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BBC World Service Leaves The Balkans

A protester holds up a placard during a rally in front of BBC's Bush House in London on January 26.
BBC World Service radio listeners throughout the Balkans this morning tuned in to some disappointing news.

Citing budget cuts, the World Service announced that it was closing down radio programming in five of its broadcast languages -- Albanian, Macedonian, Portuguese for Africa, English for the Caribbean, and Serbian.

The move effectively shuts down the last World Service broadcasts in the Balkans, after earlier closures of the Croatian, Bulgarian, and Slovenian language services.

The departure of the World Service leaves RFE/RL, VOA, and a third international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, to provide in-language news coverage to Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The "Financial Times" quoted a British foreign-policy insider as saying the World Service had struggled to compete with its rivals in the region.

Boro Kontic, the director of the Bosnia-based Media Center, which provides training for local journalists, says the departure of the BBC marks a sad close to a "big and historic chapter" in the region's history.

"This is really important news for the whole region. The BBC called on Yugoslavia in March 1942 to start an uprising against the Nazis at the beginning of the Second World War," Kontic says. "So we've had a really long history, and now 70 years later, they're closing the program."

New Player In The Region

The BBC closures in the Balkans come even as another major international broadcaster, the Middle Eastern television network Al-Jazeera, is preparing to launch an ambitious pan-Balkan broadcast channel.

Al-Jazeera, whose Arabic and English broadcasts claim to have more than 50 million viewers worldwide, has hired well-known television journalist Goran Milic to head its Balkan operations.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Milic says Al-Jazeera will have 150 correspondents throughout the Balkans, all reporting and broadcasting in their local languages.

Milic says the channel, which will be one of the first major efforts to establish a network working across the entire Balkan region since the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, has the potential to succeed because of the tremendous amount of news still being generated in the Balkans.

"One month we will have more news from Serbia, another three months from Bosnia-Herzegovina, another two months from Croatia -- I don't know what will happen," Milic says.

"Al-Jazeera English got the award for the best news service. I watched it and, not that I'm biased, but I think we can do it better. We can do it better simply because we have more possibilities."

Media observer Kontic notes with some irony that the Balkans' "new history" is beginning with the arrival of Al-Jazeera even as its "old history" begins to bow out with the retreat of the BBC.

But he says the benefits remain the same. Just as the World Service provided an objective, unentangled alternative to local news, Al-Jazeera is likely to avoid the political ties and boosterism that dog Balkan broadcasters to this day.

"It could be good to finally see a normal TV program which is trying to give you factual, precise information, unlike what we see here with local public broadcasters who are trying all the time to be very connected with local politicians," Kontic says.

"That's what we think is going to happen -- that the Al-Jazeera TV station is going to be independent, balanced, and a company which will try to give us real facts."

Major Cuts

The closures are part of a 16 percent spending cut following a government spending review last autumn.

The World Service will also cease all radio programming in Azeri, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Spanish for Cuba, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian, but will continue to pursue online and television content in those markets.

Altogether, the World Service is set to lose 650 jobs as part of its cost-saving plan -- a reduction that represents nearly one-third of its workplace. The corporation estimates the cuts will also amount to an audience drop of more than 30 million people.

Reading from a statement by the British Broadcasting Corporation's global news director, Peter Horrocks, World Service spokesman Mike Gardner said the closures were "not a reflection of the performances of individual services or programs."

"They are all extremely important to their audiences, and to the BBC," Gardner said. "It is simply that there is a need to make savings due to the scale of the cuts to the BBC World Service's grant and aid funding from the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and we need to focus our efforts on the languages where there is the greatest need and where they'll have the strongest impact."

The World Service plans to provide additional funding for some priority projects, such as TV programming in Urdu, Hindi, and in Sub-Saharan Africa.

'Devastating Blow'

The cuts, which come just days after the BBC announced 360 online job losses, come at a time when global economic troubles have put journalists and international broadcasting in an increasingly perilous position.

The BBC is the main public-service broadcaster in the United Kingdom, and the largest broadcaster worldwide.

While much of its domestic service is funded by annual fees paid by households and companies within the United Kingdom, the World Service, which broadcasts in 32 languages worldwide, is funded by direct grants from the British government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

John Tusa, who served as the managing director of the World Service from 1986 to 1993, told the BBC's Radio 4 that the cuts were "awful" for World Service listeners and would deal a devastating blow to British foreign policy because they substantially weakened "one of the most important elements of international cultural diplomacy."

Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has ultimate authority over decisions to close BBC foreign language services, has acknowledged the cuts were "difficult" to make.

But in a fiery debate in Parliament today, Hague defended the BBC's move to streamline its operations and emphasize new, more cost-effective platforms.

He cited as an example the BBC's Russian service, which in dropping all radio programming in favor of online strategy perfectly mirrors that country's media trends.

"What has happened in Russia is that online audiences have increased by 120 percent in the last 12 months," Hague said, "while radio audiences have declined by 85 percent."

Marija Arnautovic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report