ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has expressed surprise and dismay on the issuance of an arrest warrant against Dawn assistant editor Cyril Almeida by the Lahore High Court.
“Treating Mr Almeida like he is a criminal and trying him for treason no less is shocking! This adds on to the perception that media is under siege in Pakistan. Mr Almeida was doing his job — nothing less, nothing more,” said the PPP chairman in a statement.
Mr Bhutto-Zardari said that the Pakistani media was already facing the worst kind of censorship. “Dictators who have abrogated the Constitution and have actually committed treason are roaming free while journalists who are only doing their jobs are being tried for treason,” he regretted.
The PPP chairman said that Mr Almeida broke no law by interviewing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “Why should a journalist not interview someone? What law stops a journalist from interviewing a politician?” he asked.
The PPP, he added, stood by freedom of expression and wanted a free media in Pakistan. “Democracy without a free media is a sham democracy,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also expressed concern over the issuance of a non-bailable arrest warrant against Mr Almeida and the placement of his name on the no-fly list, terming the decision “regrettable”.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, HRCP chairman Dr Mehdi Hasan stated: “The HRCP is greatly perturbed to learn that the LHC has issued a non-bailable arrest warrant for journalist Cyril Almeida, requiring him to appear at the next hearing of a case seeking action against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on charges of treason.”
The HRCP termed the court’s decision “regrettable”, adding that “Mr Almeida, a widely read and highly respected journalist, is being hounded for nothing more than doing his job — speaking on the record to a political figure and reporting the facts”. As a law-abiding citizen, it added, Mr Almeida had no reason not to appear before the court as directed. Placing him on the Exit Control List (ECL) and issuing a non-bailable warrant is an “excessive measure”, said the HRCP.
‘The ease with which Mr Almeida’s interview with the former Prime Minister was perceived as an attempt to allegedly defame state institutions, and the pace at which this has spiralled into charges of treason, only serve to further choke press freedom in Pakistan,” the statement read.
While remarking that “journalism — sensible, rational, independent journalism — is not a crime or treason”, the HRCP urged the court to give Mr Almeida the opportunity to appear at the scheduled hearing of his own volition and to have his name removed from the ECL immediately.
In Islamabad, addressing the inaugural meeting of a recently-established National Interfaith Working Group by the HRCP on Tuesday, Awami National Party (ANP) leader Bushra Gohar said that freedom of religion and speech was a fundamental right of every citizen of Pakistan, but unfortunately it was not being granted.
“As we see Cyril Almeda, a journalist working with Dawn, facing the court for reporting a story, which is his job but at the same time a dictator is being facilitated by the courts,” she said, adding that these were the ground realities about the state of freedom of expression in practice.