If anyone was under the impression that democracy in Pakistan, uninterrupted for eight years now, is being institutionalised, the latest turn in Pakistani politics should put that notion to rest.

Dawn newspaper on Tuesday confirmed that its reporter Cyril Almeida, who had days earlier published a report on the tensions between the civilian government and the military, had been put on the Exit Control List, barring him from leaving the country.

The story was an exclusive on a tense meeting that took place between senior government and military officials last week. The meeting was set during an All-Parties Conference that was meant to address tensions with India. Almeida reported that the civilians warned the military that Pakistan is drifting towards international isolation, and pointed at the state’s inaction to deal effectively with its militant problem – particularly the Haqqani Network, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, who have routinely attacked India and Afghanistan – as that isolation’s root cause.

Almeida also reported that during the meeting Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, confronted ISI chief Rizwan Akhtar, complaining that even if civilian law enforcement agencies detain militants, “the security establishment has worked behind the scenes to set the arrested free”.

The story echoed a familiar accusation that many states including the United States and India have made at various times, that Pakistan is not serious about combating militants, particularly those who conduct their attacks in India and Afghanistan.

The response

The Pakistani government’s struggled to put together a coherent response. The prime minister’s office issued multiple statements that said that the report, which Dawn put on its front page, is “factually incorrect”, “misleading”, “speculative”, and “an amalgamation of fiction and fabrication”. Paradoxically, the government also said the report “was clearly violative of universally acknowledged principles of reporting on National Security issues and has risked the vital state interests”. If the report is false, how can it threaten national security?

Ominously, a spokesperson also said the “Prime Minister took serious notice of the violation and directed that those responsible should be identified for stern action”, which so far has meant putting Almeida on the Exit Control List, a list usually used to prevent suspected criminals from escaping the country, and investigation.

Dawn and Almeida have both been the subject of abuse on social media, and have been branded traitors.

What it means

Here’s the rub: Almeida’s sources, though unidentified, were officials that sat in on the meeting, and were probably from the government itself. Dawn stood by the story and said the report was “verified, cross-checked and fact-checked”. So it’s unclear what the Pakistani government means when it rejects a story three times, without contesting any specific details of the story. So how can the government reject a story it helped draft? And if the government isn’t contesting it on factual grounds, but rather on national security grounds, then what does a rejection mean?

It is likely that the government meant for the report to come out, so that it can both embarrass the military, show to other states that at least the civilians are doing what they can to root out militancy, and perhaps gain some momentum in its struggle to win back some power over national security. To avoid getting punished by the military for doing so, it seems the civilians are punishing Dawn.

The problem with this scenario is that using the media as a pawn in the civil-military tussle, and then throwing the media under the bus, is not only morally reprehensible, but it weakens all state institutions, and makes the country look even less stable internationally.

First, regardless of whatever victory civilians score over the military, the media is still being punished for doing its job. That is unacceptable, especially given the deplorable record the Pakistani state has of protecting journalists.

Second, throwing the media under the bus is only a reminder of how little power civilians still have in Pakistan, especially in matters over foreign policy and national security. Civilians are so weak that their only option was to deny giving information to Dawn, and if they aren’t, it’s especially cowardly for them to then try and avoid a confrontation with the military directly, which is particularly ironic since all Almeida’s report did was detail that exact confrontation.

Third, it shows everyone in Pakistan and abroad what they already knew, that regardless of whether it’s the civilians or the military, Pakistan, and its media in particular, is not free. That matters, because the one thing everyone in Pakistan, the government, the military, the public, care more about than the state of Pakistan, is the image of the state of Pakistan.

Human rights activists don’t care whether it’s the civilians or the military that’s putting Almeida on the Exit Control List, they only care about the media not being free. India doesn’t care whether it’s the military or the civilians that are unable to stop cross-border terror, they just see a fractured, deeply divided state incapable of tackling militancy, and hardly a trustworthy partner to negotiate peace with.

Which goes back to Pakistan’s original concern: its isolation. Almeida’s report said that even China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend, has repeatedly questioned Pakistan’s policy towards tackling militants. Muzzling the media will not reverse Pakistan’s isolation. It will only accelerate it.