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After A Sensitive Story, A Pakistani Journalist Is Barred From Leaving

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The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, shown here addressing the U.N. General Assembly last month, says a newspaper story that civilian officials warned the military of global isolation due to support of militant groups was "fabricated."

Cyril Almeida has a reputation for being one of Pakistan's most astute political observers. His columns for the venerable English-language Dawn newspaper are widely read by South Asia-watchers. More than 100,000 people follow his tweets.

So it was inevitable that the decision by the Pakistani government to ban him from leaving the country would be met with widespread indignation.

Almeida revealed Tuesday that he had been placed on Pakistan's official "exit control list" after writing an article delving into one of his nation's murkier corners.

He was, he tweeted, "saddened" and "puzzled" by the ban. "This is my life, my country. What went wrong?" he asked.

His story, published Oct. 6, alleged that Pakistan's elected government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had confronted military leaders over the presence on Pakistani soil of militant groups that carry out attacks on neighboring India and Afghanistan.

Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, has long been accused of covertly supporting "proxy" militant organizations in the region, a strategy that emerged after the success of mujahedeen groups to which the U.S. funneled support through Pakistan during the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Although Pakistani officials privately admit this covert support happens, it remains a sensitive issue that the Pakistani media usually handles with caution — or simply avoids.

Almeida's story said that civilian leaders issued a "blunt warning" to the military that the country is facing diplomatic pressure over these militant groups, and is at risk of isolation on the world stage unless it acts.

Some of that pressure is coming from the U.S., which has long called for a crackdown on the Haqqani network, a powerful insurgent group that operates in Afghanistan. The government in Kabul has also demanded action. And India, with whom tensions have spiked in recent weeks, wants Pakistan to rein in militant groups New Delhi accuses of staging attacks in Indian Kashmir.

Citing unnamed sources, Almeida claimed there was a highly unusual meeting in which a top civilian leader complained that when government law enforcement agencies moved against certain militant groups, the security establishment "worked behind the scenes" to set free whoever was arrested.

Almost as sensitive is the other big issue within Almeida's story: the strained relationship between the army, which in effect controls defense and foreign policy, and the elected government.

Pakistan has spent much of its history under military rule. During an earlier term as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif was toppled in a military coup in 1999. The sweeping powers still wielded by the army — and its ability to manipulate civilian politics — are a subject of much private debate among Pakistanis, who are on constant alert for signs of another military takeover.

Pakistan's government has denounced Almeida's story as a "fabrication" and is vowing "stern action" — without specifying what.

Dawn is standing by its story, saying it was "verified, cross-checked and fact-checked." It's calling on the state to refrain from maliciously scapegoating "the country's most respected newspaper."

All eyes are now on what happens next. Pakistan is one of the toughest places in the world to be a journalist, and reporters can face threats from all sides. Various governments — including a previous one led by the current prime minister — have used the exit control list to intimidate reporters, jailed journalists and expelled foreign correspondents.

When Almeida's story first appeared, he was vilified on social media — and even accused by some Pakistanis of being a traitor. The travel ban is now triggering sympathy, including a #StandByCyril hashtag on Twitter — and condemnation from journalists and rights activists both in Pakistan and outside.

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