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  • 02.04.11

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.

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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.

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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.

Follow @FastCompany on Twitter.

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