Thursday, 15 May 2008

Even Less Foreign News

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 15 May 2008.

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Last week's announcement that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was ending its Newsline service is yet another damaging blow to the diversity of foreign news sources in Western Anglophone media. One more informative voice has been silenced.

Somehow the idea still persists that with the internet, everyone can get as much news as they want from any part of the world. In reality, as soon as you try to test this optimistic notion on anything other than the one or two big stories of the day, it falls apart. You quickly realise you're looking at the same news agency copy repackaged in outlet after outlet.

The problem is, of course, nearly every news-gathering operation -- with only a few notable exceptions -- has been cutting back on the number of its full-time foreign correspondents for years. The result is ever greater reliance on two or three news agencies for overseas news. Not that there's anything wrong with AP, AFP and, obviously my favourite, Reuters, but this hardly represents a wide enough variety of information sources.

RFE/RL's Newsline provided excellent daily news from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia in particular, and I had been a subscriber for years. It was produced with US government money, but it was a balanced product, not propaganda, because the journalists at RFE/RL always maintained their editorial independence.

Newsline's short paragraphs of day-to-day events were great for alerting me to the stories I needed to follow more, and its associated analysis articles were usually very helpful for getting a longer-term perspective. It's something I would check every day, and the service will be hugely missed.

Justifying the closure, RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin blamed the weakening US dollar for the cut-backs. They needed to focus on their core mandate, he wrote in an email yesterday, which is "to broadcast uncensored information to parts of the world where free and independent media are fragile or nonexistent".

That's fair enough as far as his options were concerned, but it's a shame the money couldn't be found higher up the USG food chain. It probably would have taken only a fraction of the money wasted on Alhurra -- the Arabic TV station no one watches and which falls under the same broad roof of the US agency in charge of government-sponsored international broadcasting, the Broadcasting Board Governors (BBG) -- to save Newsline.

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