Two of Pakistan's most-read newspapers -- Dawn and The Nation -- are being fêted for standing up to the government to protest the hounding of journalist Cyril Almeida, who was put on the Exit Control List and barred from travelling out of the country after his explosive report on a rift between the civilian and military leaderships.
Dawn, founded by Mohammad Ali Jinnah in 1941, has called the fallout of their scoop on the closed door meeting between government and intelligence officials, "intense". There have been three denials from the Nawaz Sharif government on the report that it warned the military leadership of Pakistan's growing international isolation.
While the paper stood by its story, it also published this week a hard-hitting comment on obligations of a free press.
Here's a powerful chunk from the Dawn editorial:
"Journalism has a long and glorious tradition of keeping its promise to its audience even in the face of enormous pressure brought to bear upon it from the corridors of power. Time has proved this to be the correct stance. Some of the most contentious yet historically significant stories have been told by news organisations while resisting the state's narrow, self-serving and ever-shifting definition of 'national interest'."
"Even more so in Pakistan, where decades of a militarised security environment have undermined the importance of holding the state to account — something that certain sections of the media have become complicit in despite their long, hard-won struggle for freedom — such a furore as generated by the Dawn report was not unexpected," Dawn wrote.
Since it's publication, comments have been pouring in from people who believe Dawn's plucky stand in the face of state subjugation of free speech will inspire others in the media to speak truth to the power.
"To the apostle of human rights, Thomas Jefferson, is attributed the phrase: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. The newspaper Dawn, its fearless editors and staff, including Mr. Cyril Almeida, have echoed this call steadfastly. A vibrant democracy needs independent organs of public opinion," wrote reader Ahmed Ali in the paper's buzzing comments section.
What is most heartening is that a large section of Pakistan's state media is banding together to stand solidly behind Almeida, who himself, after his initial moment of disquiet, has taken to Twitter to provide a running commentary on the state of affairs after his scoop.
Among his supporters, is The Nation, a newspaper that lambasted the government for venturing to "lecture the press on how to do their job."
Here's a part of the scathing editorial comment from The Nation today:
"Instead, how dare the government and military top brass lecture the press on how to do their job. How dare they treat a feted reporter like a criminal. And how dare they imply that they have either the right or the ability or the monopoly to declare what Pakistan's "national interest" is. Or even more laughably, what "universally acknowledged principles of reporting" are. Since the government would counsel us, the press, on how to do our job, we would like to offer some advice for them, on how to better do theirs. Leave journalists alone. Worry a great deal about Pakistan's image abroad – some of our actions and inactions as a country are indefensible – everyone knows it, no matter how much we may pretend otherwise. Salvage your own newly-minted reputation as a government envious of Kim Jong Il's press management."
The Nation's anti-establishment stand has found resonance within Indian media for many reasons, the primary being that the general atmosphere of mistrust of journalists isn't dissimilar to that of ours. The Jammu and Kashmir government recently banned the Kashmir Reader, an English Daily in the Valley, fearing unrest. Journalists took out protest marches saying that the ban went against "the spirit of democracy and freedom of press".
'Presstitute' is a word that is easily tossed around on social media, often by political leaders, to cast aspersions on journalists and lower the morale of the profession as a whole. India ranked a lowly 133 among 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Without Borders.
"Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems indifferent to these threats and problems, and there is no mechanism for protecting journalists," the report said. Last year, Reporters Without Borders listed India among the three most dangerous countries for journalists.
Another key takeaway from the comment, especially in the aftermath of the Uri terrorist attacks and the subsequent retaliatory surgical strikes by the Indian army on terror launch pads across the Line of Control, is the pressing obligation of the media to remain independent, free of political influence, and holding the incumbent government accountable.
Post the successful strikes, several voices in the political leadership in India have openly questioned the "loyalty" of those who raised queries about the details of the military raids. While the government and the armed forces are not obligated to reveal sensitive intelligence, it's wrong to silence sceptics with the bogey of patriotism.
"There are certain elements who have no loyalty towards the nation. They are using television debates to question and express doubts. Till today, nobody had expressed doubts about the bravery of the Indian soldiers," Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said.
"They are showing mistrust on Army, if they are questioning their operations. Actions should be taken against these persons," said BJP vice president Dinesh Sharma. Many ordinary citizens, including several from the media, have come under attack online for criticising war mongers as the atmosphere remained tense days after the strike, aided by a show of chest-beating jingoism from many on social platforms, isolating the peaceniks as "Pakistan-loving traitors".
Asking uncomfortable questions of the powerful will never be an easy task, which is why it is imperative that the press be free of influence. The Nation's editorial has found supporters among the Indian media too.
The press must defend its freedom by a) calling out its own and b) standing up for its own. Great example of b): https://t.co/DbMFdP5QJz— Mitali Saran (@mitalisaran) October 13, 2016
Dear Indian MSM, you are in which there is a lot more freedom and security. What prevents you from questioning ? #Dawn— Harini Calamur (@calamur) October 13, 2016
'some of our actions and inactions as a country are indefensible'. Hell of a gutsy editorial in Pak's the Nation https://t.co/hvJ5BBR68R— Dinesh Narayanan (@dinunarayanan) October 12, 2016
The Nation's editorial is more impressive given they are also carrying a feature (that prolly took weeks) on the PMLN view of the '99 coup.— Ahmer Naqvi (@karachikhatmal) October 12, 2016
Be it Outlook reporter Neha Dixit's police case for her report on the Sangh Parivar's alleged child trafficking in Assam, Punjab and Gujarat, or the hounding of Perumal Murugan -- journalists and writers have always been susceptible to witch hunts for taking a contrarian stand, and often simply for doing their job.
Hence the simple warning by The Nation -- "leave journalists alone" -- will serve well as a reminder to those who think it is the media's job to uphold disinformation, emanate government propaganda and act as the state mouthpiece.