Dawn’s Cyril Almeida is only the latest victim of Nawaz Sharif’s dangerous game with the Pakistani army

Will he win?
Will he win?
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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The Pakistani military stoutly maintains that the Indian Army’s “surgical strikes” on Sept. 29 never happened. Yet, for an alleged non-event, there has been an astonishing amount of fallout within that country.

On Oct. 06 Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest and most prestigious English daily, published a sensational story headlined: “Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military.” Written by Cyril Almeida, the newspaper’s best-known columnist, the story claimed that the Nawaz Sharif government had succeeded in getting the military to acknowledge the need to act against extremist groups employed in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Since then, Almeida has himself become the top story in the country, particularly after the civilian-led interior ministry added his name to the “Exit Control List” (ECL), which bars him from leaving Pakistan.

Reactions in Pakistan have been split between those thrilled both at the news and the boldness in reporting it, and others disgusted by what they see as a betrayal of national interest. Yet perhaps the most useful way to see it is as the latest in a series of skirmishes launched by the ruling party—the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N)—against the organisation that makes most of the rules—the Pakistan Army—where the press has served as a useful but disposable foil.

The PML (N)’s greatest problem is the genuine popularity of retiring army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif in many parts of the country, especially Punjab.

On its part, the Pakistani military, from the top down, is absolutely furious about the Dawn story, first and foremost because of the timing. Coming when it did, the story reinforced the narrative of the Pakistan Army being an internationally isolated state sponsor of jihadi groups, which is the line taken by both India’s government and its privately-owned media.

Yet, although many people seem to have forgotten, it isn’t even the first such revelation this year—and the earlier one came directly from the PML (N) government.

On March 01, at a Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington DC, Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani prime minister’s personal advisor on foreign affairs, dropped a massive and unexpected bombshell. In response to a question, he candidly stated that the Afghan Taliban’s leadership was allowed to live in Pakistan and even offered medical care, and that this provided useful leverage. No serving Pakistani official had ever made such an admission before, and it left observers scratching their heads over just what this shift in policy meant.

In retrospect, it appears to have been part of a PML (N) strategy intended not only to shine a light on issues impeding better ties with India, the US, and Afghanistan but as a means to bring international pressure to bear on the military. This is a very dangerous game to play, and while the party has not followed up with more direct revelations, it is also clear that the Dawn story simply could not have been written or corroborated without very highly-placed sources in the civilian government.

But this unwillingness to directly confront the military has also led the civilian government to publicly denounce the Dawn story as “fabricated” and talk about “stern action” against Almeida and the newspaper. And in throwing one of the strongest bastions of liberal journalism under the bus, the PML (N) has invited opprobrium but also successfully redirected attention from its risky campaign to reclaim power from the army.

So far, there has been no other concrete action in this calibrated scapegoating apart from Almeida’s placement on the ECL. Although the newspaper’s editor, Zafar Abbas, initially came under equally withering fire, he has apparently been spared the same punishment. No doubt a complicating factor is that the family of the Dawn Media Group’s proprietor, Ambar Haroon-Saigol, has a deep history with the PML (N).

In all of this, there are echoes of the spectacular struggle two years ago between the military and Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman’s Independent Media Corporation, which includes the enormously popular Geo cable television network, the leading Urdu daily Jang, and English daily The News International. In a charge led by controversial journalist Hamid Mir, an unprecedented number of damaging pieces were directed against the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) for alleged involvement in supporting the Taliban, supplying information for the US drone strike, and disappearances in Balochistan.

Largely in Urdu and intended for a domestic audience, these stories were seen by the army and its many supporters as a hostile campaign. Rival news organisations and a number of organised troll armies on social media vigorously counter-attacked both the channel and Mir. Unsurprisingly, in such an atmosphere of incitement, Mir was shot and wounded by unidentified gunmen in April 2014, an action he promptly blamed the ISI for.

Many observers at the time marvelled at what seemed like the almost suicidal courage of the media group, but former cricketer Imran Khan, chairman of the opposition Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (“Movement for Justice”), charged that the channel and its owners were merely acting on behalf of the ruling PML (N) in attacking the army. It is a claim that cannot be easily dismissed.

Much like the current spat, the government sided with the military in public back then, too, but the steps it took to demonstrate such solidarity amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist. Civilian regulatory authorities issued a temporary ban on Geo News, which, while financially damaging, couldn’t keep the channel from roaring back to the top of viewership figures soon after.

However, unlike Geo News and Hamid Mir, the Dawn and Almeida evoke real respect both among Pakistan’s English-speaking elite and international audiences for the quality of their reporting and consistency of their liberalism. Hashtags such as #StandWithCyril have been trending in both Pakistan and Washington DC.

While conflicts between the various power centres in Pakistan are often defused through quiet chats and face-saving measures, it is clear that the struggle for control among the ruling party and military will continue regardless of how the latest spat is settled. That larger conflict represents both enormous opportunity and enormous peril for press freedom in Pakistan.

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