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
- 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
- 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 BBCeight 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
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 thingsthe 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 strongestshort
wave radiois, 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 Africait 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-broadcastthere
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 radioRadio-Television
Libre des Milles Collinesin 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 Rwandain 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
shortwavesomething 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
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 owntherefore 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 shortwavethe
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
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 toa 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
stationaccused 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 thatby
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.
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.
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'
Freelance journalist & writer
Worked for BBC World Service Africa for English service, 1997-2005,
including two years as correspondent in Angola
Journalist, former senior broadcast journalist with BBC WS English.
Lecturer, New York University in London
3 February 2011