Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - Sixth Report


Memorandum submitted by the BBC World Service

  Between 1946 and 1992 the only language of the old Soviet Union in which the BBC broadcast was Russian. English programmes were also available but these attracted a very small audience. BBC short wave transmitters from the UK and from Cyprus were targeted on European Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia. Our Russian programmes focused mainly on the concerns of audiences in the European part of the former Soviet Union and on listeners with a Soviet education who happened to be living elsewhere in the country.

  With the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was clear that the BBC would have to take the new realities into account: the World Service realised there would be a need for region-specific focus and for new language services. The Ukrainian Service began broadcasting in June 1992. In November 1994 the World Service made a start in the Caucasus and Central Asia with the launch of Azeri and Uzbek, and added some regionally focused Russian. Kazakh and Kyrgyz came in June 1996. In addition listeners in Tajikistan have been able to turn to the long-established BBC Persian Service which has added a Central Asia regional focus to one of its daily programmes (Tajik is basically Persian written with the Cyrillic alphabet).

  The BBC now has a programme offer which is relevant to listeners in the five Central Asian republics and the three Caucasian republics (population 70 million). The Azeri programmes are also available on short wave for the 15 million Azeri speakers in Iran. The Central Asia/Caucasus Service is on the air five hours a day and another two hours' programming a day is specially scheduled for the region by the Russian and Persian services.


  From the outset delivery has been one of the biggest issues the BBC has faced. Russian-speakers in the European Russian tradition have been used to listening on short wave. But this is not true for non-Russians in the Central Asia/Caucasus area. If the BBC is to get through to such people it needs to be on local delivery systems which, in practical terms, means either transmitter hire or rebroadcasting arrangements, i.e. finding local stations who are prepared to include satellite-delivered BBC programmes in their own schedules.

  In Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan the BBC has almost nation-wide coverage thanks to agreements both with state broadcasters and with private stations. In all cases partners undertake not to interfere with the editorial integrity of the programming. Azerbaijan has just agreed to allow the BBC to open its own FM in the capital, Baku. In Tajikistan there is a single but very effective hired medium wave transmitter near the capital, Dushanbe. In Georgia and Armenia, there is some FM rebroadcasting in Tbilisi and Yerevan, the capitals. In Kazakhstan it has been very difficult to find good rebroadcasting partners and the licensing environment is also very unstable. In Turkmenistan, rebroadcasting and/or transmitter hire is unlikely in the near future.

  In Uzbekistan the BBC Central Asia Service was able to conclude an agreement with a branch of the local Ministry of Communications to hire a small network of medium wave transmitters giving coverage of several major towns. BBC Uzbek broadcasts made a substantial impact and, as successive crises gripped Afghanistan (Uzbekistan's southern neighbour) there were signs of steeply growing audiences. However, the Uzbeks terminated this arrangement at the end of 1998. The reason given was that the state broadcaster needed the transmitter network used by the BBC for a new programme strand, but there may also have been worries about the extent of the BBC's impact in Uzbekistan. Despite the best diplomatic endeavours, the BBC is still off local medium-wave transmitters. The position can be partially (but only partially) retrieved by using medium wave transmitters in neighbouring countries. This is a serious problem.


  Except in Azerbaijan where the BBC has 7 per cent weekly reach, audiences are largely unmeasured. Market research is difficult. There is strong anecdotal evidence for the impact the BBC makes. In Uzbekistan, the names of local correspondents became very widely known at the time of the first Taleban incursion into the north of Afghanistan. In Azerbaijan the BBC plays an essential role in the nation's reporting and understanding of itself. There is strong evidence from many parts of the region that government and opposition leaders listen regularly.


  An essential element in the BBC's impact is its ability to gather local news. There are World Service correspondents and production bureaux in Tashkent and Baku as well as local correspondents for the language services in all the capitals. A special effort has been made to train these local journalists to operate effectively to BBC standards.


  The World Service aims to set the lives of its listeners in Central Asia and the Caucasus (and elsewhere of course) in a world context. This means that the BBC offers a mix of local and international reporting, analyis and comment on news and current events, and tries to draw out their meaning and significance. In the context of this particular region there is a special responsibility to help spread knowledge and understanding of the way in which open free-market societies function and the British experience is often the prism used by programme-makers to view their theme. Another gap which the BBC can help make good is the widespread ignorance of history, nationhood and religion. There is also a thirst for English-language teaching programmes. This editorial vision often takes the Central Asia and Caucasus Service into a semi-educational role.

  Courses made by BBC English (the BBC's in-house English-language teaching arm) have been adopted as standard teaching material for secondary schools in Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan. There have been successful training initiatives for media managers and journalists funded by the British Government's Know How Fund. The most recent recipients have come from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. A new development has been civic educational programming and training funded by the OSCE. This has enabled the Central Asia and Caucasus Service to make programmes tailored for the region about human rights, and about good election practice (for Azerbaijan and Georgia ahead of elections there). In March 1999 the Head of the Service led a training seminar in Baku.


  The BBC Central Asia and Caucasus Service in London has become an important facilitator for communications between Britain and the region.There is a growing number of visitors at every level: private, specialist, academic, official, political. The Presidents and Prime Ministers of Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, the Foreign Ministers of Uzbekistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan, have all visited Bush House—some of them staying for several hours and taking the opportunity to talk to the programme-makers.

  There has been a growing perception in the region that the World Service plays a valuable role in the construction of civil society.

  This helps foster a climate in which other relationships can flourish. In Uzbekistan, for instance, the Ministry of Communications placed a large order for replacement television transmitter valves from a British company. This deal clearly came about because of the Ministry's previous contacts with the World Service.


  On Tuesday 16 February 1999, the BBC Uzbek programmes, extended specially to cover the news of bomb explosions in Tashkent, produced a good example of live reporting from the scene. The World Service also gave listeners in Uzbekistan an important perspective missing in the coverage of their domestic media: rigorous questioning of official and opposition views on possible motives and consequences of the event.

  In May 1998, the BBC Kyrgyz programme was first to confirm that large amounts of toxic chemicals had spilled into a river in eastern Kyrgyzstan, which was a source of drinking water, and fed Lake Issyk kul, a popular tourist resort in Central Asia. The Kyrgyz press wrote later that the BBC programmes were the best source of expert advice for people who were worried that they could be facing a major environmental disaster.

  Perhaps the Service's proudest programme venture was a series of travelogues made in 1997 by an Azeri and an Armenian journalist, who went together to Armenia and Azerbaijan and to Karabagh, the focus of the war between the two countries. Stories of people on both sides, and the reflections of the two journalists, each from the other's camp, broke national taboos in both countries. The main Armenian and Azeri dailies reviewed the series on their front pages. One wrote: "BBC has touched people in a way no politician could".


  The prime role of BBC Monitoring (funded on a subscription basis, not through the Grant in Aid), is to provide information services to the BBC and the British Government. The information is also available to Parliament on the Parliamentary intranet. In addition BBC Monitoring sells data commercially through an arrangement with BBC Worldwide Ltd., and it has a number of customers among UK businesses operating in the region.

  BBC Monitoring has been operating information-gathering units in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, since 1994 and in Baku, Azerbaijan, since 1997. They have enjoyed strong support from HM Ambassadors in these countries, both in the shape of advice, encouragement and contacts for our local teams, and in representations to the host governments.

  The information these units gather is monitored from the public media of the countries concerned—radio, television, news agencies, newspapers and the Internet. Examples would include the political developments in Azerbaijan leading up to and following the re-election of President Aliyev, developments in the Caspian oil industry, and relationships between Azerbaijan and Armenia. From Tashkent, they include the constant shifts in the situation in Afghanistan, which is covered from Afghan, Iranian and other regional sources. Uzbek, Iranian and other sources yield valuable information about the political situation in Uzbekistan, including the recent bomb attacks and the official reactions to them. BBC Monitoring reports regularly on the war and political situation in Tajikistan, the role of Russian forces there, the allegations of Uzbek involvement and relations between the two countries. Another regular topic is the development of the economy of Kazakhstan and the political events there.

  The Central Asia Unit also collects some information through remotely-sited equipment, some of it located at the British embassies in the respective countries. In particular, the equipment in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan, makes a valuable contribution to its coverage.

March 1999

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Prepared 27 July 1999