Pakistan must learn the value of a free press

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The Independent Culture
THE EDITOR was arrested at 3am a week ago last Friday. The police burst into his bedroom and tied up his protesting wife, who had asked, unavailingly, to see a warrant. They dragged him away without letting him put on his glasses or grab his shoes. As a finishing touch they pushed his car into the street and set it on fire.

Where did this happen? Not in China, or even in Serbia, but in Pakistan. The government of Pakistan is eradicating, ever more swiftly, what remains of a free press in that country. Its campaign has been under way since Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister in 1997 after his party won a substantial majority in a general election.

The arrest of Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times, is the most serious incident so far. Nothing has been heard of Sethi since he was seized at his home in Lahore. Today, Monday, is day 10 and still counting. His wife Jugno Mohsin, has tried to use that old standby of the English common law, a writ of habeus corpus, the legal procedure left behind by the British Empire for ensuring that a prisoner is either charged or released. She was unsuccessful.

At any one time, about 90 journalists are imprisoned around the world. I write about Najam Sethi's abduction for a number of reasons, not least of which, I should say, is friendship. Najam and Jugno have been helpful and hospitable on my visits to Pakistan, as they have been to many other journalists. On one occasion, when I mentioned that my older son, Ben, had just left university, they said they could use somebody like him on their weekly news magazine, and offered him a job with board and lodgings - a proposal which he took up with alacrity.

A government spokesman said that the editor had been arrested for his anti-Pakistan conduct and for ridiculing the very foundations and the ideology of the country. He had spoken against his own country on Indian soil.

He was also accused of conspiring with the BBC to destabilise the government, this last a reference to a documentary which is expected to cover corruption in Pakistan. Then a government spokesman went on to say, astonishingly, that his arrest "had nothing to do with any of his journalistic activities".

This is the kind of distinction which is visible only to government officials of authoritarian regimes. Sethi in conversation expresses the same thoughts as he does in the columns of his weekly newspaper, as he does in speeches, whether in Pakistan or anywhere else. In fact the remarks in India which Nawaz Sharif's government chooses to see as an act of treachery were earlier tried out on officers of the Pakistan armed forces attendingthe National Defence College. The spokesman's comments convey a familiar logic. Repressive governments see all criticism as essentially unpatriotic. That is why they act as they do. The state is beset by enemies, external and internal, and its defence justifies harsh measures.

Understanding this rationale and wishing to attack it head on, four American policy institutes last week gave a rare joint news conference in Washington in order to comment on Sethi's arrest.

Professor Steve Cohen of the Brookings Institution directly addressed Pakistan's fears. He argued that as a nuclear weapons state, as a country surrounded by threatening or hostile forces, it is to Pakistan's advantage to have a free and untrammelled press instead of a subservient and meek one.

This is because the critical decisions that lie ahead for Pakistan -- how to develop its nuclear programme, how to normalise its relationship with India, how to cope with revolutionary Islam in Iran and how to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan - are not merely foreign policy issues. Each impinges upon Pakistan's domestic politics. A free press is essential not only to check excesses but also because it enables the government to communicate its policies in a credible way to its people, and in turn be influenced by them. That was Professor Cohen's first shot.

His second was to make the point that the military and national security community in Pakistan do not have a monopoly of expertise on the many challenges facing their country. As in the USA, the western democracies, India, and even, to an increasing degree, China, good ideas are rare, and come from many sources, and smart governments encourage their best and brightest, regardless of party affiliation, or profession, to come forward with them.

Equally remarkable has been the reaction of the US government to what might otherwise be thought of as a minor event. The State Department demanded Sethi's immediate release. The Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbot, contacted the Prime Minister directly about the matter. James Wolfsohnsen, President of the World Bank, which has made big investments in Pakistan, called Jugno to express solidarity and then asked the Prime Minister to intervene. And even President Clinton's plans to visit Pakistan were said to be at risk.

The European Union also made a statement remarking that it was keeping a close watch on Sethi's detention and that co-operation with Pakistan was conditional on the country's respect for human rights.

While this expression of international concern at such a high level is gratifying, even more impressive are the protests mounted by Pakistan's journalists, by way of statements, marches and meetings in a country where it is common to be physically attacked for one's opinions. In Karachi, a city of perpetual political violence, 100 senior journalists put their names to a statement expressing concern and anxiety over the continued harassment of editors and journalists at the hand of "unknown agencies".

Thus what is probably the crucial battle for a free press in Pakistan has been joined. With a supreme effort, Jugno got out this week's edition of The Friday Times and sent it to the printers who, despite threats, did their work. But then mysterious government agencies seized the vans driving away from the printing plant and impounded all copies.

This is a dreadful fight. And although it probably wouldn't make a lot of difference, I wish the British Government would make its own protest. Not a word, so far as I know, has been uttered by the Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon Robin "Ethical" Cook, or by the Foreign Office. After all, Pakistan is a member of the Commonwealth.