BBC to investigate Saudi 'censorship'

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The Independent Online

The BBC last night announced it is investigating claims of censorship of its television broadcasts to the Middle East on Britain's decision to deport the Saudi dissident Mohammad al-Masari.

''The BBC is investigating reports that parts of its Arabic language television broadcasts have been blacked out," the corporation said in a statement. "Reports say the deleted sections dealt with the British Government's decision to deport a leading Saudi dissident ... We are aware of reported interruptions to the transmission of BBC Arabic television. We are investigating the matter as an issue of utmost importance."

Mr Masari, spokesman for the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights, has campaigned against the Saudi royal family from Britain, accusing it of corruption and calling for a peaceful transition to stricter Islamic rule. He is to launch an appeal this week against the expulsion order.

The deportation order by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was based on a desire to preserve lucrative trade ties with the kingdom. Whitehall acted after pressure from Saudi Arabia and British defence firms to curb Mr Masari's activities.

BBC broadcasts on the row are reported to have been blacked out at the Saudi-owned satellite relay station in Rome, Orbit, after the news broke of Britain's decision to expel Mr Masari to the Caribbean island of Dominica.

A spokesman in Rome for Orbit said: "Yes, we are concerned ourselves about these reports and are looking into this in conjunction with the BBC."

In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, a leading hotel said it had been told by the Ministry of Information not to broadcast Orbit, the distributor of the BBC service to the Middle East.

The kingdom also ordered hotels not to show satellite television during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts on 21 January.

A Dominican political leader, meanwhile, said Britain's planned deportation of Mr Masari to his country could cause civil unrest and be blocked by the Dominican parliament. "The Caribbean is not the dumping ground for dissidents," said Rosie Douglas, leader of the opposition Labour Party.

Mr Douglas accused Edison James, the Prime Minister of Dominica, of "doing a deal" with Britain over aid. He did not believe that Mr James even had the support of his own party or cabinet.