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Sunday 21 October 2018

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Pakistani journalist and Dawn newspaper assistant editor, Cyril Almeida, walks in to the district High Court ahead of a hearing on treason allegations, in Lahore on October 8.

A Pakistani court has ordered that a prominent journalist's name be removed from a list of people who cannot fly out of the country and the arrest warrant against him withdrawn.

The Lahore High Court in Punjab Province issued the orders on October 8 as it was hearing a petition that seeks to charge former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his successor Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and Cyril Almeida, a correspondent at the English-language Dawn newspaper, with treason over comments critical of the country's powerful military.

The three reject the allegations against them.

Rights groups and legal associations say there is no justification to charge anybody for criticizing any institution.

The case was adjourned until October 22.

It relates to an interview published in May during which Sharif alleged the army was backing militants who carried out the deadly attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.

India has repeatedly accused Pakistan's intelligence agency of helping the Lashkar-e Taiba militant group carry out the attack. Pakistan has denied any state involvement.

After the publication of the interview, Pakistan's National Security Council held a meeting to deliberate on the matter.

Abbasi, who was prime minister at the time, is accused of sharing the details of the meeting with Sharif.

Almeida, who conducted the interview, had faced arrest if he failed to appear before the court and had been barred from leaving the country.

Human rights groups and unions for media workers have protested threats to media freedom in Pakistan.

Sharif was disqualified from office by the Supreme Court last year over corruption allegations and was sentenced by an accountability court in July to 10 years in prison.

He has denied wrongdoing and suggested collusion between the country's military and courts to push him out of power.

Abbasi replaced Sharif as prime minister before an election earlier this year brought cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan to power.

With reporting by Dawn and Reuters

FILE: Pakistani police try to stop journalists during a rally to mark World Press Freedom Day in Islamabad on May 3.

One of the largest journalist associations in Pakistan has called for an end to “unannounced censorship imposed by state institutions” and called for nationwide protests on October 9.

In a highly critical statement, Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), called on the country’s new civilian government to break its silence on the issue and heed domestic and international criticism of growing limitations on press freedom in Pakistan.

“The new government is ignoring the issue and avoiding confronting those institutions who are systematically trying to silence print and electronic media through coercion, control of advertising, harassment, and even attacks against journalists,” the October 2 statement noted.

While criticizing self-censorship, the PFUJ resisted naming the institutions it says are responsible for imposing censorship. Global press freedom watchdogs, Pakistani journalists, and politicians, however, blame the country’s powerful military for limiting the press during a tumultuous year when a former prime minister was sent to prison, parliamentary elections were marred by rigging accusations and the military faced protests and growing questions over its role.

The Pakistani military denies imposing censorship or meddling in politics.

The PFUJ offers startling insights into the state of media and press freedom in Pakistan, which is struggling with instability, anemic civilian authority, a sluggish economy, and rampant poverty.

“In order to control the media, a state institution set up radio stations and television channels through frontmen and embedded journalists in private [television] channels and publishing houses,” the statement noted without naming the institution.

Pakistan had only one state television station at the turn of the century. Since the industry opened to private investors in 2003, however, the country now has more than 100 news and entertainment television channels.

But Pakistani journalists say most of the news channels are owned by rich tycoons who pay little attention to journalistic principles and only aim to rack up maximum profits.

“The media owners have taken over editors in their newsrooms, and thus the role of editor -- which had played an important role [in preserving] the freedom of expression -- has been eliminated,” the PFUJ statement noted. “Most journalists and media houses have started self-censoring to avoid the wrath of the state institutions.”

Last week, Pakistani and international rights watchdogs, journalists, and politicians condemned a court order for the arrest of Cyril Almeida. Writing for Pakistan’s English-language daily Dawn, Almeida had published an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that was critical of the military.

Dawn and Geo, the country’s leading news television channel, faced unnuanced bans on distribution and broadcasting this year. Several high-profile journalists were attacked. Most local and international correspondents are prevented, in the name of security, from accessing the southwestern province of Balochistan and districts of former tribal areas that are now merged into northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, the PFUJ said.

“Dozens of journalists have been harassed, attacked, and even killed in Pakistan, but the perpetrators have not been traced by the intelligence agencies,” the statement noted. “Sometimes, police plainly refuse to investigate the attacks because of pressure from certain quarters.”

The PFUJ, an umbrella organization of various journalist groups, formed a coalition with lawyers, rights activists, media organizations and trade unions to hold demonstrations across Pakistan.

“The protest on October 9 is a warmup for the long struggle the PFUJ is launching for press freedom,” says Ayub Jan Sarhandi, PFUJ’s secretary general.

The PFUJ’s concerns reverberated in the Pakistani Parliament. Lawmaker Bilawal Bhutto Zardai, leader of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, called on the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf-led administration to address threats to press freedom.

“Will the government guarantee freedom of expression in Pakistan, freedom of the press in Pakistan -- our fundamental rights under a democratic state?” he asked lawmakers on October 3. “We must learn to accept differences of opinion and constructive criticism. When we leave no room for dissent, we leave no room for progress.”

After assuming office in August, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry announced plans to end political censorship on state television. Last month, he told Reuters his ministry would investigate media complaints about intimidation but so far they had received no complaints.

In June Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for the military, rejected imposing curbs on the media.

“We have never told any journalist or media owner what to say and what not to,” he told journalists. “We have always told them that Pakistan needs to unite, and we need to bring forward its strengths and success. I thank the media for their willing cooperation.”

The PFUJ, however, has called on the country’s judiciary to fulfill its constitutional obligations by protecting the freedom of expression and to dispense justice in cases involving violence, kidnapping, and the harassment of journalists.

The organization wants the parliament to probe their complaints and address the grievances of journalists.

“The parliament should raise its collective voice while remaining above [partisan] politics to protect the freedom of expression, which is under grave threat,” the PFUJ said.

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