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(New York) -- The Pakistani government must immediately release two French journalists, Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau, and their Pakistani assistant, Khawar Mehdi Rizvi, who were arrested in Karachi on December 16, Human Rights Watch said today.

The French journalists, who had press visas for Pakistan, have been charged with violating visa restrictions by visiting Quetta without having a special visa for the western border region with Afghanistan, where the city is located. Their assistant is likely to be charged with “sedition” since, as a Pakistani citizen, he cannot be charged or held for visa irregularities.

“These arrests and the possible criminal charges mark a new low in the growing assault on press freedoms in Pakistan,” said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “Foreign journalists have now fallen victim to the same tactics of intimidation and harassment that the Pakistani government often uses against the local press.”

Epstein and Guilloteau, who work for the French newsweekly L'Express, face up to three years in prison after their bail plea was rejected on December 20 amid reports that the Pakistani government was considering filing further charges against them, including “fabricating false evidence with a conspiracy to defame Pakistan.” The Pakistani government confirmed that it is examining “all possibilities.”

Rizvi, a local journalist who worked as a local assistant and interpreter for the French team, reportedly is being held secretly in Karachi and regularly “interrogated.” In 2001 Epstein received the Diplomatic Press Prize for a report he and Rizvi produced on the situation in Pakistan's tribal areas. Rivzi has worked extensively with the French press, including Le Monde, Libération, TF1, France 2 and Arte.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that journalists have the right to freedom of movement to seek information, and it urged the Pakistani government to act in accordance with the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information—standards drafted by international law and global rights experts in 1995 and endorsed by the United Nations
special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on the independence of judges and lawyers.

Johannesburg Principle 19, which addresses access to restricted areas, provides that, “governments may not prevent journalists from entering areas where there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of human rights or humanitarian law are being, or have been, committed. Governments may not exclude journalists or representatives of such organizations from areas that are experiencing violence or armed conflict except where their presence would pose a clear risk to the safety of others.”

“If Pakistan were acting to protect the security of these journalists, it could simply have removed them from danger and then released them,” said Adams. “But the government’s clear purpose is to prevent journalists from reporting on politically sensitive topics. This is unacceptable.”

The arrests come in the wake of a domestic crackdown on the Pakistani press. Since General Pervez Musharraf's 1999 coup, the Pakistani government has systematically violated the fundamental rights of members of the press through threats, harassment and arbitrary arrests. Many have been detained without charge, mistreated and tortured, and otherwise denied basic due process rights. The government has sought to, and in several cases succeeded in, removing independent journalists from prominent publications.
Meanwhile, the arrest of editors and reporters from local and regional newspapers on charges of sedition is becoming increasingly

“General Musharraf should break with this pattern and demonstrate a commitment to genuine press freedom by releasing these three journalists and their Pakistani assistant and by ordering an end to government coercion and intimidation of the media,” said Adams.

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