For many, it didn't come as a big surprise when Pakistani authorities went after Nawaz Sharif following the thrice-ousted prime minister's suggestion in an interview that militants active on the country's soil had been allowed to cross into a neighboring rival state to carry out a major terror attack.
But shock ensued after an arrest warrant was issued this week for the messenger -- Cyril Almeida, the journalist who conducted the wide-ranging interview published by the Dawn daily in May.
Rights groups, independent media, and opposition politicians in Pakistan reacted critically to news that the Lahore High Court had on September 24 issued the order, without the possibility of bail, in relation to Sharif's ongoing treason case. Almeida was barred from leaving the country, and the authorities were ordered to bring the popular columnist before judges on October 8 for Sharif's next hearing.
The underlying suggestion is that Almeida is being targeted for simply doing his job at a time when Pakistan's free press is coming under unprecedented pressure from the military -- an institution that has an oversized role in domestic and foreign affairs and which many see as the intended target of Sharif's comments.
Almeida has not yet been charged with a crime and it is unclear if he has been arrested and is being held as he awaits his appearance in court. The formal court hearing on October 8 will determine what charges, if any, might be brought against the reporter.
Sharif faces treason charges for allegedly attempting to defame Pakistan's state institutions in his headline-grabbing interview with Almeida. Prosecutors see Almeida as a facilitator to Sharif's alleged treason.
Sharif told Almeida during the exclusive interview that Pakistan had "two or three parallel governments," a reference to the army's alleged attempts to control Pakistan's political system, and that "there can only be one government: the constitutional one."
Sharif was also seen as insinuating that the military had backed the militants who carried out a series of deadly attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008. The Pakistani military has long been accused of supporting militant groups fighting in India and Afghanistan.
"Militant organizations are active," Sharif said. "Call them nonstate actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai?" he added, referring to the November 2008 attacks in which at least 160 people were killed by 10 gunmen over the course of three days. The Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e Taiba was accused of being behind the attacks.
Only days after Almeida's interview was published, authorities disrupted the distribution of Dawn -- Pakistan's oldest newspaper -- across most of the country.
Sharif was dismissed from office by the Supreme Court in July 2017 for allegedly concealing assets abroad and other corruption allegations. He denies any wrongdoing. Allies of the three-time prime minister, who was toppled in a military coup in 1999 and lost his premiership in 1993 when the National Assembly was dissolved, called the proceedings a political vendetta and suggested the army might be behind it.
'Climate Of Fear'
Rights groups and journalists in Pakistan have denounced the court order for the arrest of Almeida, saying it was an attempt to stifle the free press.
"This step has added another sword to the many already hanging over the heads of journalists in Pakistan," Asma Shirazi, a Pakistani journalist and political commentator who hosts a primetime current-affairs show on Aaj News, told RFE/RL.
"First it was the [military] establishment, then banned [militant] outfits, and now the courts," Shirazi added. "This warrant for Cyril Almeida will further increase the climate of fear for journalists and the already existing self-censorship in Pakistan."
Iqbal Khattak, the Reporters Without Borders representative in Pakistan, told RFE/RL that the arrest warrant for Almeida risked "criminalizing journalism."
"Writing a report, story, or an interview is the responsibility of a journalist," he said. "How can one charge a journalist for an interview? This will further cement self-censorship in Pakistan. Who else will dare to speak out or report the truth without any fear when a gigantic media organization like Dawn can face such consequences?"
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent rights organization in Islamabad, said Almeida was "being hounded for nothing more than doing his job -- speaking on the record to a political figure and reporting the facts."
The HRCP said placing Almeida on the Exit Control List and issuing a warrant against him was "excessive."
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), said he was dismayed by the court order. "This adds on to the perception that media is under siege in Pakistan. Mr. Almeida was doing his job -- nothing less, nothing more," he said in a statement.
#IStandWithCyril was trending on Twitter on September 25-26 with many colleagues and politicians backing the reporter.
Banned From Leaving
The court order for his arrest is not Almeida's first brush with the authorities.
Almeida was barred from leaving the country in 2016 shortly after he wrote an article about a rift between the government and the military. He left for New York when the government order was lifted weeks later.
Almeida recently returned to Pakistan. The journalist tweeted on September 24 that a warrant for his arrest had been issued and his name was placed on a list of individuals who cannot fly out of the country.
The Lahore High Court said it had taken the measure because Almeida had twice failed to appear in court in relation to Sharif's case, but Dawn said in a statement that the two earlier notices were never delivered.
Stifling Free Press
Almeida's arrest warrant comes as the Pakistani media bear the brunt of unprecedented pressure.
Veteran reporters have been leaving after being threatened, the country's most popular TV station has been forced off the air, and leading columnists have complained that stories that are critical of the army are being rejected by outlets under pressure from the military.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report released in September that the climate for press freedom in Pakistan was deteriorating as the powerful army "quietly, but effectively" restricts reporting through "intimidation" and other means.
The report said journalists who push back or are overly critical of the authorities were attacked, threatened, or arrested. The CPJ also said the Pakistani military, intelligence, or military-affiliated political groups were suspected in the killings of 22 reporters over the past decade.