Daniel Howden: A vital independent voice and a reminder of British excellence

View from Africa
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The Independent Online

During the 1990s, as Kenya strained against the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi, the BBC World Service became the most trusted voice in the country. "The BBC was the only alternative that would let us know what was happening and give a voice to the opposition," remembers Murithi Mutiga, then a student and now a journalist with Kenya's largest newspaper.

World Service broadcasts in English and Swahili became the medium of choice for an aggrieved population in a country going through tumultuous political change.

For Kenya read South Africa during the earlier part of the same decade or Uganda before that, or Zimbabwe for most of the past ten years. It's also a story that would chime with listeners in Iran or Burma today and much of Eastern Europe during the 1980s.

It is Africa though that retains possibly the strongest emotional link to the BBC. It is comfortably the most recognisable media brand – more so than CNN and incomparably better known that its equivalents Radio France International (RFI) and the Voice of America (VOA).

While the recognition remains, there is an increasing feeling in Africa's larger economies that BBC radio's influence is fading. Although it now broadcasts in clear FM across most of the East African nation, the vast majority of Kenyans would rather listen to the more music- driven local stations that mash up English, Swahili and other languages in a more authentically modern mix.

As the scale of the World Service cuts sinks in it might be tempting to think that they are timely. Competitors such as the US funded VOA are suffering from the same kinds of shortfalls. The Portuguese African services now being withdrawn by the BBC have already been stopped by VOA in its latest round of cutbacks. Then there is the rise of social media: Nigeria now has one of the highest volume of Twitter users anywhere and in countries such as Uganda mobile networks offering free access to Facebook are taking a new generation online.

But the demise of radio on the African context can be easily exaggerated. Even in sub-Saharan Africa's biggest economy, South Africa, 92 per cent of the population relies on radio for much of its news and entertainment.

Beyond the endlessly discussed impact of social media – given new impetus by events in Tunisia and now Egypt – it is the explosion of private community radio stations from South Africa to Uganda that has really enlivened politics and unsettled complacent governments.

What Kenya, Uganda and South Africa have in common is relative stability. The BBC retains its strongest relevance in the places where life is hardest.

Somalia illustrates this best. The airwaves have been another battleground between the country's warring groups and while private radio stations have proved to be soft targets for the Shabaab Islamic militants to close down or takeover the BBC Somali service remains a vital independent voice. Any threat to these services would have a real impact on listeners who don't have any other options and undermine what the World Service is known for even where it's not listened to: a rare reminder of British excellence.