EDITORIAL TEAM’S NOTE: Following is an account of Dawn newspaper staffer, who witnessed what happened in the paper’s newsrooms after the DawnLeaks saga. For the first time, we bring you insider details of how Dawn suffered at the hands of the Pakistan’s powerful military establishment.
WHISTLEBLOW FOR US: The post #DawnLeaks scenario
By a whistleblower
In 2016, a front-page story in Pakistan’s leading English daily triggered a crisis in the Pakistani media. While some were celebrating the newspaper’s audacity, most quarters dubbed it a treacherous act, tantamount to compromising the national security of the country.
What was the story about?
It was an account of a meeting between the top brass of the all-powerful military, and the heads of the civilian leadership.
The subject of the meeting?
National security concerns, specifically, Pakistan’s increasing international isolation and it’s branding as a state-sponsor of non-state militant and terrorist actors.
The content of the story came as no surprise to anyone who has ever been a student Pakistan’s political history.
It is common knowledge that Islamabad has long used militant actors, such as the Afghan mujahideen, and later the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, to complement its policy of strategic depth on the Western border with Afghanistan. Similar tactics have also been employed on the eastern front, with freedom fighters being armed and infiltrated into Indian-administered Kashmir over decades.
The fact that state authorities have delayed and stalled action against the likes of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Sipah Sahaba Pakistan and other extremist outfits clearly indicates that there exists a soft spot for militant groups.
What happened next is history. The author of the story, Cyril Almeida, became a household name overnight for all the wrong reasons. He and the newspaper he writes for were branded anti-state and treacherous, and the state began a military-led witch-hunt for his elusive source.
But as the drama unfolded in the public eye, most visibly over Twitter, where no less than the head of the armed forces’ PR behemoth held forth, things were not going too well for the newspaper in question. Think-tanks and other organisations began to drop DAWN from their mailing lists and sources began to refuse requests for comment from DAWN reporters, even on matters unrelated to national security. At one point, a senior beat reporter complained that his sources were drying up because officials were wary of talking to anyone from DAWN because their phones would be tapped.
An inquiry committee, consisting of top personnel from the country’s premier intelligence agencies, was formed to sniff out the mole who had leaked sensitive information about a classified meeting. The inquiry’s political fallout was public knowledge: Pervaiz Rashid and Tariq Fatemi lost their cabinet jobs and Rao Tehsin lost his multi-million rupee pension.
What most people don’t know about this inquest was that the net was cast awfully wide. For example, the paper’s regular national security correspondent had been on leave when the story appeared in print. Once back, the journalist in question was habitually denied access to routine press statements issued by the military, mostly out of spite.
Several staff members received summons from the inquiry committee; some were interrogated or intimidated, or both. A few were offered ‘amnesty’ if they falsified testimony to implicate the author of the story and the editor, but none of it worked. Mr Almeida’s phone and laptop were also requisitioned, few know if they were ever turned over.
On social media, internal company information was leaked and hashtags bearing employees’ names were trended. There were trends linking the media group’s owners and editors to everyone from R&AW, CIA and Mossad; even their photographs were circulated along with a litany of abuse. The newspaper was even declared a ‘pawn’ of Narendra Modi. It seemed as if what happened to the Jang Group not too long ago would happen to DAWN as well. To their credit, the people incharge of DAWN managed to prevent that from happening. But at what cost?
All of this obviously had an effect on the quality and quantity of journalism produced by the newspaper. There was an unsaid reluctance on the part of the management to print much that was critical of the ruling party, the military or Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who was one of the few within the civilian government leading the charge against the paper.
Routine stories critical of the hot-headed minister would be killed for a lack of named sources, as would anonymously sourced reports about meeting between the top brass and civilian leaders. Any mediaperson will tell you that such information is always revealed on the condition of anonymity and is true more often than it is not. For the duration of the Dawn leaks controversy, however, such stories would not make it to print.
Things became so dire that at one point a reporter, who was known to have links with the military, was told to jump ship or risk becoming collateral damage. Ironically, the same person boasted he had turned down the offending story when it was offered to him. A rookie mistake, he reasoned. The armchair journalist got used, he said. Only he and a handful of others know if his account is true or not, but he soon left for greener pastures and since become a radical voice on the Tehreek-i-Labbaik’s personal news channel, 92.
The final recommendations of the inquiry committee did not make things better. As the Associated Press of Pakistan reported, “the committee recommended that the role of daily Dawn/Zafar Abbas/Cyril Almeida, in the instant case, may be referred to All Pakistan Newspapers Society with a direction to take disciplinary action against Daily Dawn/Zafar Abbas/Cyril Almeida, besides developing a Code of Conduct for publishing stories on issues of national importance and security by abiding to the basic journalistic and editorial norms”.
This Sword of Damocles continues to hang over DAWN’s figurative head to this day. No one knows what action, if any, has been taken against DAWN in this instance, and very few people know if any such thing will ever happen. What is clear is that it took a lot of arm twisting and negotiating to save DAWN from going the way of Jang/Geo, and for a paper that prides itself on editorial independence, this was certainly an issue of integrity, one which the paper may never live down.