News media mainstay plans East Africa beachhead

JOHANNESBURG — Al-Jazeera, already a mainstay in Africa, has announced plans to launch a Swahili-language news network next year based in Nairobi, where Al-Jazeera English already has an East African bureau.

According to local sources, Al-Jazeera has begun an aggressive recruitment drive to staff the new bureau.

The move is part of the Qatari-owned net’s global expansion that will also include new channels broadcast in Turkish and Spanish.

Execs at Al-Jazeera are tight-lipped about the Swahili station, confirming only that it will launch in 2012.

Sources in Nairobi say the network is likely to debut in time for Kenya’s next presidential election, which could be held as early as August.

The channel will broadcast across East Africa, where Swahili is the dominant language, spoken by more than 100 million people.

While the size and scope of the new station is unclear, plans are said to include a Nairobi headquarters with journalists and producers stationed around the region. Most of the local producers and technicians are likely to be plucked from the ranks of the Swahili-language competition in Nairobi.

The move is a vote of confidence for the vibrant media environment in the Kenyan capital, which already houses news bureaus for major international media companies including CNN and the BBC.

It also comes at a time of stiffening competition among pay-TV operators in the region, with lowered prices attracting more viewers. Multichoice Kenya is launching a mobile TV service to capitalize on the booming mobile market.

Al-Jazeera’s push has reportedly stirred concerns among its rivals.

“There’s a bit of a panic from the three media networks here (NTV, KTN, Citizen) over what exactly is going to happen,” says one local journalist familiar with the recruitment drive. “Some managers may see their entire Swahili news team swept away.”

The deep-pocketed Qataris are already rumored to be poaching talent from Kenyan competitors, as well as the BBC’s Swahili radio service.

An Al-Jazeera spokesman says that no decisions on personnel or programming have been taken yet.

But sources in Nairobi say Al-Jazeera has nabbed Tido Mhando and Joseph Warungu, former BBC heavyweights, to run the new network. Mhando is the former head of the BBC’s Swahili Service, while Warungu topped the pubcaster’s Africa Service in London.

The new net should capitalize on the growing popularity of Al-Jazeera English, which many East African viewers consider to be more objective than Western competitors like the BBC and CNN.

Despite concerns from its rivals, the launch of the new network is likely to be a boost for the rapidly expanding local market.

“Overall I think it’s going to be good for the industry here,” says a reporter for one of Kenya’s leading Swahili news nets. “Journalists will have a lot more opportunities. The local stations will have to up their game.”

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