Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) has protested at the harshness of the sentence after a judge at a Karachi court sentenced French journalists Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau to six months in jail for breaking the Foreigners Act.
The two journalists from the French weekly L’Express were sentenced on 10 January but the sentence was immediately suspended for one week. Their lawyer entered an appeal that will be held on 12 January.
The international press freedom organisation called for their sentence to be quashed and for the release of their Pakistani colleague Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, held at an unknown location since 16 December 2003. "If the authorities want to warn the international press that it is forbidden to investigate the situation on the border with Afghanistan they couldn’t have done it better," said Robert Ménard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders in a letter to the Pakistani foreign minister Mian Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri.
The judge Nuzhat Ara Hakvi sentenced the two journalists to six months in prison and a fine of 1,350 euros for travelling without permission to the Quetta region in Baluchistan in the west of the country. Since Pakistani law allows the suspension of a sentence for one week if it is for less than one year, the two journalists were able to leave the court freely and return to their hotel where they have been staying under house arrest since 24 December 2003. The lawyer for L’Express, Mr Siddiqi, entered an appeal at the Sindh High Court to be heard on 12 January.
The journalists’ lawyer said he was surprised by the harshness of the sentence. Journalists in Karachi, contacted by Reporters Without Borders, said that the judge was known for her tough sentencing.
The freelance Pakistani journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, who was working with the pair from L’Express on the report, has been held at an unknown location since 16 December. According to some sources he is being held in the offices of the military Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Islamabad. The authorities refuse to give any information about him although he has been shown three times on national public PTV television. The channel has also broadcast fabricated interviews with people attempting to show that the three journalists set up a faked report from Baluchistan, on the Afghan border.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf personally cast doubt on the professional qualities of Rizvi on 29 December. He told representatives of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society: "This freelance journalist has done terrible harm to the national interest in making this fake film on the Taliban and for only $2,000 dollars. If he had come to me I would have been able to give him 3,000 dollars not to make this film."
The three journalists were arrested on 16 December 2003 in Karachi just after completing a report on Taliban groups at the border with Afghanistan.