Implications of BBC World Service Cuts - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from Keith Somerville, Lecturer in Journalism, Brunel University

As part of its wider cuts in World Service programming, the BBC has announced that short-wave broadcasts to the Great Lakes (Rwanda and Burundi) and by the Swahili service will cease in March this year and all radio broadcasting in Portuguese to Africa would end.

  • This will cut short-wave broadcasts in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi to countries still recovering from decades of violent ethnic conflict.
  • They will still have FM broadcasts but these do not reach as many Rwandans as short-wave does.
  • FM broadcasts are dependent on re-broadcasting from transmitters in Rwanda and Burundi. Respect for freedom of the media is in decline in Rwanda once more and in 2009 the Kagame government forced the BBC to stop FM transmission. It has banned critical newspapers and journalists and opposition politicians have been harassed and killed.
  • Abolishing the Portuguese for Africa radio service takes away a reliable source of news in regions with poor domestic media.
  • Cutting Swahili to FM only will reduce the breadth of radio coverage in east and central Africa and disadvantage rural over urban communities. The press is far from free and responsible in many parts of the region, notably Kenya.
  • About the author: Keith Somerville is lecturer in Journalism at Brunel University, admissions tutor for its MA in international Journalism and convenor of the BA in Journalism. From 1980 to 2008 he worked for the BBC—eight years at Monitoring (chiefly concerned with monitoring African radio output); 17 years with the BBC World Service as a news programme producer and editor; and three years with the BBC College of Journalism. He is the author of a number of books on African conflicts and politics, in 2003 was requested to and submitted written evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on South Africa. He recently wrote a research paper on hate radio in Kenya published by the Montreal Institute for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights ( and is working on a book for Palgrave on Hate Radio (including Kenya and Rwanda).

1.  On 26 January, the BBC announced that the World Service is to abolish five language services and cut short-wave broadcasts to other key areas of the world. The breadth and likely effect of these destructive measures was a shock even in these straightened and cuts-dominated times. The BBC is to cut all radio broadcasts in Portuguese for Africa Service (radio and online), and to end completely shortwave broadcasts to the Great Lakes and to the areas covered by the Swahili service.

2.  Announcing the cuts, the BBC's Director of Global News, Peter Horrocks, said, "Our aims are to ensure that BBC World Service maintains and strengthens its reputation as the world's leading international news provider. The changes I'm announcing today are driven by two key things—the needs of our audiences and the limited resources that we now have available". However, in ending short-wave broadcasts to particularly vulnerable and unstable parts of east and central Africa, there appears to have been little attempt to retain as a priority the needs of very vulnerable audiences served by partial, easily bribed or intimidated media organizations and by journalists subject to a range of economic and security pressure. These pressures that have resulted not in only far from fair or balanced output and the closure of newspapers at key times (in Rwanda prior to the 2010 elections) but also in the deaths of journalists. There is such a vital link between the development of civil society, accountability, a free and developed media and sustained economic development, that surely funding should be made available from DFID's development budget to enable the BBC to sustain shortwave broadcasts to these particularly vulnerable areas.

3.  Horrocks went on to say that, "the platform on which World Service historically has been strongest—short wave radio—is, as you'll all know, under great pressure as FM radio, TV and mobile phones offer compelling alternatives to audiences, even in less developed markets". I would not argue with much of that. But FM is far from a comprehensive service in parts of Africa—it has a shorter reach than shortwave, especially in rural areas which are home to the most information-poor parts of the WS audience in Africa. While, again in urban rather than rural areas, mobile and internet services are improving they are still in Africa lagging far behind the rest of the world and the poor have little or no access and would be disproportionately hit by the removal of short-wave.

4.  Horrocks says that "reducing short wave distribution is not a risk free choice and the reductions are speedier than any of us would want. Nonetheless shortwave listening is in long-term decline and we believe this is a responsible and cost effective response to funding pressures". I cannot agree with that when it comes to central Africa, Rwanda in particular will suffer if reliant on FM. While FM signals are clearer and quality is better, it has limited range. It also has to be re-broadcast—there have to be transmitters and rebroadcasting stations near at hand to reach specific audiences, as FM does not travel well. If you reduce the broadcasts to Rwanda and Burundi in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi to FM, what of the masses of listeners in rural areas with poor or even no FM signals? FM and online alone are not enough for Africa where you need to cover large areas, where few (other than the elite) have regular or any online access, where literacy remains an issue?

5.  It is just 17 years this April since the genocide. Who can forget the role played by hate radio—Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines—in inciting and assisting genocide? Rwanda has developed since then. Hate radio has gone. But the media are not totally free in Rwanda. Freedom of speech and freedom to oppose Kagame are limited. His propensity to silence or crush opposition is growing. Rwandans need a clear, undistorted window on their society and the world. The BBC is bricking up one window by removing shortwave.

6.  The BBC says that the FM transmission stations ensure BBC radio programmes can be heard across Rwanda, but they are not as comprehensive in coverage as shortwave, even if sound quality is improved. The BBC becomes reliant on three FM stations in Rwanda—in Kigali, Karongi and Butare. These are vulnerable if the Kagame government decides it does not like what is being broadcast. His policy towards journalists is becoming steadily tougher and he will not accept embarrassing or awkward questions at news conferences, often attacking journalists from critical media as like "Radio Mille Collines" or calling them "mercenaries" and "bums". A number of leading journalists have been forced into exile by harassment and threats.

7.  In 2009, and this is key when it comes to reducing broadcasts to FM only, local retransmission of the BBC was banned for a period in 2009 because of a programme about the genocide that was deemed by the Rwandan government to have strayed from the official line. The government constantly harasses two newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi. On the grounds that the government accused them of running inaccurate or partial stories, they were banned for six months for "inciting public disorder" which prevented them from covering the elections in 2010. At the time of the banning of BBC retransmissions, it was reported that BBC had agreed to make rigorous checks in the editorial line of their Kinyarwanda programme commonly known as Gahuzamiryango "to meet the standards of the Rwandan government, before it is restored back on the Rwandan airwaves", according to the Rwanda New Times. The Rwandan Information Minister said at the time that a BBC team led by the then head of the Africa region, Jerry Timmins, "agreed to make changes in the programme which the government says undermines the unity and reconciliation drive due to its 'divisive and disparaging nature'".

The Minister said at the time that the "BBC will put in writing that commitment to more sensitive reporting and then the government will examine it before the programme gets back on air in FM". The Minister was said by New Times to have downplayed the fact that during the retransmission band, the Great Lakes programmes of the BBC were still available on shortwave—something that cannot happen after the end of shortwave transmissions in March. I have not been able to find a BBC account of this exchange between the government and the BBC.

8.  The closure of the critical newspaper, Umuvugizi, was not enough and in June 2010 editor, Jean-Leonard Rugambage, was killed in front of his home in Kigali, the capital, by two gunmen. Soon after, a Rwandan general, Kayumba Nyamwasa, who had fled the country after disagreements with Kagame, was shot and seriously wounded in Johannesburg.

9.  My conclusion and recommendation concerning the removal of shortwave broadcasting for the Great Lakes is that it is a bad decision that will leave the BBC vulnerable to pressure, cut the audience (particularly in rural areas) and, overall, will devalue what is a lifeline service to an unstable and vulnerable region poorly served by its own—therefore the decision to cut shortwave broadcasts to the Great Lakes should be reversed. There is a clear danger of putting more resources into Online, the Internet and mobile phones while stopping shortwave—the Mubarak regime in Egypt has just demonstrated how easy it is to censor these methods of communication. China is the prime example of course of blocking "modern" forms of broadcasting, when shortwave was less easily jammed, especially for rural populations. At one stage last year Russia simply cut off BBC in Russian FM transmissions when Medvedev/Putin didn't like the content of the broadcasts. In addition, the present BBC policy of forcing much of its indigenous staff to return to their target areas eg sending staff back to Russia, Nigeria and Pakistan where inevitably they (and their families) will become increasingly susceptible to local pressures (as happens to journalists currently in Kenya and Rwanda, thus endangering their ability to report to and for the BBC without fear or favour. This danger is linked with the increasing switch to local rebroadcasting and should be resisted.

10.  The Portuguese for Africa Service has existed for 71 years and reaches an audience of around 1.5 million listeners. They are chiefly in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Sao Tome e Principe. To whom do these listeners now turn for balanced news, for a view of the world not coloured by the elites that own or determine the output of the media in their countries. Angola is still struggling to overcome the legacy of over 40 years of liberation and civil wars. The media are developing but the government is no great lover of free media or of what most would see as democracy. It is currently supporting Gbagbo's attempts to defy the accepted election results in Cote d'Ivoire and cling to power. It is reported that the Dos Santos government is supplying arms to help Gbagbo resist any attempt to remove him. Will the Angolan media be willing or able to report this? If they do not, who will if there is not a balanced and impartial service like the BBC?

11.  As a journalist I always want to believe the best of my colleagues in journalism. But Kenyan vernacular radio stations broadcast incitement to violence, ethnic hatred and inflammatory material in 2005, 2007-8 and 2010 during elections and referenda. The International Criminal Court has indicted one leading Kenya radio broadcaster - Joshua arap Sang - for his suspected role in organising and inciting violence in 2007-8. The indictment specifically mentions his radio broadcasts. Whether or not he is guilty - and it is not for me to judge him - the role of the media in Kenya is not always a positive one at times of conflict.

12.  The BBC Swahili Service has always been there for people to turn to—a voice of detachment; a source of information so people can make decisions on the basis of the best and most reliable information. No media service is perfect. But the BBC World Service and its language services have always fought to be independent, balanced and fair. EU observers and other international media monitors found that the media were far from fair during the 2007-08 election and post-election violence in Kenya. Newspapers were partial, the state broadcaster was effectively the voice of the government and it is very clear that the media are politically controlled. There are no laws on transparency of media ownership in Kenya so it is impossible to find out definitively who owns which media. However, it is known that the Moi family owns the Standard group, while William Ruto (indicted by the ICC over the 2007-08 violence) owns Kass FM (the main Kalenjin-language radio station—accused in 2007-08 of broadcasting hate speech) while Uhuru Kenyatta (also indicted by the ICC) owns Kameme FM (the main Kikuyu radio station) and K24 TV.

13.  Kenya has a growing media sector but it is politically dominated; journalists are subject to harassment, bribery and threats; and output is far from accurate, fair and balanced. The BBC Swahili service fills that gap left by the inadequacies of the local media. But without shortwave its ability to reach all Kenyan audiences (especially in rural areas) will be compromised and again the reliance on in-country rebroadcasting will render it vulnerable to political pressure.

14.  Another key point concerning fair journalism is that the Swahili service broadcasts to a whole region where the war on terror is "hot"? It's extraordinarily important to have proper coverage because there are renditions taking place and reported abuses, particularly against the Muslim population in east Africa. This is generating great anger there; if much of the media are either pro or anti-Muslim, polarisation will increase. The BBC plays a vital role in by-passing polarisation, its balanced reporting is critical both to counter exaggerated and hyperbolic reporting but also ensure that abuses are reported. The other human rights issue in the region relates to gay communities. For them to find fair coverage in the region is extraordinarily difficult but this is a role BBCWS can and does play. Death of gay rights activist David Kato in Uganda and the role of parts of the Ugandan media in inciting homophobic attacks shows the importance of the World Service not only for encouraging tolerance but also for ensuring proper coverage where local media might choose to cover it up or worsen tense situations and encourage abuses of rights.

15.  The conclusion is surely that the tiny saving made by ending shortwave transmissions could render the whole service vulnerable to pressure and will again affect an audience which is poorly served by its own media at the times when it most needs unbiased, accurate information.

16.  Take away a source of balanced and fair information and you endanger the future of civil society and democracy. It is surely one of Britain's key foreign policy aims in Africa to support the building and strengthening of civil society and of political systems accountable to the population. The BBC World Service has always been a key instrument in achieving that—by enabling people to make decisions about their futures with the best information possible. Reduce the reach, effectiveness and integrity of the services and you damage a key tool in British foreign policy and disadvantage vulnerable audiences.


Keith Somerville (author)

Elizabeth Blunt, MBE. BBC 1968-2009, West Africa correspondent 1986-90 and again in 1998. Retired 2006, returned to the BBC and went to Addis Ababa, then re-retired in 2009. IRIN correspondent in London and election observer in Togo and Sudan.

Ruth Hogarth
AHRC Research Programme Manager, Queen Mary University of London, currently doing research in Globalisation and Development. From 1987-2007 worked for BBC Global News as a producer, presenter, editor and manager.

Akwe Amosu
Director of Africa Advocacy, Open Society Foundations
BBC African Service producer, presenter and editor, 1989-2000
(in personal capacity)

Mike Popham, former Head of BBC World Service Topical Tapes and member of UK committee of the Commonwealth Journalists' Association

Lara Pawson
Freelance journalist & writer
Worked for BBC World Service Africa for English service, 1997-2005, including two years as correspondent in Angola

Teresa Guerreiro
Journalist, former senior broadcast journalist with BBC WS English.
Lecturer, New York University in London

3 February 2011

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