Implications of BBC World Service Cuts - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Written evidence from Neville Harms


  • BBC broadcasts in Swahili and Kinyarwanda/Kirundi to East and Central Africa are among the jewels in the crown of World Service output
  • The size of the audience in Swahili - at least 16 million - is an indication of the degree to which it is valued in the wide and often volatile target area
  • Despite the growth of FM reception via BBC relays and partner stations, a good proportion of that audience still receive the broadcasts on shortwave and will be lost if SW transmission is ended.
  • BBC FM relays and partner stations serving urban areas can be subject to interference or closure by government diktat or commercial failure, so SW back-up is crucial.
  • The Great Lakes service in Kinyarwanda/Kirundi is vital not only in Rwanda and Burundi but also for exile listeners across eastern DRC who are beyond the range of FM stations, so a loss of SW could be another disaster in a disaster-plagued region; equally so, of course, for Swahili speakers in that area.
  • If the tiny savings achieved by ending SW transmission to East and Central Africa really cannot be found elsewhere, it could surely be possible for DfID to take up the burden, as they did for the Great Lakes service in the mid-1990s.

1. After a spell working in Zambia and fifteen years making English language programmes for Africa, I was Head of the BBC Swahili Service from 1988 until my retirement in 1996. In that period, a time of considerable political turmoil and of huge growth in the use of Swahili as a lingua franca in East and Central Africa, our audience increased enormously. In Kenya and Tanzania it rose from four or five per cent of adults to well over thirty per cent, and substantial audiences were registered in northern Mozambique, the north of Malawi and Zambia, and in Uganda. Less formally, we knew we had many listeners in Rwanda and Burundi and Eastern Zaire as it then was, now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In response to the disastrous events in Rwanda in 1994 I launched the Great Lakes service in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, using funds I raised from a number of British NGOs and staffing it with Rwandan and Burundian nationals already working in the Swahili and French language services. Since then the operation has grown and, after a period of funding by DfID, it is now an established element of World Service output.

2. The huge audiences that were built up in the 1990s through shortwave transmissions - principally from the Seychelles Relay Station - have been reinforced and supplemented in recent years by FM stations operated either by the BBC itself, as in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, for example, or by commercial broadcasters who have contracted to incorporate BBC output into their own schedules. While FM can give much better reception, it has inherent difficulties and risks:

(a)  It is short-range and can therefore only serve urban areas and their immediate surroundings with a satisfactory signal; the loss of shortwave, therefore, will deny many rural listeners any reception. Vast areas of northern Kenya would have no signal, and in Tanzania BBC audience researchers reckon most of the south in particular would be cut off, even though the BBC's main partner claims to have universal coverage through its network of FM relays. Listening to BBC Swahili would also be impossible in Mozambique, Malawi. Zambia and, most importantly, in a great deal of DRC. It is estimated that in total some six million listeners would be lost.

(b)  Rebroadcasting by privately-owned partner stations can be vulnerable to interference or closure by governments taking offence at the content of BBC programmes or can lead to unwarranted self-censorship by programme makers anxious not to be denied their platform. Privately-owned stations can also, of course, go silent - temporarily or permanently - for reasons of inefficiency or commercial failure.

(c)  In countries where the BBC is allowed to have its own FM relays - Tanzania is not one of them - some of the above problems are obviated, but even here there is serious risk from official displeasure. The Rwandan government demonstrated not too long ago that it can close a BBC station down if it doesn't like what is being said. It would not be surprising if the same thing were to happen in Kenya, Uganda or DRC.

3. While I was still in charge of the Swahili service I resisted for these very reasons calls for any headlong rush to reliance on rebroadcasting. I believe that, to a large degree, those considerations still apply today and that it will be a serious mistake to give up transmission by shortwave. If a service is worth providing, it surely must be provided reliably. And while there is undoubtedly some growth in accessing the output through the new digital technology - computers, iphones etc - it will be many years before these become a viable alternative for the mass of people in the region.

4. The Great Lakes service in Kinyarwanda/Kirundi continues to be a vital source of reliable news and useful information in a region that has been plagued for years by distortion and misinformation from the local media, government-run or private. Operating in a language universally understood in Rwanda and Burundi, it can cover local events in much more detail than is possible in BBC output in English, French or Swahili. But the service is not only important inside Rwanda and Burundi, where - provided government does not, as last year, become hostile - it is heard on good quality FM; it is also desperately needed across the border in eastern DRC, where there are large numbers of Kinyarwanda and Kirundi speakers, both long term residents and people who, for good reasons or bad, have become exiles from their own country in more recent years. There are a number of FM relays in DRC but, because of the continuing unrest, many of these people are constantly on the move and frequently go out of range of the FM stations; they need a shortwave alternative to fall back on. In any case, there are listeners well to the north of Goma, close to the border with Uganda and inside Uganda itself, who have never had access to the Great Lakes service in FM and who would be lost entirely by the closure of its transmission on shortwave.

5. I have not been able to get a precise figure but I am told that the savings achieved by closing down the shortwave transmission of the Swahili and Great Lakes services represent a tiny proportion of the total that the World Service has been required to cut. It would be surprising if the one or two hundred thousand pounds required could not be found elsewhere. But if that is really not possible, there is an alternative. In the latter part of the 1990s DfID was happy to take over the funding of the Great Lakes service when the NGOs who enabled it to be launched withdrew. They continued to provide the resources until the operation was incorporated into regular grant-in-aid funded World Service output. Surely it would be possible for DfID to take on a similar role in maintaining the shortwave distribution of these vital services to countries that are already significant recipients of British aid. It could fit perfectly well into DfID's remit and could be regarded as an extremely good use of a very small bit of the department's ring-fenced resources.

11 February 2011

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