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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Mon Jun 26 12:46:01 2000
Date: Sun, 25 Jun 2000 16:24:11 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: OZ Leases Shortwave Transmitter to Yet Another Christian Broadcaster
Article: 99284
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
X-UIDL: e9cddda80c32dd1624046d9f90dbefe5

Gov't 'Insensitive' to Asia's Religious Tensions

By Kalinga Seneviratne, IPS, 23 June 2000

SYDNEY, Jun 23 (IPS) - The Howard government has come under renewed attacks by critics after it agreed to sell a government-owned radio transmitter to a Christian fundamentalist group to broadcast propaganda programmes to Asia.

Earlier this month, the government of conservative Prime Minister John Howard announced that the powerful Radio Australia shortwave transmitter in the northern Australian city of Darwin will be leased for 10 years to the British-based Christian Vision for an undisclosed sum.

The Christian fundamentalist group has a worldwide radio network headed by Bob Edmiston, described as Britain's 85th richest man with a car sales and property business estimated to be worth 470 million U.S. dollars. He set up the evangelical group 12 years ago and has already invested more than 65 million dollars of his own wealth in the venture.

The Howard government's decision has come under heavy attack in the media here during the last two weeks, with some critics lashing out at what they called its neo-colonialist attitude toward its Asian neighbours. Some foreign policy analysts and opposition politicians view it as an insensitive decision at a time of high religious tension in the region.

Edmiston has made it clear that he will be using the former Radio Australia transmitter to broadcast programmes to Indonesia, Malaysia, India and China. All these countries are currently facing a high degree of religious tension that has already led to violence. Especially in Indonesia and India, for instance, there is deep resentment against Christians who are seen to be supported by outside forces, especially western.

Australia's relationship with Indonesia is currently on a knife edge, with deep resentments across the archipelago about Australian interference in its domestic affairs, after Canberra's intervention in East Timor last year. Only last week, the Indonesian Parliament basically banned President Wahid from making an official visit to Australia.

Nothing could better illustrate the incomprehension which permeates the view the Howard Government has of our region than the sorry saga of Radio Australia, notes the 'Sun Herald' political analyst Peter Robinson.

Parts of Indonesia are already ablaze in sectarian violence, pitting Christians against Muslims, who make up an overwhelming majority of the Indonesian population. Hundreds of deaths have already occurred and the toll is rising, he points out. Surely the last thing Australia should be doing at this moment is to lend its imprimatur -- however indirect -- to a powerful radio voice propagandising the Christian religion.

Broadcasting evangelical Christian messages into countries such as Indonesia will do little to ease tension between Christian and Islamic communities, says opposition Democrats foreign affairs spokeswoman Vicki Bourne.

I'm particularly concerned that we risk Australia being seen as responsible for inflaming such tensions if they result from signals originating from radio bands once occupied by Radio Australia, she added.

Shadow Foreign Minister, Labour party's Laurie Brereton, describes the deal as a bad foreign policy decision by a government with little commitment to positive engagement with Australia's neighbours.

In an interview with 'The Australian' newspaper, Edmiston has vowed that his service will respect religious and cultural differences when broadcasting to countries such as Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world.

But he also hinted that the radio service will be used to mobilise Christians in the region. There are many Christians in East Timor, Indonesia and India, and the underground Christian church in China is reputed have anything between 50 and 100 million members. We think these people also deserve encouragement and support, says Edmiston.

Sensing political and economic fallout from the federal government decision, all political parties in the Northern Territory (where Darwin is located) have lodged a strong protest to Canberra. They called on Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to reconsider the decision.

The issue is particularly sensitive for the Northern Territory, whose economy is heavily dependent on its strong economic ties with Indonesia.

A private radio giving encouragement and support to religious minorities may not be a bad idea, but many foreign policy analysts say giving it through a foreign government-owned radio transmitter is another thing. They add that this may send Australia's relationship with its Asian neighbours from bad to worse.

For many years Radio Australia was the voice of a nation, observes Robert Macklin of the 'Canberra Times'. Its replacement by a 'repent or be damned' Christian broadcaster is an act of spiritual aggression to the millions of Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, Mindanao (in the Philippines) and elsewhere. It is hard to conceive of a development better calculated to alienate Australia from its neighbours.

In a column in the newspaper's forum page last week, Macklin argued that the Howard government has shown Christian fundamentalist tendencies since it came to power.

The Radio Australia saga is an interesting merger of the Howard government's cost-cutting exercises stemming from free-market oriented policies and its religious affliliations, in a country where the constitution bars the government from indulging in religious broadcasting.

In 1997 the government stopped funding the operations of the Radio Australia transmitter at Darwin to save 1.6 million Australian dollars (970,000 U.S. dollars) a year. This although the previous Labour government had invested 13.5 millon Australian dollars (8.18 million U.S. dollars) on it since 1993, to provide a stronger voice for Australia in the Asian region.

Since 1997, a private operator has taken over the transmission of Radio Australia programmes via a transmitter in Shepperton in central Australia, saving the government some 3 million Australian dollars (1.8 million U.S. dollars) a year. This signal however is mainly transmitted to the South Pacific. Last year, it was forced to rent a transmitter in Taiwan to broadcast programmes to East Timor.

Radio Australia's boss, Donald McDonald, says that it has approached Christian Vision with a proposal to lease back airtime on the transmitter.

Government critics are aghast at this suggestion, saying it will further align the Australian government with the religious broadcaster. Analysts here say many listeners in Asia may not be able to distinguish the government broadcasts from that of the Christian fundamentalist ones.

Perhaps the crucial question is the right of a government that is constitutionally banned from establishing any religion, to be facilitating Christian evangelism in a region where we need to tread softly, says James Murray, the religious affairs editor of 'The Australian'.