The contractor would be paid to produce jointly with VOA, or just transmit over a Pakistan TV channel, a BBG-produced program in Urdu (the country’s national language) that “shall conceptually focus on current political and international issues pertaining to U.S.-Pakistan relations.”
There would be hosts in Washington and the broadcaster’s studio in Pakistan, who would moderate. Editorial control “shall be jointly held and parties will agree to content prior to each broadcast airing,” according to the solicitation.
Both the VOA editors and the broadcaster’s producers are to collaborate in getting guests in Washington and Pakistan “equivalent in status” and “encourage and facilitate” debates as well as questions and comments when there is a live studio audience.
Why does the BBG believe that Washington-approved editorial content, in Urdu and balanced as it may be, would be accepted on Pakistani TV? After all, these days that’s where regular news and highly influential talk show hosts tend to be ultranationalistic and feed the flames of anti-Western hysteria.
Experience may be the reason, since two comparable efforts are already underway in Pakistan.
For more than a year, the VOA has paid to have a similar, 50-minute English-language program running two nights a week on Express 24/7, an all-news Pakistani cable channel. “The Platform” airs on Mondays and Tuesdays with a VOA anchor in Washington and a Pakistani Express host in that company’s studios in Lahore or Islamabad. Its moderators and guests engage in questions and debates on current news events, at times with participation from members of a live Pakistani audience.
“The Platform” reaches 0.2 percent of Pakistan’s population, according to a VOA July 2010 survey, or roughly 374,000 people. It also runs with subtitles on Express 24/7’s Urdu cable channel, one of Pakistan’s leading news outlets.
More to the point, there has been a VOA-produced, Urdu-language news element placed four nights a week since 2005 on Geo-TV, Pakistan’s most popular television channel. According to the July 2010 survey, VOA’s TV programming in Urdu reached almost 7 million people. However, Geo’s news programs thrive on sensationalist breaking news and often carry anti-American rumors and conspiracy theories.
For example, in 2009 when the Senate was debating a bill proposing $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan over five years, Geo TV talk shows featured speakers saying things like the legislation was a cover for funding U.S. private security companies such as DynCorp and Xe Services, the former Blackwater. When U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, most TV anchors referred to him as a terrorist — but Hamid Mir, Geo-TV’s best-known host, described him as a martyr.