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Global Media Forum: From government mouthpiece to public broadcaster

What role do public broadcasters play in democratization processes? Ilim Karypbekov, Director General of Kyrgyzstan's OTRK and Johannes Grotzky, former Bayerischer Runkfunk radio director, offer their views.

Ilim Karypbekov and Johannes Grotzky (photo: DW Akademie/Nadine Wojcik).

Ilim Karypbekov (left) and Johannes Grotzky

At a DW Akademie panel looking at "Independent voices or mouthpieces of the rulers?", media experts from Kyrgyzstan, Namibia, Thailand and Germany described their experiences with public broadcasting structures and reform processes. The panel was part of DW's Global Media Forum 2015 held in Bonn, Germany. Ilim Karypbekov is Director General of Kyrgyzstan's public service radio and TV broadcaster, Obschestvennaya Tele-Radio Kompaniya (OTRK). Professor Johannes Grotzky is a former director of radio at Bavaria's public broadcasting service, Bayrischer Rundfunk, and a media consultant specializing in eastern and southern Europe. The interview was conducted at the end of the panel session.

Is there still a justification for public broadcasters, given their falling ratings, financial difficulties and lack of young viewers?
Johannes Grotzky: Yes, because they are the only non-profit media organization that is guaranteed by the state but not controlled by it. Public broadcasters are essential because they're not concerned with market values or advertising slots and don't depend on investments.
Ilim Karypbekov: Public broadcasting is still new to us in Kyrgyzstan and many people don't really understand what's behind it. But I see it as the only way for Kyrgyzstan to move toward independent information and pluralism.

What are the challenges facing OTRK in its transition from a state-owned broadcaster to a public service broadcaster?

Ilim Karypbekov, Director General of Kyrgyzstan's OTRK (photo: DW Akademie/Nadine Wojcik).

Ilim Karypbekov, Director General of Kyrgyzstan's OTRK

IK: There are three main challenges. Firstly, many politicians fail to understand that OTRK is no longer owned by the state and no longer unconditionally broadcasts political opinions - this is something we constantly come up against. Secondly, we have had to retain OTRK's entire staff from its state-run days, but we only need about 200 of the 1,000 employees we have. Given Kyrgyzstan precarious economy, we can't retrench anyone but we need to find some way of dealing with so many people. The third challenge is that we're facing huge competition from the Russian government's information policy. Because it's better financed, Russian television can deliver very good productions and formats and Russian stations are currently more popular in Kyrgyzstan than OTRK. But this means people here are being subjected to Russia's information campaigns and propaganda.

Adequate funding is your greatest challenge then?
IK: Yes. We have a very difficult financial situation. Our budget comes out of the general national budget but it hasn't increased in the last five years. So we have to find additional funding if we want to survive. We're working with international organizations and also cooperating with international broadcasters such as China's CCTV. The latter offers us program content which not only saves us production costs but also offers alternative viewpoints to the Russian ones.
JG: It's a great disadvantage to public broadcasters if they are financed directly from the national budget, as is the case in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. It allows parliaments to easily alter funding according to the country's economic situation or in response to political favors. Independent journalism is at risk if it isn't financially independent.

What do the processes of media transformation in former Soviet Union countries have in common?

Johannes Grotzky (photo: DW Akademie/Nadine Wojcik).

Professor Johannes Grotzky

JG: Ilim Karypbekov has already mentioned one commonality - politicians nowadays, just like the political players in the Soviet era, still think that once they're in power, they have control over radio and TV. These countries are also finding that informational programs offered by public broadcasters are now competing with foreign investors that have pushed their way into the young media markets and are now offering attractive entertainment programs and soap operas.
IK: I've only been at OTRK for three months so at this point I can't make any broad comparisons. But what is clear is that Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia that has undergone a transition from a state-owned broadcaster to a public service broadcaster. Neighboring countries don’t really understand why we've done this. But while Kyrgyzstan doesn't have natural resources like oil and gas, and is experiencing financial difficulties, we're an open society and are looking ahead. I'm very pleased about this.

How can international media development support processes like these?
JG: Germany itself underwent a transformation process following World War Two and we've learned a lot from this. Back then, various models were introduced in the different occupied zones and were based on American, British or French equivalents. It was eventually decided to create a model similar to the BBC and this proved of great benefit to Germany's media landscape. These days, however, it's critical that the states themselves become actively involved in process of transformation instead of relying solely on external actors.

IK: We're working closely with DW Akademie as well as Internews, especially in offering our staff basic and advanced training. This is important because many of my colleagues learned the trade, as well as the media standards, during the Soviet era. Our international partners are also supporting us with equipment. DW Akademie, for example, has helped us set up regional studios.

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