|NAJAM SETHI AND JUGNU MOHSIN|
November 23, 1999
Media correspondent Terence Smith reports on the perilous business of journalism in Pakistan and talks with Friday Times editor Najam Sethi and publisher Jugnu Mohnsin, winners of a 1999 Press Freedom Award.
TERENCE SMITH: Investigative journalism can be a perilous business in Pakistan, where over the years governments have rarely taken criticism lightly. And one of the more aggressive papers, the English-language Friday Times, in Lahore, has built a reputation as an equal opportunity offender, exposing corruption by the powerful without regard to party. Earlier this year, Friday Times editor Najam Sethi wrote editorials and gave an interview to the BBC, attacking the former prime minister Sharif and his family for using their position to avoid interest payments on an international loan.
"If every Pakistani businessman defaulted with this excuse," Sethi wrote in an editorial, "no foreigner would ever lend a sou to Pakistan." For his editorials and a speech he made in India, Sethi was arrested for sedition. A dozen police stormed his home, locked his wife, Friday Times publisher Jugnu Mohsin, in the bathroom, and carted him away at gunpoint. News of his arrest sparked protests in the streets by journalists and others.
JUGNU MOHSIN: Why were copies of the entire print run of the Friday Times seized?
TERENCE SMITH: Mohsin went to Pakistan's highest court to fight for her husband's rights -- and to the media.
JUGNU MOHSIN: This is a simply a matter of curbing the right of free expression, and this is a warning to every independent-minded journalist in Pakistan.
TERENCE SMITH: While angry Pakistanis demonstrated on Sethi's behalf, Pakistan's information minister denied that the government was restricting the press.
GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: The arrest of Mr. Sethi has nothing to do with the issue of press freedom or the media. It is a national security issue. It is linked with his activities and practices with regards to India. And it was only on that count that he was arrested. He is under investigation, and his case will be before the court of law.
TERENCE SMITH: Last June, Sethi was released to a warm welcome from his supporters. The editor warned the government not to try it again.
NAJAM SETHI: This government or, for that matter, any government, will not find it so easy to haul up journalists under forced charges of sedition just because they're doing their duty, and try intimidation. I don't think this will work.
TERENCE SMITH: On October 12th, a military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf toppled Prime Minister Sharif from power. The general's regime has promised to allow greater press freedom.
|A stunning arrest|
TERENCE SMITH: We are joined by Najam Sethi, the editor of the Friday Times, and his wife, Jugnu Mohsin, the publisher. They're among the 1999 recipients of the Press Freedom Awards presented by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Welcome to you both. We're pleased to have you.
Mr. Sethi, given what you have written and said about the government and the regime, were you surprised about the actions they took?
NAJAM SETHI: No, I actually anticipated that there would be trouble between the prime minister and --
TERENCE SMITH: And you.
NAJAM SETHI: And me. And just before they arrested me, I had given a press conference warning them not to do anything as foolish as that, but nonetheless, they went ahead and did it.
TERENCE SMITH: And did either the way it was done or the timing surprise you at all?
NAJAM SETHI: Yes, I must confess I was shocked. I didn't think that any regime would go to such lengths simply to silence a lonely voice out in the wilderness, because we were of the very few journalists and newspapers that were raising these issues, and I thought they'd simply ignore us, instead of doing what they did. It was stunning. I had not seen anything like it in 10 years in democracy, or so-called democracy.
TERENCE SMITH: And I take it you were beaten during the actual arrest and then held for -- what was it -- a month?
NAJAM SETHI: Yes. They broke into our bedroom, and they beat me with gun butts, and they dragged me by the feet and abused me and beat me up. Subsequently they blindfolded me, gagged me, and then they took me off. I have no idea where they took me. It was a very rough night. I thought I would die.
TERENCE SMITH: Ms. Mohsin, you were there at the time?
JUGNU MOHSIN: Yes, I was.
TERENCE SMITH: And I assume it was very frightening.
JUGNU MOHSIN: It was. It was a horrific time. As Najam said, we had not seen or expected any such thing in a so-called democracy. They simply barged into our bedroom at 2:30 in the morning. There were about a dozen people, armed, all of them. Some were in police uniforms; others were in plain clothes. And they went over straight across the room to get us out of the bed, to Najam, and they beat him black and blue and dragged him off before he could put on his slippers or his glasses. And when I asked for a warrant to one of the officers who was in police uniform, he turned around and said, "I'll give you a death warrant."
And then after he was dragged off, I was alone in the room with three men, and while two held me at gunpoint, one of them tied up my hands. And I must tell you that all sorts of horrific thoughts went through my head. I was thinking of the children; they were asleep in another room. I was thinking of my own personal safety. I was thinking of Najam. It was the most horrific time. And then they brought me to get up and again prodded me with gun butts in my ribs violently and threw me into an adjoining dressing room, slammed the door shut, locked it, and slammed it shut, and off they went. And for days subsequently I had no idea whether Najam was dead or alive.
TERENCE SMITH: I assume you were concerned about that.
JUGNU MOHSIN: Absolutely. I was horrified. I was petrified. I was in court the next day with a habeas corpus petition.
|The world cared|
TERENCE SMITH: The fact, Mr. Sethi, that people demonstrated on your behalf in India, as well as in Pakistan, what did that say to you?
NAJAM SETHI: Well, it wasn't just India or Pakistan. People protested all over the world, and I must confess that I was happily surprised when I learned of it later, which simply seemed to prove one point, that we have now become a global village, and press freedom, like other human rights, is indivisible. And I must confess it's a source of strength now to know that even if we are not able to stand up on our own against oppressive regimes in Pakistan, we have an international fraternity that will stand up and will shout, "Murder."
TERENCE SMITH: I gather that even your status as a Muslim was challenged.
NAJAM SETHI: Yes. First, they tried to paint me as an anti-Pakistani,
pro-Indian person, which is a very classic thing to do. Nobody wants
to be accused of violating the freedom, so they charge you with sedition,
which is supposed to be not anti-government but anti-country. It's a
great stick to beat you with.
TERENCE SMITH: Were you aware during this time that your wife was campaigning on your behalf and speaking out and that all the activities that --
NAJAM SETHI: I had no idea. I was kept in solitary confinement. I was not allowed to see daylight. I was not allowed to meet anyone for 10 or 15 days. I had absolutely no idea what was going on. And it's only subsequently, when I was informed that I was to meet my wife, and when I met her, it turned out that she had gone to the Supreme Court of Pakistan and thereby got permission to see me.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you believe, Ms. Mohsin, made the difference, that led to his release?
MOHSIN: (A), that we were right, we were true, we were honest. I think
that is the crux of the matter; and then the next most important thing
is that the world cared, both at home and abroad. We had a huge amount
of support, and people at home, journalists, press bodies, human rights
bodies protested vociferously, and by and large the press too supported
-- the other papers too agitated this matter, except for one or two,
which were in the bales of the former prime minister.
TERENCE SMITH: And that made a difference
JUGNU MOHSIN: That made a huge difference. That made a huge difference. I'd also like to say that apart from bodies like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, the Reporters Sans Frontiere, and people who are directly concerned with press freedom, I was amazed and so very heartened to learn that organizations like the World Bank sounded a clarion call. The president of the World Bank, Mr. Wolfensohn, actually rang up the prime minister and told him that this would not do. So these things are very important.
TERENCE SMITH: And now you have a new government in Pakistan, not exactly a democracy but a new government. Have all the charges against you been dropped? Are you free of all of that?
NAJAM SETHI: Yes, the charges were dropped by the earlier government under pressure.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
NAJAM SETHI: A couple were thrown out by the court. Nonetheless, there was considerable pressure on the income tax cases that were trumped up and other cases. I suppose those will die out in due course now that the writing on the wall is clear.
|Generals bring some peace for the press|
|TERENCE SMITH: And the situation for the press today in
Pakistan, is it different?
NAJAM SETHI: Well, I must tell you that it's ironical that we do have a military government involved and the press, which has seen very hard days recently, is quite relieved, and this is the irony of the situation. You have the generals in charge; you have a so-called demise of democracy and the press is relieved. I suspect it has a lot to do with the extraordinarily repressive policies of the earlier regime, and I think the liberal attitude of the generals right now. There's a sense of a honeymoon between the press and the general at the moment.
TERENCE SMITH: And is the press free, Ms. Mohsin, to write what it wants, and to criticize?
JUGNU MOHSIN: Absolutely, for the moment it is. And we hope that this sentiment is going to last because really the generals have said that fundamental rights are not in abeyance, that press freedoms continue to exist and will flourish, and we hope they mean it, and so far, it looks as though they do.
TERENCE SMITH: And the prospects for a return to democracy to elections, all of that?
NAJAM SETHI: Well at the moment, the generals are not giving any timetable, but I think we in Pakistan, we would like to see a road map; we would like to know what exactly it is that they are going to do, how they are going to achieve their objectives, which we all agree with, the agenda that has been outlined. We'd like to see accountability; we'd like to see a revival of the economy; we'd like to see a lid put on Islamic Jihads, and we'd like to see moderation and toleration in our vision of Islam.
When these promises are fulfilled, we'd like to give these generals sufficient time and sufficient room to succeed. That is not to say that they can stay indefinitely. They are not capable of running the country, and as soon as they put it back on the rails again, we would like to see a restoration of civilian rule.
TERENCE SMITH: OK. A final word from you, Ms. Mohsin? What are your levels of hope for that sort of change, personal level of hope?
MOHSIN: I must tell you that 10 years ago when Ms. Benazir Bhutto first
became prime minister, I was very, very hopeful, because not only as
a woman -- because she was an educated, modern, moderate woman -- but
also because I felt that representative government was back and that
the military dictatorship that had lasted 11 long years was gone, and
I was very hopeful.
TERENCE SMITH: OK. Thank you both very much for joining us here tonight.
JUGNU MOHSIN: Thank you.