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?