By Jackal News
Published August 21, 2011
Arab Satellite television network, Al Jazeera, has deployed former BBC editors Danston Tido Mhando and Joseph Warungu to steer its Kiswahili Service Channel set to launch in 2012, a move set to create a seismic effect on the regional media landscape.
The new satellite channel, to be based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, will target viewers mainly in East Africa and Great Lakes regions, where majority are Kiswahili speakers. There are more than 150 million Kiswahili speakers in the two regions, but the channel will target a few millions at its launch.
Mhando and Warungu are household names in the region and the only ones to have held senior editorial management jobs at the BBC headquarters in London. “Mhando and Warungu are top names in journalism from the region, their presence in Al Jazeera Swahili will be going to be a vote of confidence for the channel,” said a top official familiar with the plans.
Officials in the media giant said the reaction in East and Central Africa on the news about the launch of the Kiswahili channel “has been great.”
At the top of his BBC career, Mhando was the head of the Kiswahili Service, while Warungu was leading English to Africa Service at the station, and directly responsible for flagship radio Focus on Africa programme and Focus on Africa Magazine. Mhando started his careers as a radio DJ at the government-run Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) in Dar es Salaam in early1980s. At the same times, he also reported for a number of broadcasters including Deutsche Welle, Voice of America and Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, known at that time as the Voice of Kenya.
In 1985, he moved to BBC Kiswahili Service in Nairobi and 14 years later, he moved to London and became the first African to head the service, a job he excelled in. But he first gained his real field reputation during Kenya’s first multiparty elections in 1992 with his solid reporting and command of the language. Notably, Mhando interviewed all presidents in the East and Central Africa region.
In 1990, Mhando’s fame reached its apex after he became the first journalist to report the disappearance and eventual death of the then Kenyan foreign minister, Dr Robert Ouko, and in January 2001 he was the last journalist to interview President Laurent Kabila of Congo-Kinshasa. Their long and revealing discussion took place just weeks before his assassination.
In 2006, he retired from the BBC and joined TBC as the managing director, but four years later the government refused to renew his contract largely because of fallout with the politburo in the powerful ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Revolutionary Party) over TBC’s coverage of the 2010 elections.
On his part, Warungu, trained as high school Kiswahili teacher, worked his way up after working for government-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and private Kenya Television Network.
In 1992, he joined BBC Kiswahili Service and 11 years later, he was appointed the head of the station’s African Service, replacing legendary African hand Robin White.
On his appointment, he said: “This is one of the most challenging and responsible jobs in the whole of African journalism. More than 20 million listeners all over Africa rely on the BBC to keep them in touch with the continent. I intend to build on the formidable reputation which Robin White has established for both programmes, strengthening our reporting of Africa and our links with partner stations.”
Warungu has toured dozens of countries, including reporting from South Africa upon the release of Nelson Mandela in 1991 and United States when Barack Obama won US presidential race as well as covering several warzones.
This is not the first time the Arab channel is employing experienced BBC hands. With closure of BBC Arabic service in the 1990s, more than 250 journalists switched to the newly created Al Jazeera. Its English service has also hired a couple from the BBC, including Mohamed Addow and Yvonne Ndege who report from East and West Africa, respectively.
Al Jazeera, armed with a war chest worth tens of thousands of dollars, is interviewing journalists from Kenyan TV stations to prepare for the launch. ‘Some of my journalists have been interviewed and are very keen to join Al Jazeera,’ an editor in one of the top Kenyan media house told the Jackal News.
An Al Jazeera official said that so far, officials in Doha, the HQ, were proud with the response the channel was receiving in Africa, particularly this region, where it has made its reputation for covering issues that had been ignored by other international stations.
“Honestly, we have beaten BBC and CNN in this region,” he explained last month. Media analysts have said that since the US cable providers have refused to stream the channel, it would be wise if they sought other areas to expand. Attempts to get an official to comment on record failed as many feared to reprisals from the hugely secretive managers, who want to take other channels by storm.
Several journalists contacted said the launch of Al Jazeera, funded mainly by the Qatari government, will be a direct threat for local TV channels that have failed even at time when they received no direct threat from an international channel.
It was not clear whether Al Jazeera Kiswahili will start sourcing for advertisements from the local market, but if it does, certainly it will take a bigger chuck because of its regional audience, financial war-chest and high technology. They said that by November, they will have a clearer picture when to launch, but most probably within the first half of next year.
The cable channel, especially its main Arabic-language Channel, has led an existence filled with severe ups and downs. It has simultaneously become the most popular TV channel among Arabs, while being reviled by many of the governments in the region, along with the U.S. government.
While showing a much more gruesome and hyper-realistic side of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (including dead soldiers on both sides), Al Jazeera has also come under attack by American forces in both conflicts, with some accusing it of being the mouthpiece of terrorists, especially Al-Qaeda.
The channel was founded in 1996 with US$100 million-plus from the government of Qatar.
While it has been accused of an anti-American or anti-Western bias, and running little critical coverage of pro-U.S. Qatar, the channel’s spokesmen often say it gives both sides of every issue.
With constrained budgets at the BBC, Warungu and Mhando still managed to increase the station’s listenership across Africa, suffocating US-funded Voice of America and French broadcaster, Radio France International. With an expected bigger budget to start operations, it would be interesting to see how the two will guide Al Jazeera Kiswahili in cutting itself a niche in the sub region.