been “misreported” by the interviewer. Not a small charge for a big paper. Still Dawn has stood by Cyril.

That’s not all. Abbasi then allegedly disclosed the contents of the meeting to Nawaz in direct violation of his oath as prime minister, for which he must now answer in court. Cyril, according to the court, got the warrant when he failed to appear in court three times, and his lawyer could provide no guarantee that he would next time. Now, though, Dawn has confirmed that he will.

The interview, too, is interesting. Normally you’d expect the meat right at the top, with at least some suggestion in the headline. Yet this one, ‘For Nawaz, it’s not over till it’s over’, begins with his accountability process, moves on to the constitution, dips into his rallies, touches the party and only comes to the big part in the ninth paragraph, out of a total of 14.

The Independent’s famous Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk often urged correspondents to look out for something fishy when the real story is buried deep in the narrative. But, then, he was talking about the Middle East.

Critics – and Nawaz has plenty – questioned the timing of the interview. This was just when Nawaz, caught in a financial scam, tried to malign the military to give his trial a political colour and play the martyr, they said.

Still, from the court’s point of view, making a journalist come to court is one thing, but trying one for treason – regardless of any special protocol (or not) for an interview – is stretching things too far. Hopefully the court will not shoot the messenger on October 8. —Khaleej Times

(Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan)

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