The United States Monday welcomed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's decision to rescind restrictions on media coverage of anti-government demonstrations. A top U.S. diplomat is due in Islamabad late Tuesday for talks with Mr. Musharraf and other senior officials. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Bush administration is welcoming the withdrawal of President Musharraf's media decree, and reaffirming support for his government on the eve of the visit by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher.
The Pakistani leader's June 3 decree had given the government wide authority to curb media coverage of protests over Mr. Musharraf's suspension in March of Pakistani Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
The media move drew widespread criticism, including from the State Department, which said last week there should be no-roll back of gains in press freedom that have occurred during Mr. Musharraf's tenure.
At a news briefing Monday, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack hailed the withdrawal of the decree as a positive step.
"A free press is essential to any functioning democracy," said Sean McCormack. "It may at times cause heartburn for various governments. I've experienced that in some cases myself. But the fact of the matter is that it is an essential part of a strong healthy functioning democracy. So this is a positive step that President Musharraf and his government have taken."
Spokesman McCormack also dismissed Pakistani press speculation that Assistant Secretary Boucher would be attempting to mediate Pakistan's political crisis, saying Pakistanis are more than capable of resolving their differences without U.S. help.
He also welcomed as positive Monday's decision by the Pakistani Supreme Court to consider, over government objections, former chief justice Chaudhry's challenge of misconduct charges against him.
McCormack said the matter should be resolved within the Pakistani judicial system, according to the country's constitution, and said the media should be free to cover the process as they see fit.
The spokesman also reaffirmed overall U.S. support for the Musharraf government in the face of criticism of administration policy, including a New York Times editorial call on the White House Monday to begin distancing itself from the Pakistani leader and what were termed his "arbitrary and widely-unpopular policies."
McCormack recalled Mr. Musharraf's "fundamental" decision in 2001 to support the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and said he has since made progress on political and economic reforms.
He said U.S. aid to a more stable and democratic Pakistan is in the interests of that country's people, the region and the United States:
"In providing that assistance, we are marrying-up our interests with our values," he said. "So this is not a case where the country is providing assistance and abandoning its values. We continue to work with the Musharraf government and others within the Pakistani political system to continue their process of political reforms."
McCormack said the United States wants to see free, fair and transparent elections later this year for a new Pakistani parliament, which will then choose a president.
Mr. Musharraf has said he will seek another five year-term in office and McCormack said that if he does continue in political life, the United States expects him to follow through on his stated commitment to give up his dual role as Pakistani army chief-of-staff.
A State Department official said Assistant Secretary Boucher will meet President Musharraf, Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and other officials in three days of what she termed routine consultations. Boucher made earlier stops in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.