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Pakistan defends travel ban on leading journalist

October 13, 2016

Pakistan’s top law enforcement official on Thursday defended a travel ban imposed on a leading journalist for reporting that civilian officials had clashed with the country’s powerful military over its alleged covert support for militants.

Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan branded the report, which sparked an uproar with its claims that top officials had warned the army to stop supporting proxy fighters abroad, the “narrative of our enemies” and said an inquiry was being held that would determine whether journalist Cyril Almeida should be prosecuted.

Amnesty International slammed the ban as “crude” and called on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to “remember his promise” to improve conditions for journalists.

Addressing a press conference on Thursday, Khan said the government had little choice but to prevent Almeida from leaving the country after it learnt he was booked on a flight earlier this week, but added he was a “free man” for now.

“This inquiry will be be finished in… maybe four days.”

But, he added: “If the committee feels there is enough evidence to prosecute, then a formal (law enforcement) committee will be made.”

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 army — which has ruled the country for half its existence and controls foreign and security policy — 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.

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 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 also 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.

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