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Rights outcry as Pakistan bans journalist from leaving country

October 11, 2016

Amnesty International slammed Pakistan’s “crude” imposition of a travel ban on a leading journalist who sparked an uproar by reporting that civilian officials had clashed with the military over its covert support for militants.

Cyril Almeida, an assistant editor at Dawn, the country’s oldest and most prestigious English daily, announced early Tuesday he had been placed on the “Exit Control List”.

His report published Thursday prompted threats on social media and was denied three times by the office of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in language branded by Amnesty as “chilling” and a “crude intimidation tactic designed to silence journalists”.

“It is one thing for the authorities to dispute and contradict a media report. But it is quite another to threaten a journalist under the guise of national security,” said the group’s director of global issues Audrey Gaughran, calling on Sharif to “remember his promise” to improve conditions for journalists.

Pakistan is routinely ranked among the world’s most dangerous for journalists, and reporting critical of the military is considered a major red flag, with journalists at times detained, beaten and even killed.

Almeida’s article came at a sensitive time for the military after its arch-rival India claimed it had crossed into Pakistani territory in Kashmir to carry out “surgical strikes” in September, a claim which — if true — would be a stinging blow for Pakistan.

Human rights activists urged the government immediately to lift travel and other restrictions on Almeida.

The ban “will cause distress to all those, at home and abroad, who believe in the freedom of expression and the rights of journalists,” said the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a statement.

The travel ban divided opinions on social media, with some arguing that the article endangered national security and others upholding the freedom of press.

The paper itself, which was set up by the country’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah, said it stood by the article.

“I am told and have been informed and have been shown evidence that I am on the Exit Control List,” Almeida tweeted, followed by: “I feel sad tonight. This is my life, my country. What went wrong.”

He added later he was worried about further government action.

“Am concerned, possibly convinced, more than 24hrs after the travel ban was imposed that govt is planning to take further, uglier actions.”

– Pakistan isolated –

For years Pakistan has been accused of cracking down on only those Islamist groups which have turned their guns inward towards the state, while harbouring those who fight abroad for its strategic ends.

In his report, Almeida said leading civilian officials had warned the powerful army to renounce covert support for proxy fighters such as the Haqqani network allied to the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks — or face isolation.

Citing sources present at a high-level meeting, Almeida said the civilian government had issued a blunt warning to the military as part of a new high-stakes strategy: do not interfere with the police when they take action “against militant groups that are banned or until now considered off-limits for civilian action”.

Pakistan’s foreign policy, particularly towards India and Afghanistan, is believed to be guided by the military.

India has sought to diplomatically isolate Pakistan following a raid on one of its bases in the disputed Kashmir region that killed 19 soldiers, with New Delhi saying the group behind the raid was based in Pakistan.

Kabul meanwhile accuses of Islamabad of failing to bring its influence to bear over the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders Pakistan hosts in its southern cities of Quetta and Karachi.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Pakistan 147th on its world press freedom index in 2016.

Human Rights Watch has accused the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence agency of the 2011 killing of national security journalist Saleem Shahzad, an allegation it denied, while Amnesty has called for an investigation into the disappearance of 24-year-old journalist Zeenat Shahzadi.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.