Targeting the voices of dissent

The media in Pakistan is facing a tough time. Last week, the Lahore High Court issued non-bailable arrest warrants against Dawn Assistant Editor Cyril Almeida. The court also ordered the authorities to put Mr. Almeida’s name on the Exit Control List for not appearing before the court. This happened during the hearing of a petition that sought registration of treason cases against former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for an interview Mr. Sharif had given to to Mr Almeida earlier this year. The interview became controversial because Mr. Sharif said the 2008 Mumbai attacks “were carried out by people from Pakistan”. In an Editor’s note, Dawn stated: “Mr. Almeida has no immediate plan to travel abroad, and will attend the proceedings of the case whenever desired by the honourable court.” There was widespread condemnation of the charges. Senior journalist Imtiaz Alam said the case shows how the media is being intimidated in Pakistan. “And without media freedom, there cannot be democracy and independence of judiciary.” Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry reiterated that treason charges should not be used to intimidate anyone. “We cannot support such tactics.” Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar of the Pakistan Peoples Party said his party believes in freedom of expression. “We believe that dissent is an essential part of the democratic process. If we start muzzling the media by intimidating or harassing journalists for their stories, interviews or opinions, we’d be doing a great disservice to democracy in Pakistan.” As per CrPC 22-A and 22-B, an executive order is sought when there is a delay by the police in registration of FIRs. “The new police chief in Punjab was called by the Lahore High Court and was told that the judges of the lower courts have complained that despite their orders to register FIRs in various cases, the police do not just do that and so these cases are sent to the High Court. The police chief was asked to register FIRs of pending cases. This FIR is most likely a result of the order,” said Mr. Farooq. He, however, added this may yet be another attempt at gagging the media. “We have seen the monster of treason resurrect every now and then,” said journalist Zebunnisa Burki. “This charge seems to always be brought up against dissenting voices. How are journalists supposed to do their job if they are constantly looking over their shoulder, worried about whether an interview they conduct with a politician is going to land them in court as a traitor to their country? This is a blatant assault on the freedom of the press.”
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