The high court in the eastern city of Lahore issued the “non-bailable arrest warrant” on 24 September on the grounds that Cyril Almeida failed to respond to a summons to appear at a hearing earlier the same day in the judicial investigation into Sharif – now one of the bugbears of Pakistan’s military establishment – and another former prime minister on suspicion of treason.
The case has its origin in the interview that Sharif gave to Dawn on 11 May in which he suggested that “people from Pakistan” may have been involved in the major terror attack in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008. For this, he is being investigated for treason and Almeida is now being treated as an alleged accomplice to treason.
The Lahore high court’s presiding judge said Almeida had been sent three summonses although the newspaper’s headquarters in Islamabad said only one was received, at the end of last week. Almeida was meanwhile in Karachi, at the other end of the country, and had no choice but to be represented by a lawyer in Lahore. He has been summoned to appear again on 8 October.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that Cyril Almeida should be accused of treason simply for interviewing a politician,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We call on the court to immediately withdraw this grotesque arrest warrant, which bears all the hallmarks of an ignominious act of harassment.”
Bastard added: “Crude procedural abuses are clearly being used to intimidate this journalist in order to deter him from doing his job. And behind him, it is Dawn’s editorial freedom that the establishment is targeting.”
Dawn is under growing pressure to comply with the army’s wishes on editorial policy and to respect its red lines, which include the role of the intelligence services and Pakistan’s policy towards its Indian neighbour.
The now famous interview with Sharif, which Dawn published on 12 May, resulted in the newspaper’s distribution being blocked throughout almost the entire country – an effective way of undermining its finances.
With the warrant for Almeida’s arrest, judicial methods are now being used to place additional pressure on the newspaper. The court also ordered that his name should be placed on the Exit Control List (ECL), which prevents him from leaving the country.
Dawn has said Almeida will comply with the next summons. In 2016, he interrupted his reporting on the US elections to return to testify before a court set up by the Pakistani government.
Pakistan is ranked 139th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.