Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) is changing course and going forward in a slimmed-down version: a smaller organisation focussing on Free Speech. From the old RNW ("2.0") to the new: a tour of the desks which will be terminated or are changing their approach.
Part II: the Spanish desk
“The Chinese will be quick to fill the gap we leave behind,” says Wim Jansen head of the Spanish department.
“Under the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, Radio Netherlands Worldwide provided many in Latin America with a lifeline to the outside world - a solid source of trustworthy information.
At the time, we were unaware of precisely what impact we had but, when the dictatorships ended and democracy emerged, it became crystal clear. We’d been of enormous value for people from high to low on the social ladder.
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, who was in prison during the 1970s, says RNW kept him going. We were the only reliable broadcaster which he could get in prison.”
The first Spanish-language broadcasts were aired shortly after RNW was founded in 1947. At first, they were chiefly informative and cultural but they increasingly became more political during the time of the dictatorships, providing information to countries without press freedom.
In the 1970s, RNW’s role was enhanced by the great interest generated in the Netherlands. This interest was partly fired by the stream of political refugees entering the country.
One of them was José Zepeda, a former political prisoner who fled the dictatorship in Chile in 1976. He started working for RNW that year and became head of the Spanish desk in 1994. Jansen:
“His enormous network and standing meant he was essential in putting the department on the map. Doors opened for him at the very highest level. Presidents asked José ‘Pepe’ Zepeda to interview them, not the other way round.”
The figures relating to RNW’s impact in Latin America speak for themselves: a million short-wave listeners; eight million via partner stations; 200,000 internet visitors a month; 110,000 audio downloads via partner stations and 75,000 video viewings. Especially popular were programmes such as La Matinal, a daily current affairs show, the weekly interactive radio show, Cartas, and the monthly Spanish-language version of the Euro Hit 40 show.
Highlights among years of successful programmes included coverage of the marriage of Crown Prince Willem-Alexander to his Argentinian-born wife Máxima in 2002. Her father Jorge Zorreguieta had served as a minister in Argentina’s Videla military regime and because of this was stopped from attending his daughter’s wedding.
The Spanish desk’s live coverage of the royal wedding included a report from the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires - who are still demanding information about loved ones who disappeared in the Videla regime’s Dirty War.
Its reports about Hurricane Mitch, which left a trail of devastation across half of Latin America were another highpoint. While the communications networks of the affected countries were out of action, RNW was able to disseminate a mass of information.
As part of the new RNW, the Spanish desk is set to become much smaller: it will lose more than half its staff. It will only produce programmes catering to the new focus (free speech), the new target audience (people from 15 to 35), and the new target countries (Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico). Internet will become far more important as a means of distribution, with only La Matinal and some successful radio projects continuing to be broadcast.
The response to the changes to the Spanish desk has been fierce and emotional and has come from throughout Latin America. Thousands of e-mails and letters have been received, mostly from the countries which will no longer be covered by RNW. A group of intellectuals wrote to the Dutch government, and the board and editor-in-chief of RNW. Petitions were organised in Colombia and Venezuela and the ombudsman of Costa Rica wrote to his Dutch counterpart. Despite all the efforts, the changes are nevertheless going forward.
Who will replace RNW?
The question remains as to who will take over RNW’s journalistic work in the region. Jansen:
“Radio France International and Deutsche Welle are both present in the region, but they are relatively small players. The Voice of America has never been taken seriously due to mistrust. The BBC is also back in the region. The probable winners, though, are the Chinese, an up-and-coming power in the media world. They’ve been working on getting a foot in the Latin American door for a couple of years. Their broadcasts are not fired by politics, but centre on culture and background. They’ll now be certain to take the opportunity they’re being given.”