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U.K.: BBC Presenter's Comments On Arabs Cause Uproar

British state television, the BBC, has suspended a well-known talk show because the presenter, Robert Kilroy-Silk, made what are seen as disparaging comments about Arabs, and by inference, about Muslims in general. The comments have caused an uproar among human rights activists. Kilroy is largely unrepentant, and says he is disappointed with the BBC for not supporting him.

Prague, 12 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- British television talk show host Robert Kilroy-Silk ignited a national controversy with remarks seen as derogatory to Arabs.

Kilroy-Silk, whose decisive manner and mop of white hair have made him a well-recognized personality on BBC television, said in an article in London's "Sunday Express" on 4 January that Arabs were "suicide bombers, limb amputators and women-oppressors."

As the storm broke, the BBC suspended the talk show and opened an investigation into the comments.

The British Commission for Racial Equality demanded Kilroy make a "proper apology," and commission chairman Trevor Phillips said Kilroy should admit that his remarks are "very offensive."

The Muslim Council of Britain called Kilroy's article an "anti-Muslim and anti-Arab outburst" and has urged the BBC to "take the same kind of robust action" that would be taken if an employee had made anti-black or anti-Jewish remarks. A complaint has been filed with the Press Complaints Commission, and also with the police. A spokeswoman for the Muslim Council, Sarah Joseph, says "Thankfully, the BBC has suspended [Kilroy Silk] and is taking very seriously this incident, and also the CRE -- the Commission for Racial Equality -- has taken the matter seriously and has brought the incident to [the attention] of the police."

Joseph says because of the current international climate, Muslim minorities are particularly likely to be the target of discrimination, and people in the public eye should realize this.

"People who are in public positions have a greater responsibility to make sure they do not fan the fires of hatred -- against Muslims, against Arabs, against any group, but particularly against a group which is very vulnerable at this moment in time, and that is why it is so outrageous of Kilroy-Silk to make these comments," says Joseph.

Kilroy-Silk has said he's sorry that his remarks caused offense, but says he was not referring to all Arabs, but instead to those Arab regimes which are "evil and tyrannical and dictatorial."

He says he clearly does not believe "all Arabs are suicide bombers," and that he was "actually telling the truth" about some Arab regimes.

He has expressed disappointment that the BBC has not given him more support, and he said the state broadcaster had caved in to pressure from a "lobby" that wants to see him resign.

The center-right "Daily Express" newspaper, which is a sister publication to the "Sunday Express," says it stands by the 4 January article, and in a strident front-page headline declared that the British public is solidly behind Kilroy. It says 97 percent of the public supports Kilroy, who it says was "gagged" by the BBC. An unnamed spokeswoman for the "Daily Express" declined to explain how this figure was arrived at.

"At this stage we are not commenting at all, any further than what has been said. There is no comment at all, we are not discussing or talking about it," the spokeswoman said.

The controversy raises the issues of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as constraints on racially prejudiced comments. Tim Gottshill, the media spokesman of the British Union of Journalists, says, it is not a question of muzzling opinions, but of identifying the basis of what is being expressed.

"Free speech does allow the robust expression of views, as strong as you like, as long as it is based on reason, as long as you are criticizing somebody for something which is real, and can be sustained," Gottshill said.

He says that judged by this standard, the Kilroy comments are a "borderline case."

"We [as journalists] are in favor of the robust expression of views, but a robust expression of views that are based on reason rather than prejudice -- and that is why this [Kilroy affair] is not the most serious of all breaches, to be quite honest, because obviously some Arab states do chop people's hands off and behead people, so there was an element of truth in it, it was not just straightforward racist abuse," Gottshill said.

The BBC itself says it does not want to comment on the affair until after its own internal inquiry is completed.