A Pakistani editor who printed something the generals in charge here thought would promote "hatred between . . . classes" could expect to get as much as 30 lashes and 10 years in jail.

This was the stiffest penalty provided in the first set of martial laws Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq issued after he seized power last July. It is a powerful if unintended tribute to the importance of a free press. In contrast, someone who brought the army "into hatred or contempt" would get no more than five years and 10 lashes.

So far as is known, no editor has yet had his flesh torn by the bamboo cane used to flog thieves, rapists and dissident politicians. But at least two editors have been arrested.

The chief of the Lahore edition of Musawatt is in the same jail near here with deposed prime minister Zulfigar Ali Bhutto, whose party owned the paper. The Karachi edition continues to publish but the Lahore edition of another Urdu-language paper, Sabadquat, was seized in Karachi. His paper continued printing, however, running an editorial column that was blank, save for a photo of the jailed boss and a question mark.

"The press has more freedom than in the past 30 years," Zia breezily assured a visitor to Rawalpindi last week. In fact, the claim is not as far-fetched as it sounds. This country has labored under a sucession of military and civilian dictators, including Bhutto, for most of its 30-year life. Unlike India, where a vigorous press was temporarily throttled by former prime minister Indira Gandhi, Pakistani jouralists have known little freedom.

Only one national paper in 30 has been suppressed, Zia went on, referring to Musawaat of Lahore. This too was literally accurate but substantively misleading. The government employs a battery of weapons to ensure that the press censors itself. Editors and journalists know they are free to praise the country's ruler and damn his critics, a mirror image of their plight in Bhutto's time.

"If you say something to create disorder or against the interests of the state," Zia went on, a new form of penalty wil be imposed. Jailing and flogging editors brings swifts protests from the international community of journalists so a less obnoxious technique had to be invented.

Editors who offend the generals are given three warnings and compelled to deposit a large sum of money. Another offense, and the deposit is forfeited, perhaps forcing the paper out of business.

As in many Third World dictatorships, control of the press is capricious.So Musawaat appears in Karachi but not in Lahore. More than 30 journalists protest the closing of the Lahore paper and are jailed; the union leader who urged them on is simply put on a plane and sent to Karachi.

Perhaps the most eminent Pakistani political leader outside jail is former Air Marshal Asghar Khan. The other day he held a "tea party" - press conferences are forbidden - at which the only guests happened to be reporters. Responding to questions only a few hundred yards from Zia's house, Asghar Khan said, "This government has lost credibility" because of its repeated postponement of promised elections.

The next day, the English-language dailies carefully omitted this statement, the "lead" or main point of the story for any professional journalist. But Jang, the largest Urdu paper, carried the phrase, and, so far as is known, suffered no ill-consequences.

When, in doubt, reporters here consult the Federal Information Ministry and its Maj. Gen. Mujbur Rahman.

Last week, a former Bhutto minister caused some confusion. He issued a statement denying that Bhutto had made a secret deal with Gandhi but he also threw in a few paragraphs praising his former boss for good measure.

The Rawalpindi bureau chief of one important news outlet was puzzled so he called the Orwellian Information Ministry. There he was told that the denial could be printed but the praise could not. That is the way his story went out across the country.

Perhaps a half dozen other small dailies and weeklies, largely supported by ads from Aeroflot and other Soviet agencies, continue to defy the odds. Sabadquat has been running headlines in beautifully hand-lettered Persian script that proclaim:

"Bhutto's removal from power was a CIA conspiracy"; "You cannot digest Bhutto even if you hang him"; "70 million people behind Bhutto."

In a nation that is 85 percent illiterate, radio matters far more than the press. The majority of peasants now own transistors and one of the curious sights here is a man laboring in the fields, his ear glued to a tiny radio.

The chances are he is not listening to the government's stations. He is more likely to be tuned into the BBC's Urdu broadcasts.

"I feel the BBC says the truth" a farmer outside Rawalpindi declared.