VOA takes over PBC?

The Nation Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

ISLAMABAD – As of this month, the Pakistani government has quietly allowed the United States to expand its Afghanistan-based media propaganda network to include Pakistan, in a clandestinely signed deal that is bound to generate more anger when the Pakistani government that is yet to fully recover from accusations of a sellout to intrusive American aid conditions.
In 2006, the United States set up a transmitter in Afghanistan for the radio broadcast of US political and military propaganda in that occupied country. Four years later, now this propaganda moves to Pakistan.

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The irony is that Pakistan, which disputes unverified US claims that terrorist camps exist deep inside Pakistan — in Quetta and Muridke — will now be allowing a US government financed propaganda arm to say as much using transmitters owned by the Government of Pakistan and directed at Pakistani citizens.

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The Voice of America (VOA), which is a US government agency, and the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation reached an agreement earlier this month where Pakistan had agreed to expand the Afghanistan-based US propaganda network – the Americans call this ‘public diplomacy’ – to Pakistan. Under the deal, VOA will use PBC equipment and transmitters in Peshawar,

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Islamabad and Lahore to distribute VOA material in Pashto and Urdu on medium and FM waves.

A little noticed VOA press release, issued in Washington 14 days ago by no less than VOA director Mr. Danforth W. Austin, quotes him as announcing, “We’re delighted Pakistan’s cabinet has ratified our agreement with PBC,” adding, “This arrangement will allow millions of people in all parts of Pakistan to listen to the VOA’s popular news and information programmes.”

Interestingly, the Pakistani cabinet did not publicise the agreement. An internet search of the stories filed for this month by the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan does not return any stories on the VOA-PBC agreement, or on Pakistani cabinet’s ratification. The VOA press release is reproduced online by several American and other news websites and is dated October 13. However, government sources in Islamabad indicate the agreement was signed sometime in September and referred to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for approval.

e arrangement was not only a breakthrough but was apparently concluded smoothly. And there is a reason behind this. After all, Murtaza Solangi, Director General PBC, and the man who sat opposite Mr. Austin on the proverbial negotiations table was one of Mr. Austin’s subordinates until May 2008, working as a presenter and editor at VOA. The soft-spoken Murtaza Solangi was close to late PPP Chairperson Benazir Bhutto and interviewed her several times during her visits to Washington while in self-exile. After February 2008 elections, the PPP government appointed him as DG PBC. Solangi came highly recommended by PPP’s closed circle of media handlers, considered close to President Zardari.

Washington will now be taking its information warfare to the Pakistani Pashtun population at a time when Pakistanis are debating if they should share Washington’s policy goals in Afghanistan and especially on the unfair US treatment to the Pashtuns.
Two US propaganda radio channels, Deewa Radio in Pashto and Urdu-language programme ‘Radio Aap Ki Dunyaa’ will now reach more parts of Pakistan with stronger signals.
Since there are major differences of opinion between Islamabad and Washington over how to manage America’s floundering Afghanistan occupation, it is yet to be seen how the Pakistani government will tolerate if the two foreign propaganda radio channels air material that contradicts official Pakistani position.

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It should be remembered that ‘Deewa Radio’ and ‘Radio Aap Ki Dunyaa’ are part of the US government’s information warfare effort targeting certain regions where US has strategic interest. The two channels are part of a long list of recent similar channels that include: Radio Sawa (in Arabic, targeting Iraq and the region), Al Hurra TV (targeting Iraqi audience], Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (targeting Russia and its Eurasian backyward), among others, including a radio beam targeting Iran.
In normal circumstances, agreements such as the VOA-PBC are not unusual. But in the context of the emerging differences between Washington and Islamabad on how to clean up the American mess in Afghanistan, the deal will raise eyebrows.

Saudi Arabia, for example, declined to allow Washington the use of its territory to relay radio signals aimed at the Arabic-speaking audience in the Middle East. Smaller and insecure countries such Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, however, agreed to this arrangement.

 

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The VOA-PBC deal shows that media management remains one of the weakest links within the civilian and military bureaucracies in Pakistan. Otherwise, a country the size of Pakistan should have been establishing by now its own media projection radio and TV networks in strategic languages instead of accepting to rebroadcast American propaganda. Pakistan’s needs to put its message across to the Iranians in Persian, to the Afghans in Pashto and Dari, to the Chinese and to an international audience. Pakistan is even unable to convey its message to the people of an ally like China. And instead of recruiting and reorganizing its official media outlets on nationalist and creative lines, Pakistani governments have a knack in ‘importing’ professionals not only from certain countries for political reasons, but also importing their thinking and biases. While Solangi is a professional radio journalist by the testimony of most of those who worked with him, his policy direction betrays itself in the recent deal and might even be seen as running counter to what Pakistan should be pursuing in terms of its own public diplomacy.
During former President Musharraf’s government, a Pakistani-American was imported to head something called Pakistan Image Project that eventually led to a loss of millions of rupees from the public money with nothing to show for them.

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