BBC Cutting Arabic Services During Egyptian Unrest

In polls, Egyptians stated they trust the BBC more than Al Jazeera. So why has the BBC announced plans to cut evening Arabic-language radio broadcasts just as Egypt undergoes a revolution and the Middle East enters an era of widespread unrest?

BBC Arabic

Among the BBC's massive budget cuts announced in late January were 650 jobs, the shuttering of approximately 15% of its foreign language services, and, most importantly, severe cuts to Arabic-language services. Just days later, citizens of Egypt began rising up against Hosni Mubarak.

The biggest problem: According to a 2010 survey conducted by the BBC, Egyptians trust the BBC more than Al Jazeera. In the words of BBC Director-General Mark Thompson, "Egyptian respondents, for example, said they would miss the BBC much more than Al Jazeera."

Meanwhile, evening short-wave radio broadcasts in Arabic via the BBC World Service are about to be terminated. The BBC also announced that "significant reductions" would be made to BBC Arabic television service. According to the BBC, there are approximately 400,000 listeners to the BBC's shortwave services in Egypt. In addition, 1.2 million Egyptians listen to the BBC's broadcasts through FM frequencies or local radio partners.

Damage to other foreign-language services is even more severe. Spanish-language radio broadcasting to Cuba is being terminated, as is radio programming in Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian. Services in Macedonian, Serbian, and Albanian are being terminated entirely. The BBC has pledged to reverse these budget cuts in 2014, but for government agencies, these sorts of things are rare. $54 million has been cut from the BBC's online budget as well.

The decision to slash the BBC's budget was made by the British Foreign Office. The budget cuts were implemented as part of Great Britain's austerity measures.

Alex Oliver of the Australian Lowy Institute for International Policy notes that the decision is a public diplomacy fiasco for the United Kingdom:

"Britain's financial woes have permeated all levels of the public service, and the BBC World Service has not been immune. The full extent of the injury was evident when the BBC World Service announced funding cuts on Friday.

Completely reversing the support given by government over the last few years (with significant investment in Arabic language TV services, for example), the service has been forced to cut more than $70 million a year over the next three years. The service estimates it will lose 30 million listeners (around 17%) and around 650 jobs over the next three years, with 480 going next year alone.

The BBC was at pains to point out that these were not internal decisions, but imposed on it by the Government's decision to cut its grant-in-aid funding so dramatically. It will be feeling the pain particularly intensely this week, with revolution afoot in Egypt."

In the context of Egypt turning off the Internet, statements by the BBC indicating that the service will be focusing more on online and new media distribution worldwide were most troubling. (During the initial Net blackout, Egyptians listened to the BBC via shortwave radio.) It's unlikely Egypt will be the last country to clamp down on the Internet and mobile phones during times of civil unrest.

The BBC needs to maintain conventional, pre-digital eras of transmission in order to remain technologically competitive in parts of the world dominated by authoritarian governments. After all, it is much easier to get around a blocked radio broadcast than a widespread Internet outage.

For the BBC, these budget cuts mean that listeners and viewers across the world will be unable to access a highly trusted service during an era of global crisis. This may hurt the United Kingdom, but it hurts listeners and viewers abroad even more.

Read more coverage of the protests in Egypt.

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