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Dawn journalist Cyril Almeida

Pakistani human rights groups and unions for media workers have denounced a court order for the arrest of a correspondent at Dawn English-language newspaper following an interview critical of the country’s powerful military.

#IStandWithCyril was trending on Twitter on September 25 with colleagues and politicians criticizing a decision by the Lahore High Court in Punjab Province the previous day to issue an arrest warrant for Cyril Almeida.

The court also ordered authorities to bring the journalist before judges on October 8 at the next hearing of a case seeking action against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif faces treason charges for allegedly trying to defame Pakistan’s state institutions in the interview published in May during which he alleged the army was backing militants who carried out the deadly attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said it was “greatly perturbed” by the issuance of the arrest warrants against Almeida, who it described as a “widely read and highly respected journalist.”

Almeida is being “hounded for nothing more than doing his job -- speaking on the record to a political figure and reporting the facts," a statement said.

Placing the journalist on Pakistan’s list of individuals who cannot fly out of the country and issuing a nonbailable warrant is an “excessive measure," it also said.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists called the court order another attack on freedom of media and vowed to protest against the move.

"This is unacceptable...How can reporting facts be a crime?" the union’s head, Afzal Butt, said.

The distribution of Dawn, Pakistan's oldest newspaper, was disrupted across most of the country in May, days after Dawn published the interview with Sharif.

Almeida was barred from leaving the country in 2016 shortly after he wrote an article about a rift between the government and the military.

The government lifted the order weeks later.

In a new report published earlier this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the climate for press freedom in Pakistan was deteriorating as the country's army “quietly, but effectively” restricts reporting through "intimidation" and other means.

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Pakistan 139th out of the 180 countries in its 2018 Press Freedom index.

With reporting by dpa and Dawn
Vyacheslav Lebedev, the chairman of Russia's Supreme Court

The head of Russia’s Supreme Court says the judiciary should halt "pointless" criminal cases over online speech if investigators fail to demonstrate criminal intent by Internet users who post allegedly extremist content.

The remarks by Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev at a September 25 legal forum in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok come amid a sharp rise in the number of criminal cases in Russia over memes, reposts, and other social-media content that authorities deem to be hate speech.

Rights watchdogs and opposition groups say authorities are targeting social-media users in these cases to stifle dissenting views and pad conviction rates.

Recent high-profile cases -- including that of a 19-year-old student facing potentially up to five years in prison for a meme likening the Jon Snow character from Game Of Thrones to Jesus Christ -- have triggered mounting calls for reforms to Russian anti-extremism statutes covering online speech.

Lebedev said a rise in the number of such cases prompted a recent Supreme Court directive advising courts to scrutinize the potential "public danger" presented by the online content in question and the motives of those who post it.

"The rising trend is evident over the past three years. It was more than 100 two years ago, and now there are already 500. This concerned us," Lebedev was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as telling the forum in Vladivostok on September 25.

Several high-profile hate-speech cases in Russia in recent years have been opened over satirical social-media memes and other Internet posts mocking the Russian Orthodox Church, which President Vladimir Putin has publicly embraced as a pillar of Russian culture and tradition.

Russians convicted of hate speech or "public actions" aimed at "insulting believers' religious sensibilities" are typically handed a suspended prison sentence, a fine, or both.

In some cases, the accused have been placed on an antiterrorism blacklist pending an investigation, thus blocking their access to financial institutions.

Lebedev told the legal forum that courts should carefully examine the merits of investigators’ allegations early on in online-speech cases and halt prosecutions during the appeal process if no criminal intent is found.

He said this would prevent "a pointless investigation" and stop the case from going to trial.

The Kremlin's Council for Civil Society and Human Rights on August 22 recommended revisions to Russia's counterextremism laws, including decriminalizing a statute used to convict social-media users of hate speech.

The bulk of online hate-speech cases in Russia have been based on content published on the popular social network VKontakte, a Russian analog of Facebook that has faced withering criticism over its cooperation with authorities in such investigations.

VKontakte's owner, Mail.ru Group, called on authorities last month to change hate-speech legislation and grant amnesty to individuals "unjustly convicted" for Internet posts.

Aleskandr Verkhovsky, head of the Moscow-based SOVA-Center, which tracks the use and abuse of Russian anti-extremism legislation, said on Facebook that while the Supreme Court directive issued September 20 is not a "panacea," it is nonetheless "for the better."

With reporting by TASS

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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