Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Silencing the Airwaves

Those of you wondering whatever happened to the hourly BBC news bulletins on local FM channels and the local relay of the evening 8 o' clock Sairbeen since March 27, might be interested to read the report on BBC Urdu's website today.

Basically, it says that BBC Urdu has been effectively banned from 24 out of the 34 local FM channels after Information Minister Qamaruzzaman Kaira refused to issue written permissions for them to relay BBC's news content. The 10 FM channels still able to relay the content (I'm not sure which ones these are, certainly none in Karachi) are the ones that had received written permission last year after the PPP government came into power.

According to the report:

"These [earlier] permissions had been granted in line with the PPP government's policy of guaranteeing the complete freedom of the media. In addition, the BBC had been assured that all new partner FM channels would also be given written permissions, but that given the government's policy, this was merely a formality and that all partner FM channels were free to air BBC news content until the completion of the paperwork. Based on this government policy, BBC's Urdu Service began to supply a further 24 partner channels with five-minute news bulletins, which were widely praised by FM listeners.

On the instructions of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), all BBC partner channels had submitted the necessary paperwork at PEMRA offices last October. But whenever BBC representatives asked about the progress on these cases, they were told 'Your news is being aired, what difference does written permission make?'

Last month, on March 27, however, BBC's partner channels were suddenly instructed to stop airing BBC news immediately. When PEMRA was asked about the matter, BBC was told that from now on no channel could run BBC news without written permission. However, it was also added that as soon as the information minister found time, a decision would be taken on the issue.

For many days, the excuse that the information minister was busy was used to postpone any action on the matter. Finally, last Friday the BBC representative was called to Islamabad and informed on Tuesday afternoon that no further FM channels would be given permission to air BBC news. No reasons were given."

Very credible sources indicate that the sudden pulling of the plug on the BBC bulletins actually occurred at the behest of the military. Apparently, the BBC Urdu Service had relayed a controversial news report culled from Indian media that had claimed that Pakistan's intelligence agencies were involved directly with David Headley - the American of Pakistani origin accused of scouting locations in Bombay for the Lashkar-e-Taiba and currently in American custody.What apparently incensed the Pakistani military was that the BBC - in disregard of its own rules of journalistic fairness - failed to ask it for its point of view on the report.

The military establishment may be correct in pointing out the lapse on the part of the BBC. But is petulant vengefulness really the way to achieve sympathetic coverage? Do Pakistanis not have a right to choose their sources of information? In an age of easy access to all sorts of media on the net, one also wonders which world Pakistan's media managers are living in.

And the pressure exerted by the 'deep state' still does not explain the foot-dragging since October over the granting of permissions by the civilian government. Unfortunately the bureaucratic red-tape used to delay straight-forward matters and keep matters in limbo (usually to preserve power) has become an abiding characteristic of Pakistani governments. Their motives may vary from the corrupt to a lack of focus to misplaced sense of control to simple unwillingness to take decisions. But in the end they often find out that their hesitation and inefficiency becomes a noose around their own necks. After all, they too will need a free media at some point.


Annie said...

thanks CPM. i listen to the radio every morning on way to work and of course there's been no BBC urdu news for some time now. had no idea this was what it was about.

sadaf said...

The BBC making FM channels partner was wrong in the first place. They are local stations, permitted to broadcast locally. BBC is a foreign government funded organisation and it just can't be allowed to use these FM channels to air its views and comments. It was also against the BBC claim of independence and free media. Which government in the world, Pakistan and Britain included, allows foreign government funded organisations to use their soil for broadcasting? Freedom of expression is for Pakistanis in Pakistan and for British in Britain.

know it all said...

Good point Sadaf.

CPM said...

@sadaf: While you are technically correct in so far as the original legal agreements for FM licenses do not allow the broadcast of any news content on FM channels, I think there are broader issues that should be considered.

For one, why should news NOT be allowed on FM radio? Remember that these rules were drafted during Musharraf's time and the military establishment certainly did not want radio to become an access point for public information.

Secondly, while we all would ideally prefer our indigenous broadcasters to be supplying impartial content, one must keep in mind our own history, which as late as just two years ago, saw a crackdown on the independent media. Even today, there is much doubt about how the agenda of Pakistan's independent channels is actually set. Stories that go against the military establishment e.g. almost never find a place on Pakistani television.

For better or worse, BBC's Urdu service, which had declined in listenership with the advent of local tv channels, enjoyed a surge in popularity once again during the 2007 'emergency', simply because people wanted independent news that was at least perceived to be impartial. You may argue that the BBC World Service receives its funding from the UK government, however, it is certainly not structured like PTV, Radio Pakistan or APP. The BBC has a large amount of independence from government in setting its journalistic priorities and it is a measure of Pakistanis' trust in this independence that the Urdu Service has been the radio news of choice for much of Pakistan's history.

During General Zia's rule e.g. and for long after, the 8 o'clock Urdu bulletin on medium wave and short wave was considered essential listening among news-hungry and politically astute Pakistanis. This was never the case with other countries' bulletins such as those of the Voice of America or Indian Radio. So one should make distinctions between foreign news sources and foreign news sources.


CPM said...

... (continued from above)...

Thirdly, you say "BBC is a foreign government funded organisation and it just can't be allowed to use these FM channels to air its views and comments." Actually, if you have followed the hourly updates on FM channels, they were hardly "views and comments" of the BBC. They were simply news items and features reported factually, as they should be (how much views could you possibly stuff into less than 5 minutes anyway?). You may be confusing these bulletins with the kind of news one sees on our tv channels.

Fourthly, I would submit to you that the idea of "freedom of expression for Pakistanis in Pakistan and British in Britain" is a bit of an oxymoron. As I pointed out in the post, national boundaries are increasingly becoming irrelevant in the worldwide media surge. Not only can one still hear BBC on MW and watch BBC news on television if one chooses to, one can also access all sorts of other opinions, views and comments on the net and even one's mobile that one could never imagine just 20 years ago. The basic thrust of the hyper-patriotic point of view then becomes reduced to preventing ordinary folk - who may not have ready access to the net or understand English - from getting easy access to information. Surely, if the people themselves found these bulletins offensive or biased, they would not listen to the FM channels airing them. It's not as if anyone was forcing the channels to take on a partnership with the BBC either. (Incidentally, PTV also broadcasts in Britain and the US, BBC broadcasts in the US, as does Al Jazeera in the UK, to name a few.)

Personally, while I may have issues with the BBC's coverage on a number of issues and have easy access to a wide range of sources for the news, I found the BBC FM bulletins terribly convenient and was glad to have the choice. (By the way I do also listen to a local station that puts out its own bulletin - also in violation of the license laws - but am constantly doubtful about the veracity of their facts because even their newsreaders seem not to know what they are talking about.)

Finally, I would urge that we stop thinking in terms of what benefits states and their establishments (which make the laws) and argue based on what the people really want and should have a right to. If the people of Pakistan would like BBC to be shut down, by all means let's do it (if we can). Otherwise, let's trust our people's ability to judge bias and to reject it themselves.

know it all said...

@CPM---you make many good points but I would like to disagree with a couple. First, I don't think Sadaf's point was hyper-patriotic---sometimes we are too quick to characterize people as hyper-patriotic without really thinking it through.

As for PTV, etc broadcasting in UK---they are not broadcasting in English---they are broadcasting in Urdu for a largely Pakistani audience. Had they been broadcasting in English to a largely British audience---the standards and scrutiny would be far higher. Ask Al-Jazeera!

Second, as for BBC itself, a friend of mine works at BBC Urdu in London and he was telling me how as soon as the protests started in Iran, BBC actually started completely downsizing their Urdu and South Asia desks and bolstering their Farsi desks big-time. So to suggest that they have no political motives is a tad naive. And these decisions always rest with the governments, not with the people.

Anonymous said...

Actually as far as I know, while the BBC Farsi desks may have been bolstered in response to expectations of greater news interest, in itself a perfectly sensible thing to do, it wouldn't have been at the expense of BBC Urdu. The "downsizing" that "know it all" seems to refer to has been underway in terms of London-based staff for much longer, in an attempt to base more of the production work in Pakistan itself.

p.s. I have many friends working for BBC Urdu...

know it all said...

@ anon--r ur friends working in Pakistan or London? Because this is what I heard from someone working in London---and he was quite clear about their motives going beyond simple "news interest"---and this was after he had just returned from Tehran along with the bbc farsi team.

Anonymous said...

@know it all: I have friends working for BBC Urdu both in London and in Pakistan. Several. And while I'm not saying that certain agendas don't drive coverage at different times and on different outlets in the BBC, or any other channel for that matter, your friend's suggestion that a) focussing on Iran is somehow a devious thing, and b) it comes at the expense of downsizing of the Urdu service, are both... well, just not very factual. BBC has had to make drastic cuts across the board because of fiscal tightening requirements, but Urdu has actually not been one of the hardest hit, and indeed, still has one of the most ambitious expansion programs within the organisation from what I know.

Mind you, it's pretty well known that there is a fair amount of resentment within the staff in London because of the attempt to move a lot of the production to Pakistan. I believe that involves asking many to voluntarily relocate back to their home country and take paycuts in the process, something which people who have gotten used to living in London aren't too enthusiastic about. Is that perhaps your friend's situation?

sadaf said...

May I submit a few points to clarify my stance. I did not say news should NOT be allowed on FM radio stations. As a newsperson, I would rather like all the FM stations to have their own news gathering set up. What I had said was that the BBC can’t lay its claim to using Pakistani FM stations for broadcasting news. AS I said earlier, and would like friends to enlighten me and other readers on that, BBC is a FOREIGN funded entity and NO foreign funded entity, any where in the world is allowed to use the soil of any other country to broadcast.

CPM, I am not sure, if PTV uses British soil to broadcast (or telecast?) in UK. If its satellite beam is received by local cable distributors, that’s an altogether different matter. That does not mean PTV broadcasts from there. It’s the same as BBC and other TV channels are being distributed by cable operators here in Pakistan. (Whether they have the landing rights or not, again I am not sure.)

My another point was that BBC, by relying more on the local FM channels is in fact making itself vulnerable to the checks, unnecessary of course, of PEMRA and other local authorities. If the government does not like its news bulletins, which our governments have been in the habit of not liking – their past record – they can pull the switch off. The BBC broadcast from Bush House ( I have heard they are vacating it) London cannot be stopped and you can listen it on your MW radios. Incidentally, I also have some friends working for BBC and they had told me a horrifying story. The BBC people in the recent past had agreed to submit their sairbeen to the local PEMRA people about 20 minutes before airing time. This has now been done away with, when people in London expressed their indignation on compromising the editorial independence of BBC.

Whether one is hyper patriotic or not, one should not let the foreign powers, with their own agendas to poison the minds of our people in ways so subtle very few of the target audience would realize. Some time when one reads, “Manufacturing Content” of Noam Chomsky, one finds how the same events is portrayed differently, depending on the policy of the government. And BBC is no exception, according to the detailed study conducted by Prof. Chomsky and his colleague.

Very few people know that the BBC is now registered as a company in Pakistan. It is called BBC Pakistan. But no Pakistani company is allowed to broadcast on FM, or telecasts on its TV channel, without having obtained licence from PEMRA. Please note, it is not just permission, it is a LICENCE which is required. And which costs, as was in the case of Karachi, 350 million rupees. The FM stations have their own licences, but they cannot lend them to any one else. If it is an FM X, it is FM X, not BBC Pakistan. If you allow this once, there will be no end to it.

True, the people of Pakistan should have access to all the information and for that the local media has been playing a role and will have to play a positive role to make it more credible. We suffered at the hands of authoritarian regimes, but we are now more independent and thus more reliable. We have to rely on our own media, not on those who have their agendas, whether we can perceive this or not.

Anonymous said...

@Sadaf: While i agree that one should expect one's domestic channels to provide the news, and expect our state to facilitate rather than block such endeavors, I really don't see how the BBC's Urdu service broadcasts are perceived by you to be the poisonous agenda of foreign powers. The content and direction of BBC Urdu's radio and online material is conceived and put together *entirely* by Pakistanis for the most part, many of whom till very recently were highly respected, patriotic Pakistani journalists. Notably, Noam Chomsky's critique of western media biases deals primarily if not completely with English language print and television content based out of western capitals, compiled by western journalists. For that matter, one could also argue that BBC Urdu was the antidote to the poison which for decades masqueraded as Pakistani state tv and radio "news".

As for your point about foreign owned/funded entities broadcasting in other countries... who do you think owns Star and Fox? Rupert Murdoch is not American or Indian, last I knew. Poisonous, yes. Or at least controversial. But surely you have better arguments for limiting news broadcast rights than knee-jerk protectionist ideas about what constitutes "our" culture and "national interest".

sadaf said...

I am not suggesting knee-jerk protectionist ideas. What I expect from BBC is to follow the laws of the land. At least.

know it all said...

@ Anonymous--as far as I know, my friend has not been affected by the downsizing in London and is still there. But thanks for all the additional info. Both you and Sadaf are making sense---really good discussion---keep it up.