Pakistan court orders arrest of journalist for treason

Action over interview with ousted PM Nawaz Sharif seen by rights group as 'choking press freedom'
Pakistan court orders arrest of journalist for treason

Journalists hold a protest outside the Dawn office in Karachi on July 11 against an unannounced ban on circulation of the newspaper in parts of Pakistan. (Photo supplied)

A Pakistani court has ordered an arrest warrant for Catholic journalist Cyril Almeida on charges of treason for his interview with ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Almeida, who works for daily English-language newspaper Dawn, interviewed Sharif on May 12 when the ex-PM lamented the slow pace of the trial in the Mumbai terror attacks case.

"Militant organizations 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?," Sharif told Almeida after his rally in Multan following his ouster from office in the Panama Papers case. 

The interview sparked outrage in Pakistan amid calls from opposition groups to try Sharif for treason.

A case was subsequently registered by a citizen, Amina Malik, who accused Sharif of "slandering the security establishment."

Taking up the case on Sept. 24, Lahore High Court directed the former premier and Almeida to appear at its next hearing while issuing an arrest warrant for them.

The court also ordered that Almeida be barred from foreign travel by placing his name on the exit control list (ECL).

Almeida took to Twitter yesterday to confirm the court's order. "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's your Monday been?" he tweeted.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's independent rights group issued a statement calling the court's order "regrettable."

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said Almeida, a widely read and highly respected journalist, was being hounded for nothing more than doing his job — speaking on the record to a political figure and reporting the facts.

As a law-abiding citizen, Almeida has no reason not to appear before the court as directed. Placing him on the ECL and issuing a non-bailable warrant is an excessive measure, it said.

"The ease with which Mr. Almeida's interview with the former prime minister was perceived as an attempt to allegedly defame state institutions, and the pace at which this has spiraled into charges of treason, only serve to further choke press freedom in Pakistan. Journalism — sensible, rational, independent journalism — is not a crime. It most certainly is not treason," HRCP said.

The commission urged the court to give Almeida the opportunity to appear at the scheduled hearing of his own volition and to have his name removed from the ECL immediately.

The Dawn columnist previously landed in hot water after revealing how the former chief minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, had accused Pakistan's military of operating to liberate Kashmiri militants under detention by authorities.

Meanwhile, messages of support have poured in for the journalist on Twitter as #IStandWithCyril became a top trend in Pakistan.

Sign up to receive UCAN Daily Full Bulletin
Thank you. You are now signed up to our Daily Full Bulletin newsletter
"What a joke … a journalist is being tried under treason to report and interview a political leader, this a mockery of law and constitution itself," Asma Shirazi, an award-winning Pakistani journalist and TV anchor, tweeted.

"Like seriously?! I cannot even form a coherent sentence to describe the absurdity that this is. Let's at least pretend to be a normal country — even if only on the surface — this is beyond abnormal," Sana Bucha, another TV journalist, wrote on her Twitter account.

In its report on Sept. 12, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global media monitoring group, said the climate for press freedom in Pakistan is deteriorating. It accused the country's powerful military of quietly but effectively encouraging self-censorship.

© Copyright 2019, All rights reserved
© Copyright 2019, Union of Catholic Asian News Limited. All rights reserved
Expect for any fair dealing permitted under the Hong Kong Copyright Ordinance.
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means without prior permission.