Nothing encapsulates the fast-moving global media landscape more than the changing of the guard currently taking place in the Balkans. By the end of this month the BBC will shut down the last World Service broadcasts in the region, closing down its radio programming in Albanian, Macedonian and Serbian.
At the same time, the Arab news giant Al Jazeera is to launch a new pan-Balkan broadcast channel, with headquarters in Sarajevo. Al Jazeera Balkans will make its debut in the coming months and will broadcast in the regional languages.
Boro Kontic, head of the Media Centre in Sarajevo, which in 1996 launched a training school for local journalists in collaboration with the BBC, believes that the new Al Jazeera channel will open a “new page in the journalism history of the region”.
“This definitely will be a challenge for the national broadcasters, not only because Al Jazeera has more money to invest in a quality reporting, but also because hopefully they will manage to avoid all political pressure and open new topics that none of the Bosnian media dares to touch,” he says.
Independent reporting in the Balkans has gradually diminished since the civil wars in the 1990s. Until Al Jazeera launches there will be just three international networks – Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle and Voice of America – to provide local-language news coverage in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia.
The launch of the new Al Jazeera network emphasises the increased global stature the Qatar-based channel now has. The events in Tunisia and Egypt over the past month have brought Al Jazeera a new audience around the world and has arguably done as much for the channel as the first Gulf War did for CNN.
Its global reach is likely to expand further. Al Jazeera is also hoping to create a new channel in Turkey; its offer for a national TV station was approved by the Turkish government earlier this week.
As Al Jazeera advances, the BBC World Service is in retreat. Budget cuts of 16 per cent have been announced, which World Service executives admit could mean the loss of as many as 30 million listeners around the world.
The end of the Balkan service will be the first cut of many. “Due to the recently enforced budget cuts, we needed to limit all spendings and, given the size of the market in the Balkans, it was a logical choice,” says Aleksej Zoric, head of the Serbian Service.