Western state-backed news outfits are struggling to keep their influence in the developing world
AS A child growing up in Afghanistan, Saad Mohseni watched his father listening to the BBC World Service and Voice of America: they were almost the only way of obtaining reliable domestic, let alone foreign news. No longer. Last month Mr Mohseni launched a satellite news channel broadcasting round the clock in Dari and Pashto. He hopes to distribute it on terrestrial television soon. Such upstarts are one reason Western governments are losing their voices in the places where they most want to be heard.
The cold war was the state-backed broadcasters’ heyday, with big budgets for propaganda wars about the virtues and vices of capitalism and communism. Powerful short-wave transmissions required costly kit; getting hold of the frequencies required international arm-twisting. It was a game for big and rich countries only. Peter Horrocks, head of BBC Global News, recalls “a comfortable world”.
New technology has cut costs and demolished most barriers to entry. Wavebands matter less than bandwidth. Even for those unable to watch or listen on the internet, satellite dishes and fibre-optic cable are hugely expanding the choice of programmes.
Incumbents are struggling. In the past year the BBC World Service lost 8m viewers and listeners. Of the six American taxpayer-financed broadcasters that measure their reach, five see a decline. That poor performance came when budgets were generous. Now they will be flat or falling.
One problem is vulnerability to local politics. For all the costs and crackle, short-wave usually got through: trying to jam the broadcasts (a favoured Soviet tactic) was conspicuous and therefore embarrassing. The modern version of that is blocking websites: a clumsy tactic resorted to by China and Iran. But the shift to rebroadcasting on local FM channels exposes foreign broadcasters (and the stations who carry them) to more subtle pressure. In 2003 Voice of America’s Russian service was carried by 85 domestic radio stations; it is now carried by just one. The BBC Arabic service’s local broadcasts in northern Sudan were shut down on August 9th.
The din of voices
The old international broadcasters have the resources to deal with censorship: the cocktail of satellite, short-wave, internet and local FM broadcasts offers a powerful mix of solutions. If reporters are banned from a country, big outfits can turn to clandestine or surrogate newsgathering.
A bigger problem for them is competition. Since 2006 China, France, Iran, Japan and Qatar have launched English-language TV news channels. China has committed $7 billion to international news. That is more than 15 times the annual budget of the BBC World Service. Last month it introduced a second English-language news channel, CNC World. China’s international broadcasters have programming in more tongues than any other state-backed rival.
The new arrivals are conquering territory (and sometimes hiring staff) shed by established Western organisations. Short-wave radio is a signal example. Since 2000 Voice of America has cut the number of short-wave frequencies on which it broadcasts by 24%, to 200. The BBC has abandoned short-wave broadcasts to Latin America, North America and most of Europe, to the chagrin and despair of some loyal listeners. In the same period China Radio International has almost doubled its short-wave output (see chart). It even broadcasts from Texas. Meanwhile the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, proposes to abolish the last of its short-wave transmitters in the United States.
Gobbling up short-wave audiences gains mostly older, poorer and more rural listeners. But the big battle is for urban opinion-formers, who consume their media chiefly by satellite and the internet. Here the most impressive new entrant is Al Jazeera, which is supported by the Emir of Qatar. Its well-established Arabic service dominates the Middle East, easily fending off competition from state-backed Western rivals. Last week a poll of six countries for the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, found that 39% of viewers watched it more than any other international news network. Just 1% of viewers favour Alhurra, America’s well-funded Arabic channel.
Tony Burman, who runs Al Jazeera’s three-year-old English-language network, says the broadcaster plans to open 10 news bureaus in the next year, taking the number to about 80. Some will be small—but digital cameras mean a small office can achieve a lot. He is particularly keen to expand in Africa: Al Jazeera has poured resources into covering tough countries like Zimbabwe. The brand is already established in Asia. Barely five years after George W. Bush considered (supposedly) an attack on its offices, Al-Jazeera’s English service is the channel of choice on American military television sets in Afghanistan.
The competition comes from little battalions too, thanks to the explosive growth of broadcasting outlets in poor countries, particularly in Africa. Before 1990 Kenya had just one, state-owned, television station. It now has 20 television broadcasters and 80 licensed radio stations playing everything from rap to Christian sermons. Whereas once the BBC news was the highlight of the day, it must now compete with a din of other offerings.
Online programming strengthens the trend. Where broadcasters once pushed programmes expensively, with multiple repeats and big worries about audibility and accessibility, they now have a model based on people pulling the material they want from a website. It is cheaper, easier to reach scattered audiences and can get round local political difficulties. Voice of America’s Russian service may have been virtually driven off the airwaves there, but 2.3m of its videos were watched on YouTube in May, according to the Senate foreign-relations committee. Once a programme or clip finds popularity in the blogosphere, the broadcaster can sit back and watch traffic spike.
That is no substitute for the old days, though. Voice of America’s reach in Russia has declined as it disappeared from the radio, says Dan Austin, who runs the service. Internet audiences (at least so far) are busier and more hurried: they don’t lean back and enjoy the broadcast, but hunch forward, eager to click on the next link. In poor countries, internet use is still patchy. The penetration rate in Kenya is just 10%.
Faced with these trends, Erik Bettermann, the head of Deutsche Welle, has largely given up trying to reach large numbers of people in the developing world, in favour of concentrating on informed urban elites. His aim is to make the German station a yardstick against which other news reports can be checked: not so much a loud voice as a dependable one.
As competition and cacophony intensify, this less heroic vision of international broadcasting may point the way for others. But those technological and consumer trends also make the international broadcasters’ privileged finances look (at least in the private sector’s eyes) increasingly unfair. In Afghanistan the three biggest national radio stations are run by the BBC World Service, Voice of America and Radio Free Afghanistan (which is also American). Mr Mohseni, who runs radio and television stations, complains that the outsiders lure his staff with higher salaries and visas to the West. As international broadcasters turn to popular music and soap operas to retain their audiences, such gripes will grow louder. Having long trumpeted the cause of freedom, the big Western broadcasters must now learn to live with its consequences.
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