Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper, carries on its masthead the image of a man’s face and this proud claim: “founded by Quaid-I-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah,” who also founded the country itself. For the last eight years, the centerpiece of Dawn’s weekend editorial page has been commentary on national politics and national security by the assistant editor Cyril Almeida.
Almeida writes in what some call very good English, though sometimes in ways that are irreverent or annoying to his subjects; he also happens to be one of very few non-Muslims in a media landscape dominated by religious right-wing ideologues. Jinnah, a staunch secular and an Anglophile, would have approved.
Three weeks ago, Almeida’s column disappeared. His editor has said that it’s a temporary and well-deserved break. But Almeida’s column disappeared after the High Court of Lahore issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against him on treason-related charges for an article published in May. In it, he quoted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif suggesting that the Pakistani authorities had, at a minimum, failed to prevent terrorists from attacking targets in India in 2008. “Should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai?” Sharif said, according to Almeida. (Sharif has not contested having said this.)
I don’t think Almeida had missed a single column except on public holidays. One of Pakistan’s most brilliant voices, after being hounded for two years, is now being silenced, in the name of national security.
Almeida went to a court hearing earlier this month, along with Sharif and another former prime minister, both accused of treason. (The charge against Almeida is called “connivance.”) A TV reporter asked him repeatedly: Is the media free in Pakistan? Almeida looked straight ahead, kept quiet and walked into the courtroom. He didn’t look like a person on a well-deserved break. The court canceled the warrant, lifted a ban on his traveling abroad and scheduled another hearing for later this month.
What did Dawn do to deserve the collective ire of our establishment and its lackeys? For a long time, it was considered an editorially conservative paper: Its detractors used to call it Daily Yawn. It’s the kind of paper that was once read by bureaucrats, diplomats and aspiring young people wanting to improve their English. But over the past decade, Dawn has become a bit more vigorous in its reporting and its commentary.
Two years ago, for example, Almeida reported that Sharif, then the prime minister, had told the army’s top brass that if the military didn’t act against militants, Pakistan would stand isolated in the world. The generals apparently were so shocked and hurt at the suggestion that they weren’t seen abroad as a gaggle of peace-loving Gandhis that they went into a huddle and emerged shouting breach of national security. They demanded an inquiry, and a high-powered commission including senior intelligence officers was set up.
The besieged government fired its information minister for his “lapse” in failing to stop the story from being published. When the commission announced its findings, the army’s spokesman tweeted that the military “rejected” them. The spokesman was made to retract the tweet, but the onslaught against Almeida and Dawn continued by other means.
Media competitors have called Almeida an enemy agent and a Sharif lackey. The newspaper stood by him, and he continued to write his column with occasional references to “the muzzle and the leash.” Then, during the last election campaign this spring, Sharif — who was removed from office for corruption last year — gave Almeida that interview confirming his differences with the generals. And now Almeida faces criminal and possibly treason charges simply for writing that a three-time prime minister said that Pakistan shouldn’t be a staging ground for terrorist attacks on another country.
But he isn’t the one who is a threat to the nation.
The persecution of Cyril Almeida is now the center of a clampdown on Pakistani media unprecedented in scale and sophistication.
Four years ago, after Hamid Mir, arguably the country’s most well-known television journalist, was shot six times in Karachi, his brother accused the chief of the military spy agency, known as the ISI, of ordering the hit. The military establishment turned on the Geo TV network, where Mir worked, and the Jang media group for maligning the ISI.
Seven years ago, Syed Saleem Shahzad, a reporter who had exposed suspected connections between the Pakistani Navy and terrorists, was found dead in a canal. A judicial commission that probed the incident didn’t reach any conclusion, but it recommended reforming the intelligence agencies.
Those reforms haven’t taken place, but the intelligence agencies have found ways to control the media without having to resort to physical violence. Newspaper distributors are told not to deliver the paper. TV shows keep disappearing as cable operators are instructed over the phone to take them off the air.
Pakistani journalists have always been boisterous taking on military dictators and civilian rulers who have tried to curb their freedoms. They were out on the streets again last week. But about the same time that they were protesting, a delegation of media owners was being briefed by the army’s spokesman on how to report on national security.
At the heart of the Pakistani establishment’s idea of national security is a self-aggrandizing notion of respect. Almeida refers to the army as “the boys,” sometimes cheekily. The establishment thinks he’s not respectful enough. It asks: Why did he call the army chief, not General Raheel Sharif, but just Sharif? A prime minister tells Almeida, on the record, that he has different ideas from theirs about national security? How dare he go write that up in a newspaper just under the picture of our founding father?
For now, it seems the new censorship is working. Urdu journalists are writing about national politics in parables. Current affairs programs criticizing the army are routinely dropped at the last moment. Reporters seen as critical of the army are losing their jobs. Ghazi Salahuddin, one of Pakistan’s most senior journalists, recently said that he has never seen such restrictions on the media here. He has been a working journalist for a half-century and through three military dictatorships.
Dawn’s first editor in chief, Altaf Hussain, once wrote that Jinnah, the paper’s founder, never gave him any editorial directive — that he “never said ‘Do this’ or ‘Don’t do that.’ In fact, he told me to study a given situation and form my honest and independent opinion on it, and then to write fearlessly what I thought.” If Jinnah were alive today, he probably wouldn’t be able to write what he thought in the paper he founded.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and Red Birds. He is a contributing opinion writer.