Sikh Channel ‘put on notice’ for breaching broadcasting Code

Regulator Ofcom has ‘put on notice’ TV Legal, the licensee of the Sikh Channel, following a complaint about a programme that praised the life of the Khalistani extremist Talwinder Singh Parmar. Parmar, a Canadian national, was linked to the bombing of Air India Flight 182 in June 1985 in which 329 people died.

The plane was on route from Montreal to Delhi via London when it disappeared off the west coast of Ireland. The Official Canadian Commission of Inquiry into the bombing concluded in 2010 that, ‘Talwinder Singh Parmar was the leader of the Babbar Khalsa, a pro-Khalistan organisation at the heart of radical extremism, and it is now believed that he was the leader of the conspiracy to bomb Air India flights.’

An hour before the downing of Flight 182 another bomb hidden in a suitcase exploded at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, killing two baggage handlers. It was in the process of being loaded onto Air India Flight 301, heading for Bangkok.

According to official sources Parmar was killed in a shoot-out with Indian police in 1992 although Khalistani nationalists believe he was detained, tortured and executed.

The live broadcast, made from a gurdwara in Coventry in October 2012, commemorated the twentieth anniversary of two other Sikh ‘martyrs’: Harjinder Singh Jinda and Sukdev Singh Sukha, who were hanged in 1992 for the 1986 assassination of General Arun Shridhar Vaidya. Vaidya was one of the architects of Operation Blue Star, the Indian army’s storming of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Sikhism holiest shrine, in 1984.

Ofcom says the programme consisted mainly of commemorative songs for Jinda and Sukha but also included a 20-minute lecture on the life of Parmar. This was delivered against a backdrop of a poster bearing Parmar’s image holding ‘some form of machine gun’ and the name of Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), which is on the Home Office’s list of proscribed terrorist organisations.

Ofcom investigated the complaint under Rule 2.3 of the broadcasting Code, which says that broadcasters must ‘ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context…’ and that ‘Appropriate information should also be broadcast where it would assist in avoiding or minimising offence.’

Ofcom rejected arguments by TV Legal that linking Talwinder Singh Parmar to the BKI and the bombing of Flight 182 was speculative as they were ‘not substantiated by formal convictions.’ In doing so it decided that the content of the lecture ‘had the potential to be highly offensive’ and therefore warranted investigation.

It also questioned TV Legal’s assertion that Parmar was a recognised Sikh martyr: ‘Some Sikh martyrs are widely and universally accepted as martyrs by Sikhs, beginning in the seventeenth century. It appears to Ofcom that there is less consensus in the Sikh community about the status of certain Sikhs who died in violent circumstances much more recently.’

Ofcom stressed that while the Code does not prevent broadcasters from referring to such individuals, their organisations or their activities they ‘must ensure that any references to ‘martyrs’ or terrorist organisations are sufficiently contextualised to ensure compliance with the Code.’ Ofcom says that on this occasion the Sikh Channel failed to ensure this.

Finally, it rejected TV Legal’s argument that it was unaware that the event would include the lecture about Parmar, that it had not organised or scripted the event and that they did not support or endorse the views expressed by the speaker. As in a previous ruling against Sangat TV Ofcom pointed out that the Licensee retains editorial responsibility for all material broadcast on their service and that it was concerned ‘that the Licensee provided no evidence to Ofcom to show that it had any appropriate procedures or systems in place for monitoring live content to ensure compliance with the Code or to take appropriate and timely action when required.’

The ruling concludes: ‘Ofcom is putting TV Legal on notice that any future similar breaches are likely to result in Ofcom taking further regulatory action.’

The full text of the Ofcom ruling can be found in Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin Issue Number 225, 4 March 2013.