Pakistanis, Indians and the world at large may disagree on many many things; its almost impossible to count how many, but on one thing, they will all agree: putting Dawn’s prominent journalist, Cyril’s Almedia’s name on Exit Control List was plain stupid, it had no legal basis, could not be sustained and thus served no purpose – except creating a world wide news and a story that adds to the narrative that already exists. Everyone knows in Pakistani media, that only Ministry of Interior can put anyone on ECL and there is a process. And Minister of Interior had streamlined that process few months ago to make it legal and transparent. Yet, few in the media have wondered to check took the decision to put Cyril Almeida on ECL and why? I have done that, but let me first analyze this classic ‘Wag the Dog’ story.

Here is how Cyril reported this to the world:

Only Cyril knows who were the sources who informed him, which government department they belonged, why they informed him in advance, since people generally – as per past evidences- reach airport and are disappointed to find that they are on ECL. So what justification these ‘sources’ offered if any, only Cyril will know for sure and can confirm. From Cyril’s another tweet we also know that his plans for travel were made several months in advance.

This proves that government agency (which agency? that is the interesting puzzle here) that took the lead in putting him on the ECL also kept him on surveillance; monitored his emails, calls, text messages, his movements etc. This is harassment, this is frightening but this represents the reality of ‘Surveillance State’ which Pakistan has become.

Earlier we had heard that Pakistan’s Prime Minister’s Office has rejected the Dawn’s story, by Cyril, the third time, calling it fabricated. According to Dawn, PM Office Rejects Dawn Story Again – the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), quoting a meeting of civil military leadership, went on to assert:

“the participants were unanimous that the published story was clearly violative of universally acknowledged principles of reporting on National Security issues and has risked the vital state interests through inclusion of inaccurate and misleading contents which had no relevance to actual discussion and facts”.

Dawn added that the: the participants felt that it was imperative that Print and Electronic media refrained itself from speculative reporting and issues of national security and interests of the state.

According to the statement, “Prime Minister took serious notice of the violation and directed that those responsible should be identified for stern action”.

Noting could have been a bigger gibberish to anyone familiar with Pakistan or its media. To begin with: What are the “universally acknowledged principles of reporting on National Security Issues”? Did we ever invoke them before? but more importantly Prime Minister’s Office asserted that Dawn or Cyril has “risked the vital state interests through inclusion of inaccurate and misleading contents which had no relevance to actual discussion and facts”. How interesting? Is prime minister’s office then implying that its officials had indeed provided some sort of information to Cyril and he has included the “inaccurate and misleading contents that had no relevance to actual discussion and facts”?

Apparently PM has also directed that “those responsible should be identified for stern action” So does that mean that PM Office will question Cyril or Dawn about its sources? In terms of logic, it makes sense because how else PM Office going to determine who leaked details of the meeting and what were the details? Since PMO now say’s that “inaccurate and misleading contents” were added, so is Prime Minister’s Office then going to prosecute Dawn and Cyril if they don’t reveal their sources? Will PMO then indict the officials close to Prime Minister who apparently made the leak or inaccurate and misleading speculations or fabrications? Another fundamental question to be addressed is:  was that meeting open to reporting in the first place? If not, then why the government officials thought it necessary to share details with Dawn? Why, subsequently more ‘government officials’ kept confirming those details? Without addressing these questions Prime Minister’s Office does not have any logical basis for blaming Cyril or Dawn.

Dawn newspaper, in the same news item, “PM Office Rejects Dawn Story Again” clarified that story was verified and fact checked from more than one person who had participated in the actual meeting. But even if Dawn had not clarified its position, no one had doubted Dawn or Cyril Almedia; no one thought that Dawn will report a totally fabricated story; it  was understood that Dawn is publishing what has been shared with its reporters. To what extent it correlated with the actual minutes of the meeting depends upon who was talking to Dawn. Cyril was not present in the meeting, his facts depended upon the officials who spoke with him; without determining who those officials were, Prime Minister’s Office has no case.

These questions assume greater importance for Prime Minister’s Office, because most in the media suspected that it was a deliberate leak done by the Prime Minister’s Office at the highest level. I had argued in my program in Dunya News, that this does not  appear like a ‘Leak that happened’ but all circumstances point out that the whole discussion was brought up and prompted to create a situation; a “leak” was part of the overall strategy to send a message across the world as per the political needs of Nawaz Govt.

Message was: Nawaz government is trying hard to put an end to militant groups but its “powerful military” is not letting it do it. And that the elected government of Nawaz Sharif is under siege, under pressure from militants and military. From Delhi to London to Washington, this is a theme in which those who matter firmly believe, this is something they want to hear, this is something they want to propagate and Nawaz government that draws its international support from Delhi/Washington Nexus was only trying to empower itself by aligning within a pre-existing popular theme. This totally replaces, sidetracks, diminishes in importance the raging, the fulminating domestic Pakistani narrative where Nawaz government is also under pressure due to an unending campaign Imran Khan is running on “Panama Files Scandal” and threatens to blockade Islamabad on 30th Oct. Second tier PTI leadership was already making allegations, in hushed up conspiratorial tones, that Modi may do something to bail out his friend and ally: Nawaz.

But creating this discussion up, at this point and then leaking it the way it has been done serves another function: It creates a narrative that Pakistani government itself is convinced that “Uri Attack” could have been done by militants based in Pakistan. Though Modi government and its strategic allies could not offer anything ‘persuasive’ to back up their allegations but actions of Nawaz government ended up substantiating Indian claims. If attack on Uri, was related to ‘Pakistan based militants’ then it also justifies Indian border raids which Indians call “Surgical Strikes”. But “border raids” too happened within the context of a pre-existing narrative, these “border raids” also served to consolidate that ‘Indian narrative’ of ‘terrorist camps across LOC’ and given the “mysterious self-defeating conduct” of Nawaz government, it lays down a context for actual “surgical strikes”. Its important to realize that since the “Uri Attack” on 18th September, the whole context of Kashmiri suffering has been effectively replaced by the much more potent narrative of “Indo-Pakistani Tensions”, Nuclear Flash Point and cross-border terrorism.

Why? Why Nawaz Govt is acting in this fashion? this “why” is beyond this piece, but this “why” will end up becoming the most important question of Pakistani politics and is something which media, academics and politicians should all passionately dissect and discuss -if Pakistan does not want to become “Hasina Sheikh’s Bangladesh”

Given this troubling background – where most suspect that Nawaz Govt had made deliberate leaks for its own political ends, for its larger game, its appeal to its external constituency in Delhi, London and Washington – it looked highly unlikely that PM Office will pressurize Cyril or Dawn to reveal their sources. In any case, there is no evidence or hint of any such plan. What if Dawn really reacts, realizes that it is being used and blamed unncecessarlly and ends up actually revealing its sources? And if it points in that direction then will PM Office prosecute the Officials who made these ‘fabricated, inaccurate and misleading leaks’? These are legitimate questions that come to the mind – because if Prime Minister’s Office had no plans to confront Dawn legally, and there is no legal case against Cyril Almedia then the strange act of placing him on Exit Control List serves no purpose. So why do such a bizarre thing? What is the method to this madness?

May be to answer this question, we need to look at how this ‘mysterious act of placing Cyril Almeida on ECL” has been reported across the world. Here is a link to BBC: Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida ‘barred from leaving country’. This BBC story puts a photo of DG ISI, Gen. Rizwan Akhtar on the top, sending the clear message that Cyril’s being on ECL has something to do with Pakistani Intelligence Agency, ISI. BBC then goes on to examine the civil military relations and hints that things have gone from bad to worse between the government of PM Nawaz Sharif and its powerful military and spy agency since the attacks on Indian position at URI. Is this true? Did the relations really became tense after Uri? BBC then explains what was in the original Dawn article by Cyril on 6th October that how civilians have categorically told the military and intelligence that they either control the militants or be ready to face international isolation.

British paper, The Guardian, reports in similar terms, here is a link: Leading Pakistani journalist banned from leaving country. This story also opens with a photo of DG ISI, Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, on the top, sending the unmistakable impression that Cyril may be on Exit Control List because of ISI. It then goes on to explain the initial Dawn story that civilians have warned the military about protecting militants. Uri is mentioned in terms which clearly suggest, almost as a proven fact, that Pakistan based militants are responsible for Uri. Indian paper, The Hindu, mentions the story in similar terms, making an assertion that after Uri, India carried out surgical strikes against seven terrorist launch pads’. Here is a link to Hindu story: Dawn journalist Cyril Almeida barred from leaving Pakistan over his report. Needless to mention that almost all Indian papers, and major news website carried this story in similar terms. Here is another link from Voice of America: VOA, Amnesty Joins Critics of Pakistan’s Travel Ban on Leading Journalist

Now two very interesting, literally fascinating things stand out: First, almost all international media have interpreted, and reported the event in such a way that clearly suggests that the decision to bar a prominent journalist from traveling abroad has been an ‘intimidation tactic’ a decision taken by Pakistani ISI and the military – or they must be behind it, with the purpose to frighten journalists into submission. While all media faithfully, unquestionably conveyed this impression, no one bothered to check if it was true.

So I spent a full day in checking at different levels – through the complex maze of bureaucratic structure – and was able to confirm that no demand, request or suggestion to put Cyril Almeida on ECL ever originated from Military. They did not even know he was supposed to travel. If anything they were surprised, found the act bizarre, and very unhelpful – a diversion from the actual issue; something without any legal or logical basis. It still leaves us with the question: Why Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of interior did it? Knowing fully well that this is totally unsustainable.

Second, interesting thing: whereas on 10th Oct, all major international and Indian papers have carried the story of Cyril Almeida being placed on Exit Control List and barred from leaving Pakistan, most international publications had totally ignored the original Dawn story of 6th October that claimed that civilians have warned the military about militants. Here is the original story: Act Against the Militants or Face International Isolation, Civilians tell the Military, Dawn.

Immediately after the Dawn story of 6th Oct – since I was doing my program on Dunya News on 7th Oct – I and my team meticulously checked international media and found that apart from Indian tv and publications no one across the world had attached much importance to the original Dawn story of 6th Oct. However on 10th October, situation was dramatically changed. Now, it took a personal angle and almost all important international web portals reported the Cyril’s placement on ECL as a crass tactic of intimidating a prominent known journalist. And now all media also mentioned details of the original story, as backgrounder. Issue became Pakistani civil military tensions – in the wake of “Uri Attacks”.

This is fascinating turn around! “Uri Attack” happened on 18th September, three days before Nawaz’s UNGA speech. Pakistani internal dynamics and position did not change at all; Uri only helped India to anchor itself better in front of the international community and allowed United States to demand action against UN designated terrorists. So now we see a method to the madness. A blatantly stupid and unjust step against Cyril – a step that is legally unsustainable and serves no purpose – has really helped in putting immense international traction under the first story. Interesting! This is an age of “Narrative Wars’ and apparently those, in Islamabad, who took this decision – of putting Cyril on ECL – were aware of how it will play out. Though we question their loyalty to Pakistani state, but we must congratulate them for mastering the art of spin and their ability to shape national and international narrative to their advantage.

The whole saga has an eerie resemblance to the famous ‘Scooter Libby Case’ in the United States, 2003-2007. Libby, the then White House top Official, Chief of Staff to Vice President (2003), deliberately leaked the identity of Valerie Plame Wilson, an under cover CIA officer, to New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, in order to undermine Ambassador Wilson (Valerie’s Husband) who was questioning the WMD thesis being advanced for attacking Iraq and who had argued in media that Iraq and Niger had no nuclear connection.  Judith Miller, NYT reporter, refused revealing her sources and was sent to jail. Read the Guardian story of July 7th, 2005 here: New York Times journalist jailed, Guardian

Later, under siege and after obtaining a waiver from Libby, Judith Miller revealed the identity of ‘Scooter Libby’. Read here: Jailed reporter reaches deal in CIA leak probe, CNN Also read this, if you want to: Reporter Judith Miller released from prison.  Libby was prosecuted and was given jail term and President Bush later used his presidential pardon to finish off his jail sentence. Though, in the process, it became obvious that President Bush and his team, had deliberately leaked ‘Valerie Plame’s identity’ for political gains.

So has Pakistan’s “Scooter Libby Moment” arrived? Will someone – senior and important – from Prime Minister Nawaz Office about to see a jail term? Or we will discover that a peon or tea-boy leaked all that to Dawn? (like Model Town, where constables and inspectors were found responsible) Its getting obvious that someone with approval from the top – for even Scooter Libby did whatever he did with approvals from the top – first leaked, may be an exaggerated account, of the meeting on Monday, (3rd October) and then when reaction mounted from the Army for a clarification, another ‘theatrical act’ was enacted to divert attention, planting the idea as if action against Cyril was being taken under pressure from the Army and that a poor right minded elected government is cracking under pressure.

Can Pakistan have its “Scooter Libby Moment”? Can there be a Special Prosecutor like “Patrick Fitzgerald” that could investigate President and Vice President? I think everyone  knows the answer. Next Question: this so called ‘powerful military’ has the wherewithal to force an investigation into this leak? Can they demand that stop this non-sense about Cyril and Dawn, stop this ECL stupidity and other diversions and identify the culprits who leaked the contents of a confidential meeting? I doubt very much.

Pakistan by virtue of its physical structure, its anatomy neither offers genuine public office accountability nor democracy. Punjab, as a political unit, with 60% of population and even greater share of human and material resources, is bigger than Pakistan. When any political office holder controls both Punjab and Islamabad (Islamabad with its stranglehold on all federal institutions combined with Punjab) rest of the Pakistan – 24% Sindh, 12% KP and 3% of Baluchistan – becomes meaningless to exercise of real power. In this bizarre, most unintelligent political anatomical structure, there cannot be any democracy or accountability because there is no physical room for any meaningful opposition. Pakistan Army – a quintessential western institution – then automatically becomes the ‘real opposition’ pitched against a powerful modern day monarch. Modi and Nawaz and their international strategic partners – keep Kashmir and Uri and so called Surgical Strikes etc in mind – fully understand these dynamics; its for Pakistani media, civil servants, corporate sector, academics and politicians to grasp this – may be Imran Khan & company need to spend some time away from gym on a laptop. All analysis will reveal that far from a beleaguered civilian government continuously crying of being under attack, its the Pakistani Army that is the “vulnerable target” a “sitting duck” now -in a changed global architecture driven by “Wag the Dog”.The whole saga of the past few days can be better understood in this context. Some things take longer to be absorbed – hope this piece helps! Amen!

[Moeed Pirzada is Editor Strategic Affairs and lead TV Anchor for Dunya News. He studied International Relations from Columbia University, New York and Law from London School of Economics & Political Science; he tweets at: MoeedNj]