New Delhi: Cyril Almeida, a well-known Pakistani journalist who extensively reported on the country’s civil-military nexus for the English-daily Dawn, often running into loggerheads with authorities, resigned from the newspaper Sunday.
Almeida, who was serving as the assistant editor at Dawn, was known for his sharp and analytical columns over the 11 years he was with the publication. In a tweet, he said he was ending his column and taking a “break from the media” while also indicating he may not return to journalism.
Some more work news, belatedly: I have resigned from Dawn and ended the Sunday column. Am deeply grateful for the readership and affection over the years. There is no plan to return to writing in the foreseeable future, a break from the media appears to be on the cards. 🙏
— cyril almeida (@cyalm) October 20, 2019
His recent notoriety comes from his October 2016 newsbreak in which he revealed minutes of a meeting between the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the top military leadership, resulting in the government placing a travel ban on him but was later removed after intense media pressure.
Pakistan’s top military commanders said the report on the alleged rift between the civilian and military leaderships was “feeding of a false and fabricated story of an important security meeting”, and called it a breach of national security.
The army also insisted that Almeida played into the hands of vested interests who wanted to show the country in a poor light after the surgical strikes India said it conducted and which Pakistan had rubbished.
Almeida defended his scoop saying that he had “triple-checked” the facts regarding his report.
“In writing the story, I was aware that a grenade was being dropped in the news cycle. It has since turned out to be a surgical strike followed by a nuclear attack. I do not regret doing this story. In a place like this, that is a two-way street: In return for not exposing your sources, you get a fair reading of the land,” he had said.
In April, Almeida was awarded the International Press Institute’s (IPI) 71st World Press Freedom Hero for his “critical” and “tenacious coverage” of civil-military relations in Pakistan.
A Rhodes scholar with a law degree from Oxford University, Almeida also had a brief stint as a lawyer before turning to journalism.
“I don’t write for the sake of addressing the subjects of my pieces, I write for the readers — people like myself who are just interested in knowing what’s going on, with no hidden agendas, no personal favourites, who don’t see too much evil or too much good in any situation or person or institution,” Almeida once said in an interview.
The story which rattled Pakistan
In Dawn‘s front-page story on 6 October 2016, headlined ‘Act against militants or face international isolation’, Almeida reported that Pakistan’s then-civilian government had warned the military leadership of growing international isolation, and sought action against banned terror groups such as Hafiz Saeed’s LeT, Masood Azhar’s JeM and the Haqqani network.
The Nawaz Sharif government denied the facts of the story and subsequently placed Almeida’s name on an exit control list (ECL), barring him from leaving the country.
The sensational story sparked outrage with the government issuing three statements to discredit the story, including describing it an “amalgamation of fiction and fabrication”.
The news report came to be known as the ‘Dawn Leaks’.
Following this, the already tense relations between Sharif’s government and the military quickly deteriorated.
The story that also earned a travel ban
In May 2018, Almeida ruffled Pakistan’s military establishment again with an interview with Sharif.
“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,” Sharif told Almeida in the interview, and also questioned the progress of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks trial in Pakistan.
“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.
Subsequently, Sharif, former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and Almeida were accused of treason, with a case filed in the Lahore High Court.
The court issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against Almeida, on charges of leaking sensitive material after his scoop, and requested he be placed on a no-fly list. He name was later removed from the list and the warrants withdrawn.
In January 2019, Almeida announced that he was suspending writing his popular weekly column on Sundays in the paper.
Pakistan & press freedom
Pakistan ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2019, published by Paris-based non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders.
Last week, Pakistani immigration authorities sent back Steven Butler, the Asia Program Coordinator of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), whose name was on a “stop list” of the interior ministry.
Last year, Pakistan’s largest television network Geo TV was forced off air in over 80 per cent of the country. Butler had come out with a statement criticising it as “arbitrary”.
According to a report in The New York Times, the TV channel had found itself on the wrong side of the Pakistani military after its particularly critical coverage of Islamabad being added to the Financial Action Task Force’s terror financing watch list.