David Smith
David Smith

A lament for radio in Africa

People who complain about the lack of available news about Africa usually don’t try very hard to find it.

Sure, if you use South African daily newspapers or South African radio and television as your sources, you’re likely to be disappointed.

One of the best sources of news from and about Africa, a source updated virtually every minute of every day, took a serious knock this week. The BBC World Service, the most listened-to radio service in Africa announced on Wednesday that it is cutting one quarter of its staff and five of the languages it broadcasts in, including the Portuguese language service to Africa, its shortwave services in Swahili as well as programmes targeting Rwanda and Burundi.

This is an earthquake, a tsunami, a volcanic blow to the people who often rely on this service as the only credible voice in a sea of propaganda and misinformation. In other words, it is horrible news.

The aftershocks will barely be felt in South Africa — the appetite for African news is not as healthy here as it is north of the border, and, in any case, there is some choice available — the website of this particular newspaper being a reasonable starting point. But not so far from here, in Angola for example, where only the state broadcaster is allowed to cover the country, the loss of the World Service in Portuguese, is hard to take. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has not been using his oil wealth to ensure his people have greater access to credible information.

Then there’s Swahili on shortwave. Most South Africans don’t even remember shortwave, let alone know where it is. How many times have I been asked “What number is shortwave on my radio?” In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, an area larger than Southern Africa, Swahili is by far the most spoken language. Old men who have never set foot inside a schoolroom and have never been to a city with electricity know the frequencies of the BBC Swahili service — and they know when and where to find the news in Swahili on their cheap, bottom-of-the-barrel made-in-China transistor radios that they look after with the same care and affection as some of us do a new car. There is very little infrastructure in the DRC and that’s not likely to change soon. In most parts of the country, apart from the cities, if you scan the FM band for a radio station you will not find anything. President Joseph Kabila has not shown any signs of wanting to facilitate the free flow of information in his domain.

When violence broke out in Kenya a couple of years ago following presidential elections, it was the BBC Swahili service Kenyans turned to when they felt they could not trust the information broadcast from state broadcaster. One of the six Kenyans indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed during the violence is a prominent broadcaster who incited people to ethnic violence.

Cutting content to Rwanda and Burundi makes no sense at all. Rwanda reminds me a bit of Tunisia, until last year, Tunisia’s now ousted former leader Ben Ali was the darling of the West as long as we didn’t ask too many questions about media freedom, he appeared to be protecting our interests. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is different from his Tunisian counterpart, may be the friend of many in the international community, but he is certainly not a friend of freedom of expression. Try talking politics with the locals next time you are in Kigali!

In an ideal world, each country on this continent, in fact, in the world, would have a fabulous public broadcaster producing informative and entertaining programming that represents the views and interests of just about everybody. At the moment this is not the case and it’s not likely to be the case for a number of years. I was going to say for many years but given the extraordinary month that January has been for Africa I feel like we’re living through an anything-is-possible period.

Tunisia has kicked out its president of 23 years, South Sudan has voted overwhelmingly to finalise divorce proceedings with Khartoum, Côte d’Ivoire is possibly an authorised military intervention away from getting the president it voted for and, at time of writing at least, Hosni Mubarak’s iron grip on power in Egypt seems to be crumbling.

Has there ever been a more important time to let the voice of people be heard through free media? Not in my lifetime. Africans are trying harder than ever to let the powers that be know what kind of leadership is wanted, and more importantly at the moment — what kind of leadership is not wanted.

Mr Mubarak is not likely, under the current circumstances, to be very amenable to freeing up the airwaves, nor are many other leaders who have trouble winning elections without help from close friends with access to the ballot boxes. Only last week, just before election day, President Francois Bozizé of the Central African Republic was asked by a Radio France Internationale journalist whether he would respect the ruling of the Independent Electoral Commission if it found he had lost. He answered by hinting that he could always turn to the constitutional council if he wasn’t happy with the IEC results. A train of thought taken directly from outgoing Ivorian President Gbagbo, whose flunky infamously destroyed election results live on national television before the IEC could announce that he had lost. Journalists at the state broadcasters in neither Bangui nor in Abidjan would have felt confident enough, under their current dispensations, to ask such questions.

Africa needs more, not fewer voices it can rely on. One can argue whether that voice should be coming from the UK, France or anywhere else. What is important is that there is a voice, that there is a place people can turn to in order to find out what is happening in their own backyard if the people in their nearest presidential palace aren’t doing the job.

Perhaps this is a golden opportunity for South Africa’s public broadcaster to get its house in order and become the news and information leader that it claims to be on air. There’s some sort of broom partially sweeping clean the SABC at the moment. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the new board, together with the relatively new communications minister, made South Africa the hub of African news content.

Such things can happen, and if they did, I would be less saddened by the implosion of vital organisations such as the BBC World Service. At the moment, I remain sad.

If you’ve made it to the end of my lament, and you’re curious to know what the fuss is over radio, try listening to either of these programmes on any given weekday: Network Africa, in the morning or Focus on Africa in the evening. You can find them here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/ or, if you are one of the dwindling number of people like me who still listen to a shortwave radio, try this: Mornings on 6190 or 9860 kHz and afternoons on 3255 or 12095 kHz. Chances are you didn’t know that Duty Free at OR Tambo has some of the best prices on good quality shortwave radios in the world!