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2 French Journalists Arrested in Pakistan - 2003-12-24

Pakistan has arrested two French journalists for allegedly violating their visa restrictions. A Pakistani journalist assisting them is also in custody on unspecified charges.

Authorities arrested Marc Epstein and Jean-Paul Guilloteau, reporters for the French magazine L'Express, for visiting the southern province of Balochistan earlier this month without permission.

The two men have been granted bail pending trial. Khawar Mehdi, a Pakistani journalist working with them, is still in custody but has yet to be formally charged.

Mr. Epstein and Mr. Guilloteau admit to being in Balochistan while working on a report about an alleged Taleban training camp in Pakistan.

The Taleban, former rulers of neighboring Afghanistan, are waging an insurgency against the current Afghan government.

Afghan officials say Taleban militants have set up bases on the Pakistani side of the border.

Vincent Brossel, head of Asia-Pacific affairs for the press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, says the subject of the report may be the real reason the journalists were arrested.

"The Pakistani authorities are using the argument of the visa and authorization to arrest these people, because they don't want to see foreign journalists working with real investigative strategies in this part of the world," he said.

The case is complicated by reports suggesting the French reporters were victims of an elaborate hoax.

Pakistani state television has shown video footage said to have been found with the journalists when they were arrested.

The video shows what is said to be a Taleban training camp, including scenes of militants loading rifles and practicing martial arts.

But two men who appear on the video now say they are Pakistanis and were paid by Mr. Mehdi to pose as Afghan fighters.

Sayedullah Noor is one of the men on the tape. He spoke to Pakistani television reporters. Mr. Noor says he received 10,000 Pakistani rupees to pretend to be a Taleban guerrilla.

A mosque official from the northern city of Rawalpindi says Mr. Mehdi paid him to play the role of Taleban commander Mullah Malang.

Pakistan news reports say evidence suggesting the video was a fake prompted police to arrest Mr. Mehdi.

Pakistani reporter Fahimullah Yusufzai says he is not surprised by the allegations, adding that such hoaxes are common.

"This has happened in the past, it is happening right now," he said. "Foreign journalists, especially television, they desperately need some footage, they can't get it, so they fall prey."

He says that recently there were reports a Japanese television crew was sold a bogus video purportedly showing members from the al-Qaida terror network in Pakistan.

Mr. Brossel with Reporters Without Borders rejects the possibility of trickery. He says Mr. Epstein is an award-winning reporter who could not have been fooled.

"How [would] a journalist like Marc Epstein, who went to Pakistan dozens of times, not recognize that they are fake or true Taleban?" he asked.

But Mr. Yusufzai, who has spent decades covering Pakistan for both domestic and international news media, says he doubts the real Taleban would allow foreign journalists into their camps.

"Impossible," he said. "It can't really happen with foreign journalists. The Taleban have not reached a stage where they control a wide area, and where they can feel safe, and where they can take Western journalists."

He says unscrupulous Pakistani and Afghan con-men know they can make money from foreign journalists willing to pay to see Taleban and al-Qaida militants.

"People with covered faces, people shooting in the air," he explained. "Al-Qaida is a salable commodity, and people will believe everything about al-Qaida."

While Mr. Brossel admits such fraud does exist, he says he has received testimony vouching for Mr. Mehdi from former clients.

"I have letters from the leading newspapers in France and in Europe saying that they have been working with Khawar Mehdi and they know he is a professional journalist," said Mr. Brossel. But several Pakistani journalists working near the Afghan border say that because Mr. Mehdi does not speak Pashto, the language of the vast majority of Taleban members, he would be unlikely to gain access to Taleban camps.

Mr. Brossel, whose organization is campaigning for the release of all three men, says, however, that even if the allegations are true, it would not justify holding Mr. Mehdi without charges.

He says Mr. Mehdi should be allowed to defend his reputation in public.