Three Daily Telegraph journalists have become the first foreign reporters to be expelled from Pakistan since president General Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule a week ago.
Isambard Wilkinson, Colin Freeman and Damien McElroy were told on Saturday that they had 72 hours to leave the country, amid complaints that a story published in the Telegraph on Friday was “derogatory” towards General Musharraf.
The Foreign Office warned that it “actively supported” the freedom of the press and was “seeking clarification” on the situation from the authorities.
The comment piece, entitled “Bankrupt relationship” suggested that Western powers had previously regarded General Musharraf as “our sonofabitch”.
“In short, the relationship between General Musharraf and the West is bankrupt,” it stated. “Valued as an ally after 9/11, he is now part of the problem.”
The piece drew a sharp response from Imran Gardezi of the Pakistan High Commission, who demanded an apology in a letter to the newspaper.
“The language used of the president of Pakistan in your leading article is offensive and flouts the norms of decent journalism,” he wrote.
“For a newspaper of The Daily Telegraph’s reputation to resort to such derogatory language is highly regrettable. This deserves an apology.”
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said it was aware that the journalists had been advised to leave, and was “seeking clarification”.
“The High Commissioner in Pakistan is investigating the circumstances and we are in close discussions with the Telegraph in London,” she said.
“We believe media freedom is essential to economic and social development and stability and actively support the evolution of a free and fair press in Pakistan.”
The Telegraph Group said it would not be commenting at this stage.
General Musharraf cited a growing threat from Islamic militants and political instability for his decision to impost emergency rule last week.
He has since put a stranglehold on the media, taking most domestic and international news channels off the air, including CNN and the BBC.
He has also threatened journalists who criticise his government or the army with up to three years in jail.