VOA-FM 101 deal aborted before expiry
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: Voice of America programmes will go off the air with effect from today (Saturday) from all eight stations of FM-101, as the contract between VOA and the state-owned network leased to a private company has been mysteriously cancelled six months before it was to expire.
The cancellation is believed to have come on account of pressure from the Pakistani government which was experiencing growing unease and rising in-house criticism for having permitted a foreign broadcasting service to use Pakistani airwaves to push out its message. Never before in Pakistan’s history had such a deal been allowed.
All governments, regardless of their political character, have been one in maintaining total control over the state-owned broadcast media. Both Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television Corporation remain hundred percent state-owned organisations. Privatisation has stopped at the door of the two organisations that have sometimes been referred to as the “twin otters of disinformation.”
The deal between the Broadcasting Board of Governors that exercises overall control over Voice of America and Clarity Communications Pakistan, Al-Rahman Building, II Chundrigar Road, Karachi, was signed in Washington on 9 July 2003 according to which the latter - which holds a lease for the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation-owned FM-101 network of eight stations - was to broadcast programmes beamed out by Radio Aap ki Dunya, the new name that VOA has chosen for its Urdu broadcasts aimed at a Pakistani audience under the age of 40.
The agreement between the two entities was signed on behalf of Clarity Communications by Syed Asif Salahuddin and for VOA by Kenneth Y Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Attempts by Daily Times to find out what the financial basis of the agreement were met by silence, not only at the press conference held at VOA headquarters on 9 July but even later. In the end, Daily Times filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act which took about six months to process, at the end of which a copy of the contract signed between the two parties was made available to this newspaper.
The agreement revealed a strange case of “role reversal” since it was not Voice of America which was being paid for use of its programmes by FM-101, but FM-101 which was being paid to broadcast the programmes, a mixed fare of music, news and views.
VOA was also contract-bound to provide Clarity with “satellite receiving equipment” at the eight transmitting facilities. The term of the agreement was to be from July 1, 2004 to June 30, 2005, “with an additional period subject to available funding from July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2005.” The total duration of the contract, it was specified, “shall not exceed five years.”
The question is: why has the contract been terminated after just six months? This correspondent has been able to gather that eyebrows were raised in certain “sensitive and influential” quarters in Pakistan when the deal was signed, sealed and delivered. There were questions asked as to the role played by the then head of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and whether he had used his influence to have the lucrative contract awarded to a party that had had the reputation of being “far too close” to him. Of the seven or eight people recruited by VOA, when it decided to extend the time and range of the Urdu programmes beamed at Pakistan, one was the daughter of the said official.