A prominent Pakistani newspaper editor, held in jail without charge for the past month, was formally accused this week of activities harmful to the "safety, security and sovereignty" of Pakistan because of a speech he made in India that referred to Pakistan as a "failing state."
The case of Najam Sethi, 51, who was seized at his home by police at 2 a.m. on May 8, has provoked protests from officials in Washington and from international human rights groups. It is the most high-profile incident in what many Pakistani journalists describe as a six-month campaign by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to intimidate or punish its critics in the media.
At a Supreme Court hearing today, Pakistan's attorney general accused Sethi of committing "the most contemptible treachery" by delivering a critical speech on "enemy soil" when he spoke at a forum in New Delhi April 30. Sethi's address described Pakistan as being in the throes of multiple crises, including a breakdown of law and order, civil society, national security and identity.
Sethi, who edits the weekly Friday Times, remained in police custody. He was due to be arraigned today before a municipal magistrate, but authorities unexpectedly brought him before a special Anti-Terrorism Court instead, frustrating a large group of journalists who had waited to glimpse him for the first time since his arrest. Officials said he had been examined by a doctor and is in good health.
The prosecution of Sethi comes at a time of high tension and mounting military conflict between India and Pakistan, longtime rivals and nascent nuclear powers that have fought three wars since independence in 1947. In the past week, India has bombed and strafed the border area dividing the disputed territory of Kashmir to flush out Muslim insurgents who India says are backed by Pakistan.
"Sethi's speech was tantamount to undermining Pakistan's position on Kashmir in front of an Indian audience," Pakistani Information Minister Mushahid Hussain said in an interview today. "People reacted very strongly and emotionally to it."
While Pakistani authorities insist they are prosecuting Sethi only because of his speech, his family and professional colleagues say the government was increasingly angry over his weekly front-page editorials accusing Sharif of corruption and abuse of power. After his arrest, the entire press run of the next edition of Friday News was seized.
Since January, the government has filed a variety of charges against newspaper editors and publishers, ranging from income tax evasion to drug trafficking. There have also been several violent attacks against journalists. At one English-language paper, the News, an editor's car was firebombed and the publisher said he had been pressured by a powerful government commissioner to demote a number of employees.
"This government has zero tolerance for dissent. It's not just a few cases; there is a total assault on whatever is left of civil society," said a Pakistani academic. He asked not to be named -- in part, he said, because the Sharif government has made it harder for professionals like himself to get visas for foreign travel.
Aides to Sharif deny they are trying to silence contrary opinions, and they point as proof to critical editorials and columns that appear regularly in various newspapers. In fact, the last three editions of Friday Times have published scathing editorials on the Sethi case and continued to pound Sharif, his family and official circle as corrupt and dictatorial.