BBC: Debasement, or complicity?

“We are pleased to report that we have met your conditions. We shall obtain your prior clearance for all the programmes that we intend to broadcast. We shall provide details of the mechanism whereby access to our programmes/contents will be provided to you.”

Where can such communication take place? The obvious answer is: North Korea, Myanmar, or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Even if the answer is wrong, it cannot be denied that such communication is possible only in a dictatorship. But no. Would you believe if someone claimed that it is the BBC that sent this note to PEMRA, Pakistan’s broadcasting regulating authority? Sadly, the answer is yes.

These are details of a letter that Ms. Helen Wilson, South Asian Business Development Manager of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), wrote to Mr. M. Noor Saghir Khan, PEMRA’s Executive Member, on 12 May 2007:

“In reply to PEMRA’s letter of 19.10.2006, a copy of which we left with you this morning, we are pleased to report that the BBC has now, we feel, met the conditions asked for by PEMRA to allow BBC provision of contents to FM partners in Pakistan:

  • Prior clearance shall be obtained from PEMRA for all contents and programmes that are intended for broadcast on local FM radio stations
  • BBC shall provide details of the mechanism whereby access to its programmes/contents will be provided to PEMRA prior to airing them, for consideration.”

In another letter dated 7 September, 2006, written by another senor BBC official, Mr. Michel Lobelle, Business Development Manager Asia/Pacific Region, addressed to Mr Iftikhar Rasheed, (the then) Chairman Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, the BBC willingly agrees to pre-censorship:

“The BBC has proposed an electronic monitoring system to facilitate the observance of PEMRA guidelines and codes by the PEMRA licensees who would use BBC product content. The BBC will send audio inserts, running orders and scripts of bulletins or long form programmes to the licensees in advance and prior to actual broadcasts, in order to enable the licensees to ensure that the BBC output conform to the PEMRA Code of Conduct. All such BBC material shall be posted by the licensee on its website, which will be made accessible to PEMRA by the licensee. No broadcast shall ever be made in violation of this system (our letter 14 July).”

These two BBC communications took place when the entire civil society of Pakistan was involved in a bloody struggle to restore democracy in Pakistan. People were being beaten, kidnapped, and murdered by General Musharraf’s government. The BBC instead of supporting Pakistan’s civil society, made an alliance with Musharraf’s hatchet-men to censor their brutalities. During 2006-7 hundreds of civilians and journalists disappeared or were killed in Pakistan, at the time when the BBC was bending over to please Pakistan’s dictatorship. So much for its claim to be an independent, objective broadcasting corporation!

The pre-censorship system that the BBC agreed to with the Pakistani authorities seems to be a tip of the iceberg. Journalists in the BBC World Service have demanded complete transparency in the management of the World Service and that how and under what conditions it has opened its private companies in countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico and in some African countries under the pretext of outsourcing its production and dissemination of its programmes.

Ever since the exposé of the secret of the BBC World Service striking a deal with Pakistan’s PEMRA over the pre-censorship arrangements, questions are being asked if the BBC can stoop to that level of non-professional conduct then what example it is setting for those third world countries where journalists take its practices as model for their own standard of journalism.

In Pakistan, the common understanding has been that pre-censorship becomes inevitable when there is a martial law. By giving in to the authorities, the BBC World Service has essentially legitimised the concept of pre-censorship: If BBC World Service can agree to that kind of pre-censorship or a “clearance” arrangement with a regulatory authority then why other media organisations can’t agree to it!

A BBC apologist might say that the corporation only wanted to go soft on Musharraf because he has been described by his American masters as a “garden variety dictator”. But in Pakistan the facts are different: Musharraf does not ply bushels; he is a tyrant with deadly weapons and lethal intelligence agencies.

The question is: if the BBC has cowered to a “soft” dictator like Musharraf, how low can it go when dealing with a hard core tyrant like the two Abdullahs of Saudi Arabia and Jordan? Or for that matter, the tyrannical monarchies like Kuwait, and Bahrain, democratic tyrannies like Israel and Columbia, or the US-backed “democracies” like Egypt and Singapore. Even with a psycho like Dick Cheney? Of curse, the BBC would like to make an exception: Iran.