Two weeks ago, on November 5, the BBC launched its largest bureau outside the UK in Kenya. Its news director Francesca Unsworth said the expansion cost “£289 million from the UK government.”
The Nairobi bureau adds to the West Africa office opened earlier this year in Lagos and the French language section in Dakar, Senegal.
In 2015, Tony Hall, the director-general of BBC, said it is the “biggest expansion of the world service since the 1940s.”
Interestingly, since 2011, the BBC has been scaling back and implementing cost cutting measures that have affected about 2,000 jobs in UK and until recently, funding for the World Service was in yearly decline. So why is the BBC downscaling its home service and suddenly expanding its World Service reach in Africa, Asia and Russia?
Carry the torch
If you asked BBC executives they would say it is to help “carry the torch of BBC professionalism, accuracy and impartiality to the future,” as Rachael Okwir Akidi, the head of East Africa languages said recently.
UK politicians would perhaps say it’s helping to expand freedom of expression or, as President Uhuru Kenyatta said in 2017, when news of the expansion was first announced, the investment illustrates “thriving democracy that guarantees a free and robust media” in Kenya.
Yet, investing in media, especially by governments is more than “expanding freedom of expression” or making profits, but also expanding influence and a preferred worldview.
In that sense then, the reasons the UK government funded the BBC’s expansion in the 1940s are the same today.
With the changing world order created after World War II and declining UK influence amid Brexit and crumbling European consensus due to rising populism and Trumpism, the BBC expansion seeks to maintain its influence in troubled and uncertain times.
With Africa’s current population of 1.2 billion people, which is set to double in the next 25 years; a rising middle class and immeasurable resources with untapped business opportunities, the continent is the place to be and to have influence.
And the UK isn’t alone in this. Other big powers like the US, China and Russia are doing the same. Other renowned media outlets like The New York Times, are doubling investments to cope with technological disruptions which are disrupting traditional media and its business model.
Meanwhile, in Rwanda, trends show not only declining media influence but also declining investments in the sector with unsustainable media outlets. So why is investment in Rwandan media declining and what does the BBC’s expansion tell us about the country’s ability to influence the future?
First, as Gonzaga Muganwa, the executive secretary of the Association of Rwanda Journalists told me, “Media has lost influence because it engages in public relations and leaders do not see why they should take it seriously.
This has also caused a reduction in the funds the government gives to the media.” Yet, what attracts funding to the media is journalism that not only informs the public truthfully, but also compels leaders to serve in the public’s interest.
In fact, some even believe that the reason President Paul Kagame no longer holds his monthly press conference is because journalists ask trivial questions.
Secondly, Rwanda has never really invested in media that has influence outside its borders from 1933 when the newspaper known as Kinyamateka owned by the Catholic Church was founded to radio Rwanda in 1962 to today, no media outlet inside the country had external influence.
The biggest investment in the sector took place after the media law of 2002, which liberalised the industry led to the creation of private FM radio and television stations, and a number of print and online outlets.
Today, different studies show that all these media outlets struggle to survive. As a result, current trends show that even the internal influence that traditional media once had is vanishing due to technological disruptions, increasing use of social media and limited funding.
Today, for example, businesses, NGOs and even the government are increasingly giving advertising and promotional revenue to individual media “influencers” on social media.
But as BBC’s new investment illustrates, technology might have given us social media, but traditional media like television and radio are still with us regardless of how we access them.
What BBC’s expansion tell us then is that for Rwanda or any other country to effectively participate in shaping the future, it MUST invest in the media.
Unless this happens, as was the case in the past century, what constitutes “good” values and “acceptable” governance models will continue to be defined by those that invest in and control trusted media outlets that shape perceptions widely and consistently.
Christopher Kayumba, PhD Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR, Lead Consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter account: @Ckayumba