BBG Watch Commentary

Mali Elections on VOABBG Watch has learned that VOA officials tried to make a decision to terminate Songhai-language programs shortly after the July 28 elections in Mali without first getting formal approval from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

According to sources, VOA executives were told after they had sent an email to BBG members informing them of their plans for Mali that VOA must first seek and obtain a formal approval from the BBG board before terminating Songhai-language programming. Songhai is the common language of northern Mali; some three million people speak or understand it, according to an earlier BBG press release. VOA officials then informed BBG members that they will not terminate Songhai programs for the time being.

Voters in Mali cast their ballots on Sunday, July 28. According to sources, VOA had proposed to eliminate its reports in the Songhai language a few days after the July 28 elections. Sources said that such a move would not be well received in Mali and would expose VOA and the United States to criticism from local media.

The VOA Songhai-language program, which is only a few minutes long each day, was started as a pilot project in late summer of 2012. But in January 2013, the board unanimously voted to authorize VOA to continue the Songhai program and to initiate programs in the Bambara language. Once a program is formally approved by the board, only the board that has a quorum can terminate it in a formal vote, sources told BBG Watch. The BBG board currently does not have a quorum. By law, this responsibility on the part of BBG members cannot be delegated to anyone, including VOA and IBB directors.

According to sources, VOA management wanted to end the Songhai program arguing that VOA Songhai reports on a mobile platform in Mali have been getting very few users while VOA Bambara-language broadcasts to Mali were attracting an audience on the BBG FM transmitter in Bamako and through local FM affiliates in Mali, as well as on shortwave. At one time, Mali1 mobile platform was getting more than 10,000 users per month. It is now down to about a thousand, sources said.

Sources told BBG Watch that after BBG members had learned about the planned termination of the Songhai program from an email sent to them by a senior VOA executive, some were surprised that such a move would be attempted so shortly after the voting in Mali and without first presenting the issue for discussion and a formal vote by the board. VOA officials were told to wait until the board has a quorum and can carefully consider this issue, sources told us.

BBG members were also surprised by the VOA proposal since they had been told earlier by VOA and IBB executives that the Songhai-language programming was highly successful. The agency had informed members of Congress and congressional staffers that it intends to continue these programs. This shows that top VOA and IBB management is in disarray, one source said.

According to sources, VOA officials are now saying that their mobile platform in Mali is only getting slightly over a thousand users per month and that the only VOA broadcaster who prepares Songhai-language reports is needed for other duties. Sources also told us that VOA has plans to expand Bambara-language programs after it finds and recruits more staffers. According to sources, BBG members were surprised that they had not been told about these problems and plans earlier.

For years, VOA journalists and outside experts have been appalled by the cavalier attitude of senior IBB and VOA officials to how language services are started, treated and often suddenly terminated without any consideration for long-term needs and public relations and public diplomacy impact of such moves. This kind of purely bureaucratic and utilitarian approach damages VOA’s reputation abroad, an international broadcasting expert told BBG Watch. There is nothing strategic about thinking and planning on the part of top IBB and VOA officials, and it is good that the BBG board is asking questions, the expert added.

BBG Press Releases

VOA Covers Elections In Mali

JULY 25, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As voters in Mali cast their ballots on Sunday, July 28, Voice of America will carry two special election day broadcasts, with reports from polling stations around the country and analysis from studio guests.

The 30-minute Bambara language radio show Mali Kura (in English, New Mali), will air live at noon on Sunday and a second live half-hour program will be added in the evening. The programs will include reports from VOA journalists in Gao, Timbuktu, Bamako and other cities.

“The elections in Mali, which were postponed for over a year after the March 2012 military coup, represent a critical rebuilding stage for the country,” says VOA Africa Division Director Gwen Dillard. “We want to provide our audiences with accurate up-to-the-minute news on how the election is unfolding, as well as practical information on voting and the electoral process.”

VOA French to Africa reporter Bagassi Koura, who arrived in Mali this week, will also be providing firsthand observations on the mood of the country as he travels to polling stations and speaks with ordinary people about their views on the vote. His on-scene reports will be posted on a special blog on the VOA website, which also includes reporting from correspondent Anne Look.

In the run up to Sunday’s vote, Mali Kura has aired interviews with eight presidential candidates, along with reports on the mechanics of the process, preparations for the vote, and the impact women and young people are having on the election. The program has also featured segments on the electronic voting cards being used for the first time in an effort to ensure the election is fair.

Mali Kura airs Monday through Friday in Mali and is available on VOA’s 24/7 FM frequency in Bamako, as well as on affiliate stations, shortwave radio, the Internet and mobile platforms.

VOA began broadcasting in Bambara, a language spoken by over two-million people in Mali and Burkina Faso, in March of this year. VOA also broadcasts to Mali in French and has been providing special election updates on its mobile service in the Songhai language.

BBG And VOA Offer New Options For Getting The News To Mali

FEBRUARY 19, 2013

Washington, D.C. – Audiences in war-torn Mali will soon have new sources of reliable and up-to-date news in their own languages thanks to several innovative efforts by the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

“The BBG is responding in every possible way to the need for timely information in Mali, and we are extending our reach, as we have in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict areas,” said BBG Board member Susan McCue. “This vital service will help safeguard lives in Mali with accurate and comprehensive news, and in widely-spoken local languages as well as in French. We’ll also soon be able to reach more people across the country through additional affiliate radio stations and via the latest mobile technology.”

“We at Voice of America are keenly aware that the people in Mali are desperate for reliable information,” said VOA Director David Ensor, an award-winning journalist who throughout his career has worked in conflict zones and seen first-hand the effect of getting accurate information to affected populations in a timely fashion. “We are using every tool we have to help our audience get the news and information they need.”

In early March, VOA will launch a Monday-through-Friday radio program in the Bambara language, which is spoken by more than two million people in south and central Mali, as well as in Burkina Faso. The half-hour program, called Mali Kura (New Mali) will focus on news of Mali, but will also cover the sub-region of Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. It will include breaking news, analysis, discussion of extremism and health information.

VOA will continue its daily mobile newscast in the Songhai language, which was launched recently as a pilot project. Songhai is the common language of northern Mali; some three million people speak or understand it. The Monday-through-Friday Songhai newscast is available on the popular mobile platform, Mali1, along with French newscasts. The Mali1 mobile service was added in August to take advantage of the large and growing number of mobile phone users, and as a way to get news to regions where extremists have shut down independent media.

And VOA has just launched a new 15-minute French-language radio program that covers all the Sahelian countries of Mali, Mauretania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and northern Sudan. The program, called Sahel Plus, provides on-the-ground reporting, analysis of the security and social issues of the Sahel, discussions of U.S. and international policy toward the region, features on the vibrant culture there, and an opportunity for listeners to speak their minds.

All VOA programs are broadcast on shortwave, medium wave, the Internet and mobile platforms. VOA programs will soon be available in Bamako, Mali’s capital, through Interactive Voice Response, a system that helps VOA distribute and gather the news using local telephone services and the Internet. IVR is especially useful in regions where there is low bandwidth for wireless service.

The BBG announced in January that a new transmitter would allow 24/7 broadcasting of targeted news and information in French to listeners in Bamako. And the agency is assisting a long-time affiliate station in Bamako, Radio Kledu, in building out a network of stations. Audience research shows that more than half of all adults in Bamako listen to Kledu. By the end of February, its signal is expected to reach four additional stations, with four more expected in the months to come. The stations will carry VOA programs in French and Bambara.

Please note: this release has been updated to reflect the correct show title, Mali Kura.