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Pakistani Journalist Faced Court Hearing On Treason Charges


One of Pakistan's most prominent reporters was in court today in a case that involves allegations of treason and sedition. The reporter's name is Cyril Almeida, and the case is raising concerns about freedom of speech in Pakistan. NPR's Diaa Hadid is with me now from Islamabad. Hi, Diaa.


KING: So tell us about Cyril Almeida. Who is he?

HADID: So he's a columnist for a newspaper called Dawn. It's an English-language newspaper, and it's widely read by Pakistan's liberal elites. And Almeida made a name for himself two years ago when he authored a story that suggested that Pakistan's powerful military had been preventing the government from cracking down on militant groups based in the country. Pakistan's broadly accused of harboring these Islamic militant groups that have conducted cross-border attacks into neighboring India and Afghanistan. And there was a lot of fallout from that article. Almeida was briefly banned from traveling outside the country. The information minister had to resign. And even though the newspaper said it stood by the story, it had to publish a lengthy denial by the prime minister's office.

KING: All right. So that bombshell report is how he came to public attention. But that's not the story that he's in court over, right?

HADID: No. So he published another story in May this year. And it was an interview with the former prime minister. And in that article, the prime minister himself brought up the Mumbai attacks of 2008. And you might remember these were particularly gruesome attacks. They targeted hotels and a Jewish center in India. Terrorists killed dozens of people. And the prime minister suggested that the attackers had been based in Pakistan. Now, this isn't controversial abroad. But in Pakistan, it created all sorts of outrage.

And a lawyer filed a petition to one of the high courts here. And what, essentially, he's asking the high court to do is order the government to investigate the former prime minister for treason. And he's also asking the high court to investigate Almeida for something called connivance, which is basically that Almeida is somehow involved in this alleged treason. And I spoke to the lawyer - his name is Azhar Siddiqui - yesterday. And he said if he can find - if Almeida is found guilty of connivance, he'll pursue more serious charges of sedition against him. And that carries a hefty jail term in Pakistan.

KING: I mean, look. I think it's easy to forget that Pakistan has been known for a pretty robust press. How are journalists there feeling about all this?

HADID: There's a lot of concern right now because this comes in the context of a growing crackdown on freedom of speech in Pakistan. I spoke to Omar Waraich. He's the deputy director for Amnesty International in South Asia. And he was also a reporter here for many years before that. And he says now is probably the worst it's been for years. There's been attacks on journalists. There's been pressure for some journalists to leave the country. And broadcasters have had their outlets scrambled. Dawn itself, the newspaper, had its distribution prevented in parts of the country. And so, yeah, this case is being viewed with a lot of concern and worry.

KING: Very briefly, Almeida was in court today. What happened?

HADID: So it was a quick court case. There's now been another hearing set for later this month. Almeida had briefly been banned again from leaving the country. An arrest warrant had been issued against him. Those are both being dropped. But the case against him continues.

KING: NPR's Diaa Hadid, thanks.

HADID: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.