Cyril Almeida, Imran Khan, and the ECL

Earlier this year, I happened to attend an interesting debate at my alma mater, LUMS. A power-packed panel debated whether the prime minister of Pakistan should resign in the wake of the Panama leaks. The debate is now part of considerable social media chatter about Cyril Almeida’s appearance on the proposition bench. As an audience member who did not agree with Cyril’s stance and voted against the motion, I think it is extremely important for me to debunk the lies that are floating around.

At the LUMS debate, Cyril proposed that the prime minister should not resign. The other two members of the bench were Danyal Aziz and Musaddiq Malik, both members of the prime minister’s ruling party, the PML-N. The fact that Cyril was sandwiched between two politically affiliated speakers is being used to claim that Cyril is basically a PML-N supporter.

First, at no point in the debate did Cyril say that he was a member of the PML-N team. This allegation, made by Imran Khan on national TV, is completely false. In fact, Cyril started off by saying that he was not going to defend the prime minister! As chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf or the movement for justice, Imran Khan owes Cyril an apology for this baseless accusation. 
If Imran Khan’s claim is based on who Cyril shared the bench with, then he should also know that Walid Iqbal, the president of his party in Lahore, shared the opposition bench with Qamar Zaman Kaira of the PPP. Does this mean that the PTI supports the PPP?

Second, while I disagreed with Cyril and voted against the motion at the debate, I feel he made dispassionate and coherent arguments. So, what exactly did Cyril say to defend the motion? His arguments largely focused on maintaining the status quo in civil-military relations through Nawaz Sharif. Cyril said that the prime minister was perhaps best suited to initiating policy changes that could help consolidate Pakistan’s democratic set-up.

One can’t blame Cyril if he is now wondering what went so terribly wrong first with the addition of his name on the Exit Control List for writing his story and then allegations of being a PML-N supporter.

So, what was the government thinking when it placed Cyril’s name on the ECL? To be fair, it has done more harm to Pakistan’s image—the government and the military in specific—than it has to Cyril.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar’s press conference just added another twist to the government’s nonsensical handling of the issue. Nisar described Cyril’s story as a strike on Pakistan’s “national security paradigm”.

Was the story out of context? Not really. Our history tells us that Pakistan’s military has acted in a duplicitous manner on a number of occasions. The military establishment has fanned violent extremism in its bid to obtain strategic depth and exercise influence. Many people today say that the military has mended its ways.

However, even today, strategic assets such as Hafiz Saeed and Abdul Aziz enjoy freedom. Not only do these gentlemen represent a rotten mindset that promotes violence, but their presence is also extremely detrimental to Pakistan’s national security interests. Add to this the case of Malik Ishaq – it took the state more than 20 years to take care of a known sectarian criminal. The Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat is another extremist organization that continues to operate in Pakistan despite being banned in 2012. In fact the group managed to stage a sit-in in front of the Supreme Court in 2015. How? Why?

If the individuals and the groups mentioned above are not a national security threat to Pakistan- and Cyril Almeida is – then we have got our bearings so wrong that it is frightening to think how we will ever get back on track.

This argument that Cyril and Dawn acted against the national interest by publishing a story at such a critical time when tensions with India are high, begs a simple question about the role of a free press. Is it meant to serve as a tool that advances the interests of the rulers or is it meant to inform the average Jamal about what exactly is going on in our country?

Another allegation against Cyril is that his story had no attributions and the sources are in the background, a journalistic practice when people providing information do not reveal their identities due to potential risks to their lives. Are we that naive that we ignore why the people who sat in the meeting did not go on the record? The story has been corroborated through multiple sources, says Dawn. Even then, if the government wants to say that the story is fabricated, which it can if it wants, then so be it. Issue a rejoinder and close the chapter. The end. Move on.

If basic Facebook metrics are anything to go by, Cyril’s last five stories for Dawn fetched a collective total of 2,691 likes. The story that landed him on the ECL has received 18,000 likes till the filing of this report (this is not an indication of the actual circulation).

All of this aside, the debate boils down to whether the action the government took represents any of the democratic values that it repeatedly champions. Unfortunately, it does not. One of the first things that I read as I walked through the halls of journalism school were these words of Joseph Pulitzer: “An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery.”

One does not have to believe in Cyril’s story to say that the attack on free press is wrong.

The writer is an M.S. student at the Columbia Journalism School, NY and can be reached at @imranahmadkh

An edited version of this blog post was published on The Friday Times Blog on Oct. 16, 2016.

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