“Saving endangered languages through public service broadcasting”. By Levi Obijiofor

In June 2010, I was requested by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) head office in Paris, France, to ualtndertake a study of public service broadcasting and language development in five countries selected from five regions across the world. Part of the brief was that the project had to be completed three months from the date the contract was signed. Given my teaching, research and service commitments in my university, the assignment, in particular the deadline for submission of the final report appeared daunting. It was not just the final report that proved to be a challenge. I was also required to include two separate reports (in addition to the final report), namely a critical summary of the situation in the five countries and key recommendations based on the final report.

Five countries were selected for the study, after consultations with UNESCO. The countries were South Africa (representing the African region), India (representing Asia and the Pacific), Canada (representing North America and Europe), Jamaica (representing the Caribbean and Latin America) and Lebanon (representing the Arab states). Unfortunately, Nigeria did not make the list because she has mostly state broadcasting organisations, apart from privately owned commercial broadcasting institutions. None of the broadcasting organisations in Nigeria could be strictly regarded as a public service broadcaster. To be clear, the study did not include public service broadcasting undertaken by non-governmental organisations, civil society groups or community organisations.

The project represented UNESCO’s commitment to the promotion of multilingualism and the protection of minority or lesser used languages that are facing extinction. Part of the terms of reference stated that the “the main objective of the paper is to analyse how public-service broadcasters (PSB) deal with linguistic issues in selected five countries (two major criteria: (i) any language revitalisation initiatives identified in a country (from vulnerable to severely endangered); and (ii) any practice in a country including a language previously not used by the public service media in the programming…”

Eleven key questions were identified by UNESCO to be investigated in the study. Three of the questions included an investigation of how public service broadcasters “cover linguistic communities as target audience and reflect its subjects, ensure diversity of genres of programming”; and an examination of how the public service broadcasters “make decisions on which of the languages should be included, in case of presence of several (official-national) languages”. The third question was to explore how “public service broadcasters enable linguistic communities to be informed, educated and entertained”.

The project appealed to me essentially because public service broadcasting is one important vehicle for the development, promotion and sustenance of lesser used languages in the world. As various scholars have pointed out, public service broadcasting is a very important institution that serves different objectives in different societies. In its ideal form, public service broadcasting caters for the diverse needs of audiences of different socioeconomic backgrounds. It is founded on the principle of universal access to information. Public service broadcasting is seen as essential for the development of a strong and participatory democracy.

Today, I provide just a brief account of the situation in South Africa and Canada. A summary report concerning the other three countries will be provided in subsequent essays. In general, the study found that some countries have different policy or legal or constitutional frameworks that support the use of public service broadcasting for the promotion of lesser used languages (e.g. South Africa and Canada), while some countries (e.g. India) have policy guidelines with no enforcement mechanisms to ensure the public service broadcaster actually engages in the development of lesser used languages.

Still, there are countries (such as Jamaica) that have a public service broadcaster but with no clear guidelines in terms of policy or legal framework that will compel the public service broadcaster to promote lesser used languages. Paradoxically, it is in this environment that public service broadcasting is seen as offering universal access to information and as an important institution for the growth of participatory communication and civic deliberation in the public sphere.

Of the five countries, South Africa stands out as an interesting case because it is pursuing a deliberate policy of using public service broadcasting to develop and promote its official languages. In South Africa, there are 11 officially recognised languages. South Africa’s proactive approach to the use of public service broadcasting to promote languages in the country is backed up by two major instruments — constitutional recognition of 11 official languages; and the existence of policy frameworks that mandate the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in its charter to reflect all 11 official languages in its programming in an equitable manner. These imply that, unlike many countries across the world, South Africa’s constitution acknowledges the multilingual and multicultural composition of the country’s population.

There are various strategies that are adopted by the SABC to reflect the country’s official languages in its programming. However, owing to space constraints, these cannot be outlined here. But there are also several challenges that arise from the SABC’s broadcasting in multiple languages in South Africa. First, the recognition of 11 official languages in the South African constitution underplays the fact that there are more than 24 languages that are spoken in the country. The constitution is silent on the status of these other languages. What, for example, will happen to the unofficial languages of South Africa? What about the people who speak those languages? Are they no longer the citizens of South Africa? Should their languages be allowed to disappear?

The recognition of 11 official languages in South Africa is based on the principle that they are the languages spoken by a majority of South Africans. Fair enough! But minority languages should not be allowed to die simply because they are spoken by minority members of the population. Some kind of mechanism must be devised to protect minority or lesser used languages. Language is a symbol of identity and no language deserves to be allowed to go into extinction.

The situation in Canada is slightly different. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is the leading public service broadcaster. The Broadcasting Act of 1991 mandates the CBC to broadcast in English and French. However, the CBC runs a service that delivers native language programmes to people in the far North. Apart from the CBC and other public broadcasters, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) also provides services in Indigenous languages.

The APTN, which was established in September 1999, broadcasts 56 per cent of its programmes in English, 16 per cent in French, and 28 per cent in 15 Aboriginal languages. This suggests that the APTN aims to reflect in its programming the diversity of languages inCanada. By broadcasting in Aboriginal languages, the APTN contributes to the development and sustenance of Canada’s Indigenous languages. However, for a television organisation that is committed to broadcasting to Indigenous people in Indigenous languages, the percentage of time devoted by the APTN to broadcasting in Aboriginal languages is grossly inadequate

One problem that confronts public service broadcasting both in South Africa and Canada is funding. In Canada, there are three main sources of funding available to the CBC. These are parliamentary appropriations, advertising and other sundry sources. In South Africa, the SABC’s mandate authorises the broadcaster to raise revenue through advertisements, subscription, sponsorship and licence fees. For this reason, South Africa’s Ruth Teer-Tomaselli points out that the SABC, as a public service broadcaster, “operates in a commercial environment, under commercial constraints”.

Concerns must be expressed about the impact that advertising and other market forces might have on the quality and diversity of programmes broadcast by the CBC and the SABC. Commercialisation of media is a sensitive subject of debate essentially because of concerns that a public service broadcaster that engages in the pursuit of advertising revenue would compromise its public service obligations. As Robert Picard, author of several works on media commercialisation has argued, when media organisations place greater emphasis on profit rather than on public interests, quality journalism is undermined.

The debate over an acceptable mechanism for funding public service broadcasting has raged for years and there is no indication the uproar is likely to end soon. While there is a general view that government should not be involved in the funding of public broadcasting in order to guarantee editorial independence, there is also the idea that public broadcasters must be shielded from market forces that tend to distract attention from quality journalism. It is a Catch-22 situation.


IN the first part of this article published on July 1, 2011 (see “Saving endangered languages through public service broadcasting”), I examined how public service broadcasting is being used to save endangered languages in South Africa and Canada. The article was a synopsis of a study commissioned by UNESCO in 2010, which required me to investigate public service broadcasting and language development in five countries. The five countries covered in the study were South Africa, Canada, India, Jamaica and Lebanon. The final report was submitted to UNESCO in January this year.

For over three days in May/June 2011, UNESCO hosted a meeting at its Paris headquarters in which a group of experts reflected on and examined how best to save endangered languages through public service broadcasting. The theme of the meeting was “Towards UNESCO guidelines on language policies: A tool for language assessment and planning.” More than 50 linguists, communication scholars and specialists in related disciplines attended the meeting.

Since the publication of the first part of the article in July, my attention has been distracted by a number of news events that prevented a follow up. Today, I focus on the second part of the report which analyses public service broadcasting and language development in India and Jamaica. I have included in this part some recommendations. The final part of the report, comprising mostly of suggestions, will be published as and when time and events permit.

There are two principal public service broadcasters in India. They are Doordashan and All India Radio (AIR). Statistics published by the All India Radio show that the broadcaster has 232 broadcasting centres, including domestic and external services. Its domestic services broadcast in 24 languages and 146 dialects while the external arm broadcasts in 27 languages. The broadcaster produces on a daily basis more than 500 news bulletins in 82 languages. These are broadcast from its head office in New Delhi as well as from 44 regional services. However, Doordarshan broadcasts from 24 regional news services at three levels, namely national, regional and local.

India presents an interesting scenario because it has a large number of languages. Usha Manchanda reports that India is not only the second most populous country in the world, its population is also diverse in terms of the composition of religious groups, social classes and language groups. According to Census of India 2001, India has 22 officially recognised languages and a large number of dialects, although Hindi is a widely spoken language. This situation makes public service broadcasting an important instrument for the promotion of minority languages in India.

In India, the only policy initiative that mandates the two public service broadcasters to promote minority or lesser-used languages in their programming is the Prasar Bharati Act 1990. However, there is no mechanism in this Act to ensure that Doordashan and AIR use, as a matter of policy, minority languages in their programming. There is also no clause in the Prasar Bharati Act 1990 that stipulates how the broadcasters would be sanctioned if they failed to uphold their public service obligations in regard to minority language promotion and development.

The Prasar Bharati Act 1990 sets out the basis for the recognition and development of diverse languages in the country. The Act states quite categorically the goals of the Prasar Bharati Board some of which include “providing adequate coverage to the diverse cultures and languages of the various regions of the country by broadcasting appropriate programmes; providing suitable programmes keeping in view the special needs of the minorities and tribal communities; promoting national integration by broadcasting in a manner that facilitates communication in the languages of India; and facilitating the distribution of regional broadcasting services in every State in the languages of that State” (Prasar Bharati Act 1990). The extent to which these goals have been met or are being implemented is contested.

In Jamaica, public service broadcasting is regarded as a tentative and emerging broadcast sector and this is seen in terms of inadequate funds provided to the public broadcaster – the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica (PBCJ) – and the Creative Production and Training Centre (CPTC), now mainly self-sustaining. There is no specific mandate or constitutional clause that requires the PBCJ to reflect lesser-used languages in its programming. This means the use of public service broadcasting for language development is not yet seen as a priority in Jamaica. For many years, public service broadcasting in Jamaica has been hampered by a range of problems such as under funding, importation of foreign programmes, lack of quality programmes, and political interference.

This is understandable because, following its independence in 1962, Jamaica was faced with a multitude of problems not least of which is a broadcast industry that relied essentially on imported programmes. Thus, in fashioning its public service broadcasting policy, Jamaica is confronted with the problem of how to promote and sustain its cultural identity through television programming. The impact of imported television programmes on the culture and people of the Caribbean is at the heart of the campaign to establish public service broadcasting in Jamaica. Thus, the institutionalisation of public service broadcasting is important to Jamaica because it will serve a variety of local cultural, economic, social and political interests. In particular, it will help to develop local performing artistes and local cultural programmes.

The question about how the Jamaican public service broadcaster enables linguistic communities to be informed, educated and entertained shows there are no clear distinctions among linguistic communities in the country, even though the PBCJ covers folk forms such as poetry and drama that involve use of the local language. There are some initiatives to expose and recognise the Jamaican language through broadcasting. One such scheme is the National Festival Movement. There are also other initiatives, originating mainly from the University of the West Indies, around recognition and respect for Jamaican, an extensively used combination of English, West African linguistic forms and Spanish.

In terms of recommendations aimed to initiate or advance the use of public service broadcasting for the development of minority languages in different countries, one important element is the establishment of an effective public service broadcaster (radio and television) that caters for the diverse needs of the citizens in any country in which such a service is either non-existent or is of limited use.

Public service broadcasters fulfil certain obligations to citizens such as provision of universal access, cultural preservation, promotion of national unity, democratisation of information and civic deliberation by citizens. The presence of public service broadcasters will offer a level playing field that provides everyone – the rich and the poor, majorities and minorities, women and men, the elderly and the young – equal access to broadcasting services.

The establishment of a public service broadcaster should be backed up by clear policy guidelines that mandate the broadcaster to fulfil a number of obligations, including the promotion and development of minority languages through a range of programmes. As discussed in the first part of this essay published in July, South Africa and Canada serve as good case studies of countries in which public service broadcasters are mandated through policy to promote and develop officially recognised languages as well as other minority languages. However, it is not enough to outline policy goals relating to public service broadcasting and language development. Clear, specific and achievable goals must be set, including how the goals should be assessed.

It is vital for each country to establish an official regulator of all forms of broadcasting. The key responsibility of this regulator is to ensure that broadcasting organisations meet certain mandates, such as an obligation to broadcast in minority languages for a specified number of hours per week during peak hours. Such broadcasts should not be limited to language programs but must also be reflected in news and current affairs programming, documentaries, educational broadcasts (especially educational programmes targeted at pre-school age children, as well as primary and secondary school children). Other programmes through which minority languages should be promoted include sports and other forms of entertainment (e.g. drama, soap operas, etc.).

To facilitate effective use of public service broadcasting for language development, one of the conditions for the issuance of broadcast licences must be that licence holders should be required to broadcast in minority languages for a specified number of hours per week during peak and off-peak hours.

In multiethnic and multilingual countries such as India, South Africa and Jamaica, a national language policy should be used to outline the official languages of communication in the public and private domains. Such a policy should recognise minority languages. It should map official channels (such as public service broadcast institutions) through which the minority languages should be promoted and developed. The development, preservation and maintenance of minority languages should be one of the key objectives of a national language policy.

For language policy initiatives to be effective, as in the case of South Africa, it may be necessary to consider whether there needs to be some kind of legal framework or constitutional clause that identifies officially recognised languages, as well as the lesser-used languages. The key question to be considered here is whether a legal framework is required to specify how minority or lesser-used languages should be supported and maintained through various public channels.

In essence, policy frameworks for public service broadcasting might be more effective if they have legal backing or, in some countries’ situations, constitutional backing and mandate. South Africa serves as an example of a country in which the public service broadcaster (SABC) is mandated in the constitution to promote 11 officially recognised languages.

Publicat a The Guardian Nigeria, els dies 1 de juliol i 11 de novembre del 2011.

Levi  Obijiofor is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the School of Journalism and Communication, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. He was at various times Sub-Editor, Production Editor and Night Editor of The Guardian newspapers in Lagos, Nigeria. Between March 1995 and May 1996, he worked in the Division of Studies and Programming (BPE/BP) at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO where he edited the bulletin FUTURESCO and also coordinated the future-oriented studies program.


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