New Delhi: Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida, who is facing treason charges for persistently covering the country’s military patronage of terrorist groups, has been named
the International Press Institute’s (IPI) 71st World Press Freedom Hero.
Almeida is an assistant editor of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.
IPI honours journalists with the World Press Freedom Hero award for their contributions to press freedom, often at the cost of personal and political risk.
After the announcement was made, Almeida tweeted, thanking his editor at Dawn, Zaffar Abbas.
“In truth, the hero is Zaffar Abbas, Editor, Dawn @abbasz55 who has unflinchingly fought for his paper and his staff in the face of significant coercion, intimidation and threats – much more so than is publicly known. Keep up the good fight, Ed sb. Pakistan belongs to everyone,” tweeted Almeida.
IPI’s executive director Barbara Trionfi was quoted in a press release as saying, “Cyril Almeida has demonstrated tremendous resolve in tackling – at great risk to himself – deeply contentious issues that are nevertheless of central importance to Pakistan’s democracy, not least the role of the military in shaping the country’s present and future.
“The response to his reporting has been a campaign of intolerance and state repression. Despite the press freedom crisis engulfing Pakistan, he, and Dawn newspaper, have refused to back down from writing about issues that matter,” Trionfi’s statement read.
Known for his sharp columns
Almeida is a 2004 Rhodes scholar and received a degree in law from Oxford University. He briefly worked as a lawyer in Pakistan before joining journalism. Almeida joined the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and was promoted to the position of the assistant editor in 2013.
Before being coerced and threatened by Pakistan’s establishment, Almeida was known for his sharp and analytical columns. Often in the Pakistani establishment, journalists present their critiques by delivering them in-between-the-lines. And, Almeida had mastered that art.
For instance, in his final column for the Dawn, Almeida had used Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s “the child who cried” to question the military.
“Someone to say, no, this is wrong, you can’t do that. Stick to your job, stop interfering, stop pretending you know better, stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Stop trying to invent reality,” wrote Almeida.
He continues to be an assistant editor with Dawn, but suspended his Sunday column in January 2019.
The ‘Dawn Leaks’ and its aftermath
While Almeida had already developed a reputation for critically examining the civil-military relations in Pakistan, he published a story in 2016 that rattled the entire Pakistani establishment. The story highlighted the confrontation between the civilian government and the military establishment.
The story revealed the minutes of a confidential meeting between the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the top military brass.
At the meeting, Sharif reportedly told the top military officials to act against all the state-proscribed terrorist groups, otherwise Pakistan would face severe international isolation.
This was one of the rare occasions when a serving prime minister was not only acknowledging the existence of state-sponsored terrorist groups, but was also chiding the military for giving patronage to such groups.
This news report came to be known as the ‘Dawn Leaks’.
The story invited the wrath of the Pakistani military establishment as it rubbished the story, and so did the civilian government.
Both the military and the government on several occasions had said that this fabricated news story was in breach of national security and reflected the enemy’s stance.
Almeida was put on the state’s Exit Control List (ECL), which restricted him from leaving the country. But, after intense pressure from media and other civil society groups, Almeida was taken off the list.
The already tensed relations between Sharif’s government and the military leadership sharply deteriorated in the aftermath of the ‘Dawn Leaks’.
Treason charges for an interview with Sharif
In 2018, Almeida conducted an explosive interview with Sharif, and again unnerved the military establishment.
“You can’t run a country if you have two or three parallel governments. This has to stop. There can only be one government: the constitutional one,” said Sharif during the interview.
Sharif went on to question the state’s involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. “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?” he said.
Soon after Almeida was again temporarily put on the ECL list and treason proceedings were initiated against him.
Almeida was quoted in an IPI statement as saying, “Press freedom in Pakistan is under severe and sustained attack, without precedent during eras of civilian governments and the worst in the country since an oppressive military dictatorship in the 1980s.”
The IPI in the statement said: “We urge Pakistani authorities to immediately drop all charges against Cyril Almeida. Bringing treason charges against a journalist for interviewing a former prime minister is as dangerous as it is absurd, and constitutes a gross violation of journalists’ right to disseminate information in the public interest.”