Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) welcome an appeal court decision in Pakistan to reduce the sentence against French journalists Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau from six months in jail to a fine, but called for the release of their Pakistani colleague Khawar Mehdi Rizvi.
The High Court in Karachi on 12 January imposed a fine, equivalent to 2,700 euros, on the two journalists from the French weekly L’Express. The fine replaced the jail term handed down two days earlier, for breaking the Foreigners Act 1946 by travelling to the border region of Quetta in Baluchistan, western Pakistan without special permission. The journalists were to have their passports returned and leave the country on 13 January.
The international press freedom organisation welcomed the decision of the Sindh High Court but added, "We hope that this case will not discourage the foreign press from continuing to report, while respecting Pakistani law, on the situation in the border areas with Afghanistan."
"This ruling also acquits Pakistani journalist Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, who because of his nationality committed no crime by travelling to the Quetta region," said Reporters Without Borders, in a letter to the foreign minister Mian Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri. "We ask you to release him without delay."
The lawyer for the two journalists had managed to obtain an emergency appearance before the high court, in front of Judge Zawar Hussain Jaffry on 12 January. The high court’s advocate general, representing the state, made no objection to the court’s verdict. Marc Epstein told Agence France-Presse: "We are very happy and relieved".
Rizvi, who was working with the journalists from L’Express on the report in the Quetta region, has been held at an unknown location since 16 December. The authorities should respond to the Sindh high court on 13 January to a habeas corpus petition entered by his lawyer Abid Saqi. 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.