Radio wars: information battle heats up as Russia and China muscle in

For decades, short-wave radio broadcast a very British view on the world’s news. Today a host of well-funded, state-controlled radio stations are competing for listeners.

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For about 70 years it was the base of the BBC World Service. Bush House, with its grand marble entrance in central London, stood as a powerful symbol of the BBC, home to the short-wave radio services that delivered news to dozens of countries in more than 40 languages. But the lights went out in 2012 when the World Service moved to the more prosaic Broadcasting House; two years later it lost its annual £245 million (Dh1.341 billion) grant from the UK’s government.

Both changes are symptomatic of the BBC’s less certain place in the broadcasting world as other countries significantly ramp up recruitment and funding for their own equivalent services.

Last December, Peter Horrocks, the BBC World Service’s former director, warned that the West was losing the “information war” with Moscow as the old Cold War foe pumped out wave after wave of pro-Kremlin propaganda on its rapidly expanding radio, TV and online platforms.

Horrocks had called for a rethink on financial assistance from the UK government as, even before the grant was ended, cutbacks in 2011 forced the closure of five language services and some short-wave broadcasts.

“We are being financially outgunned by Russia and the Chinese. Medium to long term there has to be an anxiety about the spending of others compared to what the BBC are putting into it,” he said.

It is now all too clear that established broadcasters that are based in the West, such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe (RFE) – funded mainly through an agency of the US government – and the BBC are facing increased competition. Last November, Moscow rebranded its international English-language radio service: Radio Sputnik replaced the Voice of Russia and funding was increased for a new state-owned global news agency, Rossiya Segodnya.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s China Radio International (CRI) is an important part of the Communist Party’s foreign policy. CRI uses internet, short wave and satellite to broadcast around the world in dozens of languages, while Radio Sputnik has ambitions to broadcast in 30 languages across more than 130 countries by the end of the year.

“CRI is probably the strongest short-wave radio broadcaster in the world now. Yes, the BBC is everywhere, but it seems like CRI has a stronger, better signal in general,” says David Bulla, associate professor of journalism at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. “It’s a great example of how the Chinese use soft power ­internationally.”

But competition, notes Xu Qinduo, a CRI presenter, is not how he views broadcasters such as VOA and the BBC.

“Ten or 20 years ago, when Chinese media was very much underdeveloped, people would have turned to the BBC or VOA to get information that you could not get in China. But not anymore. The situation could not be more completely different.

“You ask the young people, [do they] listen to BBC or VOA? And it’s, why bother?”

Xu is the host of Today, a two-hour daily live show on CRI, and while he declines to talk on behalf of CRI’s ambitions generally, he defines its role as presenting the voice of China to the world.

This is necessary, says Xu, because coverage of Chinese news in the western media is often biased.

“The US media – they are more involved in ideology, like to sell or promote democracy, human rights, freedom. That in itself is not bad, but US ideology can be used as an excuse for regime change. But not Chinese media. We simply want to provide objective information. We simply want people to hear the Chinese voice. If you are involved in propaganda, people are smart. They would listen to it … and say this is not news, not value it and turn off. It’s that easy.”

Despite this, other external broadcasters remain popular in the region. One of these is Radio Free Asia (RFA), a US government-funded, non-profit service that broadcasts in nine languages to China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea; it was the first external broadcaster to establish a bureau in Myanmar in 2012.

“I respectfully disagree with that assertion,” says RFA’s Rohit Mahajan, responding to the idea that CRI does not view other external ­services as ­competition.

“People in China view RFA as their only way of getting uncensored, accurate news and information. We hear from listeners daily who tell us that. We see state-controlled media and officials in China responding to our breaking news. We know we’re being heard.”

Western broadcasters operate in Asia despite consistent jamming of their signals, especially in China and North Korea. In addition, recent RFA broadcasts of deadly violence from China’s restive Xinjiang region have gone unreported in China. According to a New York Times article last month, three deadly attacks that killed scores of people went unreported in state-run Chinese media as Beijing continues its crackdown on the mostly Muslim Uighur population. But all three incidents were broadcast by RFA.

“[Our reporters] are talking to local people – they could be fruit sellers or local police who are Uighurs and feel more comfortable talking to us about this. One of the main reasons for this is that they are speaking to a fellow Uighur in their own language,” says Mahajan.

For people living in a city with fast internet speeds and a smartphone, the idea of listening to short-wave reports may seem quaint. But these are still performing a vital role; in areas where the internet is blocked for political reasons, short wave is indispensable. VOA, RFA, BBC, CRI and others still broadcast in short wave.

“The most immediate and most effective is FM [radio]. In harder to reach areas, short wave [is] still very important, particularly in areas where the internet is virtually shut down and we see that in China’s north-west,” says Mahajan.

And public appetite for these radio services remains high. The most recent figures for the BBC World Service specifically show a global audience of 191 million a week, of which radio stands at 128m.

Russia showed the biggest growth for BBC global news generally, with the audience doubling to 6.9m weekly, and its Ukrainian service more than trebling to about 600,000 in 2014 on the previous year. RFA, meanwhile, says that 20 per cent of radio listeners in Myanmar have tuned in since it first broadcast in 2012. RFE’s Ukrainian service, known as Radio Svoboda locally, had a weekly reach in Ukraine of 7.8 per cent, according to a poll in 2014.

“We provide uncensored news. We tell stories that other media outlets either neglect or follow superficially,” says RFE’s Maryana Drach.

“The Ukrainian Service posts a daily comparison of Ukrainian and Russian media coverage of events in Ukraine to help audiences understand the nuances of the information war,” she says.

Its website and social media accounts are also crucial, with more than 2.56 million visits monthly to its Crimea website and more than 7.27 million monthly in 2014 for the Radio Svoboda website.

“Our journalists face many risks: they are beaten, abducted, harassed. Our primary concern is safety of our colleagues. Many of them had to flee their homes. Our correspondent Levko Stek literally slept in the trenches to get exclusive information from the battlefields.”

Robin Lustig, a distinguished former BBC World Service presenter, agrees there is some validity in arguing for a reinstatement of financial support from the UK government.

“I know the BBC is very anxious to increase its programming to Russia and Ukraine, the Middle East and the Arab world,” he tells me. “[Also] countries of the former Soviet Union. There is a big problem in China as they block a lot of the BBC output.”

So is the West, and more particularly the World Service, losing the information war?

“It’s a risk. Russia and China are pouring money into their own services when the BBC is forced year after year to cut back. It’s really sad to see. The radio stuff is still fantastically high-quality – wherever you go you find people who absolutely worship the BBC World Service,” says Lustig, who retired in 2012 after about 25 years.

“It’s trustworthy. It’s produced by people who are not being influenced politically from above. But there are limits to what it can do – it’s an expensive business.”

Radio Sputnik did not respond to requests for comment from The National.

John Dennehy is deputy editor of The Review.