In Lahore, it's good to talk

Chinese reporters may be individually brave and determined but each one is on his or her own

A week in Pakistan brings a new perspective on China, where I am based as a correspondent. In China, I have grown used to a culture of secrecy, where officials rarely talk and if they do, speak from a memorised script. In China, silence is always the preferred policy. But in Pakistan, even under emergency rule, officials talk all the time, often contradicting each other and themselves.

"I am not really happy about the state of emergency," said Attorney General Malik Muhammad Qayyum, before explaining why, on the other hand, he supported it. He was also unhappy that the police were beating up lawyers. "They have been doing that, I admit that. I'm not happy with it," he said. It is not that the attorney general disagrees with the policy imposed by his president, but he is, nonetheless, comfortable admitting that there is controversy. "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion," he said, a phrase I have never heard in China.

Which is what makes the new restrictions on Pakistan's media and proposed "code of conduct" for journalists absurd as well as repressive. In China, the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department and the official All-China Journalists Association recently forced a newspaper to sack Pang Jiaoming, a reporter who had uncovered official corruption. The editors were instructed to "reinforce the Marxist ideological education of its journalists". An order went out to all other newspapers barring them from hiring Pang, who is now unemployed.

There have been no demonstrations in solidarity with him, no outcry from his fellow journalists or readers. Of course not - any such attempt would be instantly squashed, the ringleaders rounded up and probably imprisoned. But in Pakistan, journalists do not accept being silenced, because, fundamentally, they are not frightened. In a tradition inherited from colonial days, even small towns boast a press club, which is as respected an institution as any government department. Pakistani journalists have strength in numbers. Chinese reporters may be individually brave and determined, but each one is on his or her own, fighting corrupt local officials and a monolithic system of information control.

Under Pakistan's state of emergency, the myriad independent TV channels that have sprung up during President Pervez Musharraf's rule have been taken off air. Yet they are fighting. Every day, despite the ban on street demonstrations, journalists protest in all major Pakistani cities, demanding freedom of speech. The TV stations continue to broadcast, although the cables have been cut, and only a few Pakistanis have illegal satellite dishes now.

President Musharraf, like many an autocrat before him, has lighted upon the media as a problem because the underlying causes of Pakistan's instability are harder to address. Much of the anger seems to centre on their representation of President Musharraf himself. Speaking at a press conference this month, the General seemed personally hurt. "Aspersions have been cast on me that I'm foot-dragging, that I have some soft corner for the Taliban," he said, apparently baffled that such allegations could be made.

The Pakistani government expelled three reporters for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph earlier this month because of a leader about Musharraf that quoted Franklin D Roosevelt, who famously defended his support of the brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García, with the words: "He's a sonofabitch, but at least he's our sonofabitch." General Musharraf took it personally. Yet the expulsions and all the other restrictions are a sign of desperation, rather than a considered policy to crush dissenting views.

Pakistan has lurched between civilian and military rule all its life; democratic traditions are shallow to say the least. Yet the tradition of free speech is deeply embedded.

Soon I will return to China, so far ahead of Pakistan in developing its economy, infrastructure and technology. Yet in other ways it lags far behind, as its people struggle to express themselves, and suppression of information remains the bedrock of government policy, not a temporary aberration.

Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.