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Editorial

October 14, 2016

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Journalist on ECL

Journalist on ECL

Few are as bad at handling the great responsibility that comes with great power than Pakistani rulers. We are always told that the laws passed by governments – be they civilian or military – are meant for our protection and will never be used to target us. Yet somehow these laws are invariably turned on critics of the government. The Exit Control List, introduced by Ziaul Haq in 1981, was meant to prevent corrupt, hardened criminals and drug traffickers from fleeing the country. It has now been used to target a journalist. A story published in Dawn under the byline of journalist Cyril Almeida – a story the newspaper still fully stands behind – upset the government so much that it denied it three times and then refused to let Almeida leave the country, by placing his name on the ECL. It has been claimed by the government that it was forced into taking this step because it found out through the FIA that Almeida was about to leave the country, although Almeida himself says he was only going to Dubai on a long-planned vacation.

Even if one were to accept the government’s reasoning, this was not the way to go about it. It should have first announced that an inquiry would be conducted, the names made public of all those who would need to remain in Pakistan to give testimony and then, if still necessary, the courts approached to have a journalist’s name placed on the ECL. To put only the name of a journalist on the ECL and that too in the dead of night does feel like intimidation and an attempt to muzzle the media. Recall how, when Pervez Musharraf was facing trial, the government said it did not want to remove his name from the ECL until it received a written order from the Supreme Court. Now that it is a journalist who is in the cross hairs rather than a military dictator, the government didn’t take a moment to swing into action. Assurances that Almeida’s name will soon be removed from the ECL are hardly reassuring now that everyone in the media has received the message that anyone can be barred from travel – at any time and without any reason. For the sake of its credibility and international image, as well as to reassure a jittery media, the government needs to immediately remove Almeida’s name off the ECL. A media that is subject to the whims and moods of a government can hardly be said to be free.

 

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