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Peter Hadfield on the Pilger docume

Subject: Peter Hadfield on the Pilger documentary and NHK from Mainichi Daily News

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Mainichi Daily News 
May 26, 1996


It is not often that NHK WATCH gobbles up an entire
column. But sometimes the broadcasting network we are
all expected to pay for behaves so much like a political
agency that it astonishes even
hardened NHK-watchers like myself. 

It certainly astonished John Pilger, a renown Australian
hack who recently made a clandestine film in Burma. As
part of the program, his production company approached
NHK earlier this year for permission to use footage of the
famous 1988 Rangoon massacre, when the Burmese army
shot hundreds of civilians who were demanding an end to
decades of military rule. 

A Burmese stringer for NHK had risked his life to shoot
pictures of the massacre, and took further risks in
smuggling the film out of Burma to the NHK bureau in
Bangkok, Thailand. It remains the only document of the
massacre, and is therefore widely in demand.

At any other television network, a request such as Pilger's
would have been routine. But not at NHK. The broadcast
network we are all expected to pay for wrote: 

"Unfortunately, It is NHK's policy that the footage showing
the Burmese army shooting people who demonstrated
cannot be used by anybody in the world, because it is too
delicate and might threaten Myanmar's stability.... Please
erase the material in your library.... I appreciate your
understanding the situation."

It comes as no surprise that NHK would take such a line.
But it was clearly a slip that the policy was openly stated in
place of the usual kind of lame excuse. It is also a sign of
the network's complete removal from reporting norms that
it would even consider the possibility of a Western
journalist 'understanding' the need to secure the stability of
Burma's military regime rather than accurately report

So I called NHK to ask exactly what was meant by the
phrase 'might threaten Myanmar's stability,' and followed it
up with a fax in which I asked:

'Does this policy of not releasing film that might harm a
country's stability extend to all countries in the world, or
just to Burma? For example, if you had exclusive pictures
of North Korean troops shooting people, would you refuse
to show it because it could threaten North Korea's stability?
How does NHK decide which governments deserve its
protection and which do not?'

A very nice spokesman for NHK promised to look into the

After several hours he phoned back and explained that, oh
dear, there had been a misunderstanding:

   -- "We don't have any such policy."
   -- You don't have any such policy? So why did the letter
say you did? 
   -- "So... I will tell you... (pause for laughter). I contacted
the woman who wrote the letter, and she said Sorry, but she
thought it was NHK's policy."
   -- You mean that while she was writing the letter she just
dreamed up the idea? She even told the production
company in the letter to erase all copies of the film in its
   -- "I know, I know. In any case, (in the past) we allowed
the film to be shown."
Which is true. At first, NHK treated the film as a scoop. It
produced a special documentary featuring the film, and
was proud to have other broadcast companies copy the

But when Britain's Central Television asked permission in
September 1993 to use the footage in a program, NHK
International wrote that NHK had 'decided to supply the
footage without worldwide distribution rights.' Either the
company would have to make its program without the
crucial footage, or limit the distribution and viewing times.

Coincidentally, this was about the time NHK broadcast a
program called 'Myanmar' for its 'Asian Highway' series, in
which NHK proudly boasted of being the first foreign
broadcaster to film certain areas of Burma. 

 Could there have been any connection between the
regime's hospitality and NHK's decision to limit viewing of
the 1988 footage? And is there any connection between
NHK's interest in maintaining 'Myanmar's stability' and the
Japanese government's stated policy of not isolating or
destabilizing Burma's military regime? Nah... surely not. 

If anyone out there does sincerely believe NHK's letter was
all a mistake, and that NHK does not have a political
agenda, NHK's public relations department has come up
with two alternative explanations for its refusal to release
the Rangoon massacre film. The first, given to Central
Television in 1993, is
that NHK wanted to save the film exclusively for its Asian
Highway program. The second and latest version is that the
cameraman who risked his life to shoot the film has
suddenly 'requested' that NHK not show it any more.

Which brings us to the moral of this story: If you risk your
life to document the murder, beating and torture of your
fellow citizens in an effort to alert the world, don't entrust
the film to NHK.