Africa: An Open Letter to the BBC – A Fight to Save Focus On Africa
London — Last week the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) turned 100 years old, marking a century milestone that not only changed the face of global radio broadcasting but also marked a turning point in the lives of many communities around the world.
That milestone though, was bittersweet for the African continent which learned that the popular daily radio program Focus on Africa will no longer be carried live on air and the plans are instead for it to be broadcast as a pre-recorded programme and podcast.
Focus on Africa began in 1960 as a weekly experiment that would later evolve into arguably the most important live-radio show in Africa, highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly of an emerging continent.
Focus on Africa dawned in a year when an astounding 17 African countries – Cameroon, Togo, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin, Somalia, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Senegal, Nigeria and Mauritania – gained their independence.
Since taking to the airwaves, “Focus” as it’s endearingly known remains one of the BBC’s biggest draws, pulling millions of listeners, not just on the continent, but around the world.
In a speech announcing his arrival, Tim Davie the Director General of the BBC expressed his belief in Public Service Broadcasting, declaring that the BBC was “needed, now more than ever”.
“Our work is important. But the world has changed,” Davie lamented. He added: “If we really care about this precious institution, we must protect it by reforming it. Repeating what we have done over the last few years will not be enough – we must all lead reform.
While Mr. Davie’s heart may be in the right place on the issue of reforms, removing the live element of Focus on Africa from the BBC’s programming, is wrong for several reasons.
Focus on Africa is not just a news program relaying stories to a continent starving for information, it is much more. In my homeland, Liberia listeners were glued to their radios daily as Robin White grilled rebel leaders like Charles Taylor, who called Robin from the bushes of rural Liberia. Africans across the continent listened as Robin spoke with John Garang, the Sudanese politician and revolutionary leader who led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army SPLA, who often called Robin on a satellite phone from one of his hideouts.
In Liberia during the dog days of the civil war, when rebels of Mr. Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia and Prince Johnson’s Independent National Patriotic Front competed to remove embattled President Samuel Kanyon Doe from power, Focus on Africa was the only reliable source of information.
In fact, one of the most vivid and gripping events of the Liberian civil war was on September 9, 1990, when warlord Prince Johnson capture and killed Samuel Kanyon Doe. On the scene was the BBC’s Elizabeth Blunt who risked her life to report Doe’s capture and death on Focus on Africa. Blunt reported that Doe had been “fairly badly shot in both legs” in a battle with forces of Prince Johnson. Today, the BBC icon is still widely respected and remains a household name to Many Liberians for her reportage.
I moved to The Gambia when the war was at its peak with the help of my uncle Kenneth Best who had started the Gambian version of the popular Daily Observer newspaper. The paper had been a thorn in the side of the Doe government. It was in The Gambia, that my association with the BBC commenced.
My reportage for Focus of Africa of the July 22nd, 1994, coup that brought Yahya Jammeh to power remains an important part of my life and has moulded me into the journalist that I have become.
Today, as the editor, founder and publisher of Liberia’s biggest daily newspaper, FrontPageAfrica, a ground-breaking publication that has brought down senior government figures and exposed political corruption, I am indebted to Focus on Africa for starting off my career and opening the doors that have made it possible.
Jailed twice for publishing dissenting articles about the Liberian government and its Supreme Court, I faced 5,000 years in prison in 2013. The ruling sparked an international outcry and prompted support from numerous high-profile journalist-rights organizations and op-ed in “The New York Times” entitled Jailed for Journalism which led to my release.
I am the recipient of multiple journalism and press-freedom awards across the world and was named one of Reporters Without Borders top 100 “Information Heroes” in the world.
Similarly, had it not been for Focus on Africa, my friend Hassan Bility would probably be dead. Focus was one of the few outlets that spoke out when he was jailed and tortured by President Taylor. That scrutiny forced Taylor to release him.
Today Hassan and his organization, the Global Justice and Research Project have helped secure indictments against a dozen perpetrators of atrocities in Liberia’s civil war in jurisdictions around the world including this month’s case against Kunti Kamara in Paris. Three have already been convicted. With Liberia’s own governments refusing to hold a court that would try those who destroyed our country, Hassan’s work has delivered the only justice we have had.
While supporters of the move toward transformation would argue that Focus on Africa may be resting on its past glory and urging its backers to move with the times, the program remains as relevant today, as it was more than sixty years ago.
Relegating Focus to a digital format by way of a podcast under the guise of transformation dampens the impact the program has made over the years and what it continues to do today, begging the question, why the rush to relegate the program to a podcast when the live daily show has been so successful and still making an impact on the continent.
The move suggests that the BBC, in pushing such an unpopular move, is turning a blind eye on the African continent and unfairly dismissing the importance of the continent and the millions of listeners.
Sadly, after decades of beefing up the World Service listenership, Focus on Africa is now being relegated in such a way that it will no longer have its proper dedicated live programmes.
Like Davie, Liliane Landor, Director of the BBC World Service says the transformation will likely lead to a smaller World Service, in hopes of responding to financial challenges and a new structure and operating model. “I want to reiterate that the potential job losses are in no way a reflection of the work everyone has been doing.” Landor pointed out in a message to staffers back in September.
Despite Landor’s comments, some observers feel the BBC does have to make savings especially when other services are also being cut drastically too, it is how those savings are made that is presenting the dilemma for listeners across the continent.
What the BBC is failing to take into consideration are the following basic facts: How many people will be able to download programmes at a touch of a button without a smartphone? Better still, even for the ones who do have smartphones, how can they afford the data bundles?
Those glory days of Focus on Africa are gone but those were the most memorable days and periods when independent media across the continent were under threat. Where many struggled, Focus on Africa filled in the gap, broadcasting where State broadcasters and independent media could not because they were either silenced or forced to self-censor.
The strength of Focus on Africa has always been its ability to provide the news and current events in real time, by broadcasting breaking news or developing news stories.
BBC Management’s idea to suddenly shift from live broadcast to pre-recorded programming supposedly to give analysis of the days’ news stories is a major mistake. Also, this and the proposal to close several other language programmes will mean the African Service as we know it will be a thing of the past.
Sadly, all this comes at a time when the United Kingdom, which prides itself as being among the leading super-power nations responding to global challenges, is failing the African continent by sacrificing Focus on Africa, under the guise of cutting cost when regions under the same umbrella of the BBC are getting a free pass.
While I agree that the transformation of the BBC requires everybody to do things differently and to embrace the digital age while acting with urgency, this transformation is not well thought out. African news stories or breaking news and developing events will now be limited to programmes like Newshour, Newsday and the Newsroom. In essence, the real voices of Africa will no longer be able to tell the real African stories and news as it happens signaling a rather controversial paradigm shift poised to slowly and partially erase the continent from the BBC programming.
Rodney D Sieh, a former correspondent for the BBC, is Editor and Publisher of FrontPageAfrica and the bestselling author of Journalist on Trial: Fighting Corruption, Media Muzzling and a 5,000-Year Prison Sentence in Liberia. His next book, George Weah: The Story of Africa’s Footballer President is due to be released in March 2023.