Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has criticised the BBC for allowing online readers to debate whether gays should be executed.

Although he said that open debate was the way forward to stamping out homophobia, Tatchell said the corporation had framed the issue badly and put forward a “weak” argument against it.

The debate was on Uganda’s proposed anti-gay law, which could see gays and lesbians executed.

The BBC’s Have Your Say forums invited readers to discuss the question ‘Should homosexuals face execution?’. Some readers, in both the UK and Africa, agreed that they should. The BBC issued an explanation of why it chose the question after complaints from outraged internet users.

Tatchell said: “I think it perfectly reasonable for the BBC to host a debate about the current Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, but not in the terms that it was framed.

“The BBC would not hold online debates such as: Should Jews be exterminated? Was the Rwandan genocide justified? Should the people of Darfur be massacred? Is it right to stone women to death in Somalia?

“Moreover, the BBC’s commentary announcing the debate put a very weak case against the execution of lesbian and gay Ugandans. It read like an open invitation for homophobic endorsements of the state-sponsored killing of gay people.”

But Tatchell added: “Engaging bigoted views in debate is the best way to change them, or at least to change some of them. Challenging and refuting homophobic ignorance is the key to overcoming it.”

Yesterday afternoon, the BBC changed the question to ‘Should Uganda debate gay execution?’ after lobbying from BBC Pride, the state broadcaster’s LGBT society.

World Service Africa Have Your Say editor David Stead wrote in a blog that editors had “long and hard” about posing the question and added it prompted “a lot of internal debate”.

The debate was raised by parliament by Labour MP Eric Joyce, while Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone called on the BBC to apologise.

The National Union of Journalists has also attacked the BBC.

At an emergency meeting of the World Service news and current affairs chapel of the union late yesterday, it issued a statement saying the post was “overly sensationalist” and could encourage homophobia.