ISLAMABAD – Despite an international and national outcry from journalists’ groups and rights activists, the government on Thursday defended the move to bar prominent journalist Cyril Almeida from travelling abroad.
It vowed to complete an inquiry about the source of a news story by Mr Almeida on a reported rift between the country’s civil and military leadership.
The journalist was placed on the Exit Control List (ECL) earlier this week, following ameeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the top military leadership.
The move came after Almeida reported in Dawn on Oct 6 that a tense verbal exchange took place during a high-level meeting between Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Lt-Gen Rizwan Akhtar, the head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The Punjab chief minister – Mr Almeida reported quoting anonymous sources – criticised the spy agencies over the alleged support they provide to militant groups, who are accused of launching attacks in neighbouring countries.
The civilian leadership also warned of international isolation if the policies regarding armed groups were not reversed.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, in a press conference Thursday afternoon, said that Mr Almeida was placed on the ECL after the government learned of his plans to travel abroad.
He claimed that Almeida won’t be harassed or intimidated but said he could be questioned regarding the news story.
“Had we not put the central character on the ECL, we would have been blamed for letting him go,” the minister remarked.
Nisar claimed the news story “promoted the narrative of our enemies,” a veiled reference to India.
Terming it ‘inaccurate’, he asked how the journalist published it when ‘he wrote in the story that all participants, who were contacted, had denied the news’.
In his news story, Mr Almeida, however, had said that the participants of the meeting “declined to speak on the record and none of the attributed statements were confirmed by the individuals mentioned.
Before restricting the travel of the journalist, the government had issued three rebuttals of the story.
Mr Almeida, however, has stood by his news and Dawn’s editor, Zaffar Abbas, has forcefully defended its publication.
Almeida says that his travel plans were not sudden and were made two months in advance to attend a family reunion.
On Thursday, he posted on the social media a picture of his green Pakistani passport and said that he would not “trade it in for anything”.
The journalist has also refused to appear before any government inquiry panel.
Official sources in the interior ministry said that Mr Almeida was contacted earlier on Monday by Zahid Hamid, the law minister, to corroborate some evidence obtained by the government about the alleged “leaker”.
But Almeida denied to meet and said he was travelling abroad, the officials said.
The interior minister in his press briefing said that the government inquiry was initiated after Mr Almeida tweeted he stood by “each and every word of his story” despite his newspaper’s publication of the government’s rebuttal.
The minister said the preliminary inquiry would be completed within three to four days and later it would be decided whether a regular inquiry should be initiated by any investigating agency or not.
Regarding the inquiry of the high-level meeting, whose proceedings has become the cause of intense speculation, the minister said that five high-level officials are part of the investigation team.
“Two representatives of the army, chief minister (of) Punjab and two senior ministers, including me, are part of the initial inquiry team,” Nisar said.
He also said that two or three people, who have allegedly been the source of information to Mr Almeida, were also on the government’s radar and won’t be allowed to leave the country.
He, however, stopped short of naming these officials.
Many commentators and analysts have questioned the efficacy of the government’s inquiry when the government is itself under the spotlight for leaking the news to the journalist.
Ejaz Haider, writing in Newsweek, commented: “What can be gleaned from what is known — and not much is known—it seems that the civilian government used the reporter and then threw him under the bus.
The news of travel ban received widely critical international media coverage.
Pakistan is already considered as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and fresh concerns were raised about the government’s efforts to muzzle the press.
“Leading Pakistani Journalist Banned from Leaving Country,” read the headline in The Guardian.
“The government’s decision to block a leading journalist from leaving Pakistan is highlighting tensions between the civilian government and its powerful military over how to proceed with the country’s fight against extremists,” reported The Wall Street Journal.
And, The New York Times pointed out that Mr Sharif, the prime minister “has long had a tense relationship with the military, which asserts itself on foreign affairs and defense policies, and many in Pakistan speculated that his government had leaked the Dawn story.
Rights groups have also condemned the travel ban and urged the government to immediately lift the restriction.
Amnesty International said that reporters in Pakistan should be able to work freely and without fear of retribution.
“The travel ban is a crude intimidation tactic designed to silence journalists,” the rights group said in a press statement.
United States State Department spokesman John Kirby earlier on Tuesday also expressed concerns over the travel ban.
“We’re concerned about any efforts to limit press freedom or the ability of journalists to conduct their very, very important work,” Kirby told reporters, according to the Associated Press.
(Additional reporting by Imran Mukhtar)