The International Federation of Journalists today warned that the BBC World Service decision to launch an Arabic television channel could undermine the global reputation of the world’s leading public broadcaster.
The IFJ says the BBC appears to be following the lead of the United States government which last year committed more than 60,000,000$ to launch Al Hurra, an American-based Arabic satellite television network. Although the station claims to be editorially independent, the explicit intention was to counter the success of satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and Al- Arabiya and their distinctly Arab perspective in coverage of the Iraq conflict and the Middle East.
“We fully support the efforts of BBC journalists to expand the influence of the World Service, which is a trademark of journalistic excellence, but the Arab television channel opens the door to criticism that the brand is being used to strengthen political objectives,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary.
The new television venture - the BBC Arabic Television Service - is to broadcast 12 hours a day across the Middle East, beginning in 2007, and will be free to anyone with a satellite or cable connection. The BBC's Arabic Service in radio already has reporters in every Arabic-speaking country and draws some 12 million listeners each week.
The BBC world service, which is funded by the British government, says the Arabic channel will cost £19 million a year and will be paid for by the closure of 10 BBC language services, mostly in Europe. Some 218 jobs will go, but there will be 201 new jobs created at the channel and through other projects.
The IFJ welcomes the new jobs that will be created, but says that the BBC World Service, which has an unparalleled reputation for independence, risks losing the confidence of existing viewers and listeners.
“The implications of this project will not be lost on the region, where many will think that this is a political manoeuvre,” said White. “The US channel Al Hurra, for example, is undoubtedly professional, but many people switch off because of the perception that it is a mouthpiece for government. The BBC may suffer in the same way.”
The World Service has an enormous global presence, broadcasting in 43 languages and drawing more than 149 million weekly listeners, and with a reputation for independence that is second to none, says the IFJ, which backs its UK affiliate the National Union of Journalists in strongly opposing any undue political influence in BBC affairs.
“The IFJ will strongly support BBC journalists and their union. We are confident they will vigorously resist any attempts at editorial interference,” said White. “This is the first line of defence for the World Service and its reputation.”
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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries