The UK's Foreign Policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan

Written evidence from BBC World Service

in Afghanistan and Pakistan

1. Executive Summary

BBC World Service is the world’s foremost provider of independent and authoritative news, offering radio, web and mobile services in 32 languages and two flagship television channels in Arabic and Persian. Broadcasts are funded through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by a Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid. It has a weekly audience of 180m – the highest of all international broadcasters. Operating under the BBC’s Royal Charter, the World Service has full editorial and managerial independence.

· BBC World Service, through its provision of independent and trusted news and analysis, has and continues to make a significant impact in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a major contribution to building an informed society in these fragile and unstable countries, both prominent in HMG’s international priorities.

· It stands apart from domestic media for its depth of analysis and complete impartiality and makes this an inclusive process through expanding participatory tools. In rural areas where its services are most relied upon, BBC World Service acts as a bulwark against insurgent communications strategies through its values of impartiality, accuracy and independence.

· Through this, it brings credit to the UK as audiences appreciate the BBC for what it does and in turn have a more positive view of the UK.

However, to maintain this impact and to continue to be a relevant contribution to Pakistani and Afghan societies, the BBC must adapt to changing trends in media consumption. To be able to do this, dedicated funding will be required and BBC World Service has outlined proposals for how this may be achieved.

2. About BBC World Service

BBC World Service is the world’s foremost provider of independent and authoritative news, offering radio, web and mobile services in 32 languages and two flagship television channels in Arabic and Persian. Broadcasts are funded through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by a Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid. It has a weekly audience of 180m – the highest of all international broadcasters, larger than all the US state-funded international broadcasting services combined at less than half the cost per user. Operating under the BBC’s Royal Charter, the World Service has full editorial and managerial independence.


The Persian/Pashto Service broadcasts a schedule of 15 hours daily in Dari and Pashto. There is a news bulletin every hour plus current affairs analysis, audience talk shows and educational programming including the popular AEP soap opera New Home New Life, as well as cultural and music programmes. There are also two daily news and current affairs programmes in the Uzbek language for Uzbek speakers mainly in the North of the country. The programmes are broadcast on short wave throughout the country, as well as via a network of 21 FM relays in main cities. BBC Persian television is also available on satellite in Afghanistan.

In addition, the BBC World Service Trust – the BBC’s international charity - runs the Afghan Education Projects (AEP), producing educational programming covering health, education, governance and human rights and including addressing the underlying causes of radicalisation and conflict through drama. AEP is the largest media-for-development initiative in Afghanistan, working with a wide variety of organisations and institutions, including the Afghan Government, Afghan broadcasters, non-governmental organisations and schools. AEP programmes are broadcast by the BBC World Service. They are then re-broadcast on 40 private FM radio stations and on the state broadcaster Radio Afghanistan (RTA).


BBC Urdu broadcasts two hours of daily news and current affairs on short wave plus news bulletins on 37 FM partners. BBC Urdu also operates a fully multimedia online service with news, analysis, forums, video reports, blogs, live/on-demand audio, plus video reports available via online partners (e.g. YouTube).

As well as its Persian, Pashto and Urdu Service offices in London, BBC World Service has bureaux in Kabul, Mazar, Herat, Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and employs nearly 100 locally-engaged journalists, producers and other staff in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The BBC’s correspondent in Tehran was expelled following the elections in Iran, and it has not yet been possible to replace him.

3. The media environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan

3.a Access and trends in media technology

In Afghanistan, radio access is the principal source of information, with access around 85% to 90% in all areas. Other media technologies are expanding but there are broad disparities between urban and rural areas (where over 70% of the population lives). This is leading to an increasing urban-rural media divide for local media access.

TV access is growing, especially among the new urban middle class for whom over 90% have access in urban areas as opposed to circa 50% in rural areas. This growth is being spurred by increasing provisions in electricity, currently 42% of Afghan households have an electricity supply: as this increases, TV viewership will rise too, and replace radio as the main source of information in main cities. Already 21% say television is their main source of information for national news – 51% say radio.

Mobile phone access has expanded rapidly. In May 2010, the Afghan Government estimated mobile phone reach was around 85% of the population with 13.5 million mobile phone subscribers, an increase of 4.5 million subscribers in a year. 65% of users send text messages according to the Asia Foundation.

Afghanistan has limited access to internet (6%) and is hampered by poor infrastructure. Websites, blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are still a long way from becoming fully developed means of communication inside Afghanistan. The Taliban still however post music videos on YouTube "to raise morale, patience and sentiments of the nation". [1] Internet access should grow considerably once the extension of the fibre optic cable, which connects Afghanistan with the outside world, is completed, with this expected to increase internet access from the current 5% to 20% by 2012.

In Pakistan, television has already become the dominant media platform. A BBC World Service survey at the end of 2008 found that over 90% of the adult urban population and 67% of the rural population watch at least once a week. Cable and satellite TV access was 61% in urban areas (up from 45% in the previous year), in rural areas it had risen from 4% to 8%. Audiences in rural areas however are more reliant on state-run TV channels and radio broadcasts on medium or short wave. Qualitative research indicates that TV consumption has become part of family culture for many as an integral part of the Pakistani household - one focus group participant responded that: "without TV, I would feel as if someone very dear in the family has died".

Internet access in Pakistan is growing slowly but its reach is still below the average for Asian countries, with a penetration rate of 11.3% estimated in December 2009. This figure may neglect the political impact that the internet has, as demonstrated by the role of Pakistani bloggers in by-passing domestic media restrictions imposed during the state of emergency in 2007, spreading news about demonstrations and arrests. Mobile subscribers have been growing more rapidly, from fewer than one million in 2001 to nearly 100 million as of December 2009.

3.b Character of the domestic media environment

In Pakistan, state-controlled television has a dominant position with the government-owned Pakistan TV as the most watched station, but this is now being challenged by rapid growth in satellite and regional-language TV channels.

However, this growth has not yet led to improved quality in news and analysis. Most private broadcasters’ offerings remain relatively unsophisticated and under-funded. Their journalists lack training, and their independence is compromised by media owners’ affiliation with political parties and individual politicians. Pakistanis complain about repetitive formats, poor quality and ambulance chasing. An analysis by Human Capital undertaken for BBC Global News in December 2009 registered concerns in Pakistan in relation to domestic standards of journalism, with commercial pressures felt to be leading to a decline in serious news provision and a tendency towards sensationalism.

On commercial radio, private FM stations mostly broadcast music and talk shows as there are restrictions on broadcasting news and current affairs. Pakistan’s regulator PEMRA rules state that stations may only broadcast local news and rebroadcast news and current affairs of the national broadcasters (PTV and PBC) and BBC Urdu. In recent years, the BBC has faced difficulties with PEMRA in maintaining FM news broadcasts in Pakistan. The service launched in June 2007, was disrupted and the BBC was taken off air by the PEMRA; the BBC subsequently challenged this in the Pakistani courts, and the situation was further complicated when the state of emergency was declared, although short wave services were unaffected. FM news broadcasts were restored in May 2009, but there were more difficulties in March 2010 which resulted in stations being allowed to carry a maximum of three ten minute bulletins daily, now provided by the BBC to 37 stations.

The operational environment for journalists also has an impact - Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work in. In 2009, according to the Pakistani media resource centre Intermedia, 10 journalists were killed, 10 kidnapped and 70 assaulted and there were a total of 163 cases of direct attacks on the media, including murders, assaults, kidnappings, explicit threats, censorship cases and attacks on media properties and establishments. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and large parts of Baluchistan are effectively no-go areas for journalists.

In Afghanistan, the rapid growth of the media industry following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, has slowed in recent years, with only a handful of new radio and television stations launched since May 2009. There are now about 100 radio stations and more than 40 television channels operating across Afghanistan. Media ownership ranges from the Afghan Government – which includes provincial political-military powers – and privately-owned media, to media funded with the help of foreign assistance programmes. Local strongmen control much of the area, including the media, and reporters are divided along ethnic, linguistic and political lines. Most TV channels promote their own particular political, religious, ethnic or tribal interests.

Pressure from insurgents, powerful former warlords, drug dealers and officials has meant that journalists are afraid to touch on controversial subjects such as national unity, crimes committed by specific warlords, and corrupt practices. In its 2010 annual survey of media freedom in 195 countries and territories, the US-based media watchdog Freedom House described Afghanistan as ‘Not Free’, placing it at 165 out of 196 rankings. Acts of violence against journalists rose by 70% in 2009, the majority committed by government agencies, according to the Afghan media development organisation Nai. This has contributed to the lack of impartial and authoritative analysis and editorial depth in the domestic media.

BBC World Service’s impact in Afghanistan/Pakistan

BBC World Service has had a presence in the region for nearly seventy years and now broadcasts language services in Urdu, Persian, Pashto, Uzbek and Urdu. It has had a historic role as the de facto national broadcaster and a lifeline service when no independent media existed there. There has since been an explosion in local media in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but BBC World Service leads as the most trusted source of news, information and analysis on TV or radio in the region. The impact of this service was acknowledged in the Afghan Government’s National Development Framework in 2002: ‘Our people are poor, the majority is illiterate, but the sophistication of political debate and awareness is remarkable, in great part due to the international media’. [2]

BBC World Service has a weekly audience in Afghanistan of 6.5 million, and over nine million Pakistanis listen weekly. Its importance in Pakistan is greatest in rural areas which deliver 78% of our audience. A survey in early 2009 interviewed a sample of 4,000 adults in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan: 30% rated radio as the most valuable source of information, with 13% saying television. When asked about which stations they listened to regularly, 25% said BBC Pashto, followed by Voice of America’s Radio Deewa at 16%. One indication of the value of the BBC comes from the rural areas and villages of southern Afghanistan, where local people have asked the Mullahs in their mosques to adjust the evening prayer times so that they can listen to the BBC programmes.

BBC World Service achieves this impact in Afghanistan and Pakistan through a schedule of domestic and international news with a strong emphasis on discussion, and interactive debate on civil society and democratic politics. There are also education and development focused-programming provided by the World Service Trust including the popular drama serial New Home New Life. Some examples of the regular analytical and participatory programmes that BBC World Service provides to facilitate and inform public discussion in the region include:

Talking Point: live weekly phone-in programme dealing with important political, social, cultural and economic issues in the context of News & Current Affairs. Listeners ring in and put questions to a studio guest, usually a government minister, regional governor, politician or other well-known public figure. It has proved very popular with our listeners and generates a big audience response, examples of subjects discussed recently include ‘Is it possible to separate the Taliban and al-Qaeda from each other?’ and ‘How can the future Afghan Government win the public confidence and trust?’

Investigative reports: weekly 12-15 minute investigative report slot on a topical issue, discussed with relevant people and analysts.

Jirga: weekly 10-minute slot in the Pashto programme for southern Afghanistan, usually recorded locally by our stringer, discussing important local issues with local people. Examples include the problems of education in Helmand or taxes and revenue in Kunar.

There are strong examples of the effect of this discursive and analytical approach in BBC World Service’s stories that have had a major impact on informing the public agenda. For example:

Pakistan Floods: As the worst floods in the region’s history submerged one-fifth of the country, BBC Urdu collaborated with the BBC World Service Trust to start broadcasts three times a day aimed at providing vital information to flood victims. In many instances, officials conceded that they came to know about the gravity of the situation in a particular area from our broadcasts. These Lifeline Pakistan broadcasts proved so popular that when we planned to end them after one month, several government officials, ministers and aid agencies requested us to continue them as a result of which we are still on air. More funding has been provided for at least two months.

Plane crash in Afghanistan: After a Pamir Airways passenger plane crashed in May 2010 and 44 lives were lost, BBC World Service’s Afghan stream broadcast reports, interviews, a Talking Point programme and challenged Afghan officials about the demand for stringent air safety regulations. The issue was then taken up by the Afghan Government, with the President ordering a review of air safety regulations as well as reviewing the air transport companies.

Missing People: In the years following 9/11, thousands of political activists were picked up by Pakistani intelligence agencies as terror suspects and never heard of again. Their families petitioned every avenue from government officials to courts of law with little result. Because of the sensitivity attached to the issue, the local media were just not reporting the story. BBC Urdu developed some very high profile programming highlighting the plight of the families of these missing people. From setting up live webcasts to carrying out independent investigations, we kept the issue in focus till the Government came under enough pressure from international human rights agencies to respond. Encouraged by our coverage, the families formed an association and the matter was eventually taken up by the country's Supreme Court and led to the release of hundreds of such detainees.

Alongside this, educational programmes funded by the BBC World Service Trust and broadcast on BBC World Service have a powerful effect on informing people’s decisions. For example, the flagship radio drama, New Home New Life, is Afghanistan’s most popular cultural programme with a huge following. Its educational value has been demonstrated by a United Nations report showing an association between listenership and lower casualties from landmines, suggesting that regular listeners were only half as likely to be involved in a mine incident as non-listeners, because they acted on well-researched advice embedded in a number of long-running storylines.

Surveys in the region confirm a role of providing a vehicle for an informed society and the value attributed to that by audiences, as indicated by the results of a 2010 Human Capital report (below). Net strength of agreement is based on the weighted average score after assigning scores of +2, +1, 0, -1 and -2 to responses of ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘neither agree nor disagree’, ‘disagree’ and ‘strongly disagree’ respectively:

There was strong agreement in this survey over these positive characteristics compared to other international media organisations, which included:

- The standards of balance, fairness, authority and trust, backed up by an extensive newsgathering resource and the highest editorial values, resulting in highly informative and edifying content.

- The perception that the BBC is independent from the UK Government and truly international in outlook.

- The breadth and depth of the BBC’s coverage.

- An important history of providing trustworthy, accurate and credible journalism.

Providing this brings credit to the UK. The survey demonstrated that 84% of respondents who had listened to BBC World Service in Pakistan said it made them think of the UK more positively. Nearly 90% considered that the UK’s provision of BBC World Service to be essential or very important.

This is also an area where the UK has a comparative advantage over its ISAF partners on trust and cost effectiveness. Qualitative research by Kantar media in February 2010 suggested listeners perceive Voice of America as more biased and having an American agenda, although they describe it as an innovative, challenging and informative station. This is important to note as the US Government places increasing emphasis on media and communications. The US Regional Stabilization Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, revised in 2010, commits to an increase in communications supporting media from £50 million in FY 2009 to £140 million in FY 2010:

"The Taliban and al-Qaeda use information as a weapon, dominating the information space. While our previous strategy focused largely on traditional public diplomacy and communications tools, we are now elevating our communications efforts in importance and innovation. New programs will empower Afghans and Pakistanis to challenge the extremist narrative and offer their own vision for Afghanistan and Pakistan’s future." [3]

Professor Paul Collier’s view is that building an informed society is an essential requirement to effective development. Access to information enables citizens to hold Governments to account and helps establish an informed partnership between Government and society. By creating fora for exchange of ideas and views, BBC World Service helps Governments develop policies that benefit the many, not the few, rather than being driven by sectional or ethnic interest. With a focus on dispassionate and informed analysis, and its use of participatory tools, BBC World Service, through its output, news agenda leadership and qualitative impact, helps grow informed societies in areas where effective development is most difficult and corruption prevalent.

5. Proposals

BBC World Service has outlined the proposals below as part of its submission to the UK Spending Review (July 2010). These would only be possible if dedicated additional funding is available. One option would be to consider whether they could be funded through ODA.

We propose to provide TV programming in Urdu targeted towards Pakistan’s growing middle class, distributed via partners – or, if budgets permit, a full BBC channel.

- In Pakistan, despite huge pressures, a middle class has emerged that is more politically confident than before, which has driven demand for democratisation and respect for human rights in recent years - and has the potential to act as a major internal stabilising force in the country. Most urban households now have access to cable television, and the middle class is hungry for news which is independent of political bias and has a quality of insight and analysis that no Pakistani news provider currently provides. Market research undertaken by BBC World Service indicates dissatisfaction with the level of insight currently provided by TV and over-emphasis on breaking news - considered to be sensationalist, inaccurate, biased in presentation and forced to toe the government line.

- BBC World News, the BBC’s English language international news channels, ranks well in market research with its TV competitors such as CNN on credibility and accuracy, but audience research indicates that an offer in Urdu specifically targeted for the Pakistani audience is in demand. Furthermore, the 2010 qualitative research prepared for the BBC Trust by Kantar media reveals that the use of local correspondents and the Urdu language by the BBC Urdu Service is a real area of strength. It is generally perceived as authentic, clear and simple for all Urdu speakers. It helps to make the service relevant to opinion formers and even more, in their view, for the wider Pakistani population - and is felt to help people speak better Urdu.

- BBC World Service’s research indicates that launching a TV version of the BBC Urdu Service would be universally very popular and provide much needed depth of leadership in news and analysis on Pakistan’s dominant medium, constituting a long lasting and powerful contribution to the welfare and development of Pakistani society, something that would substantially contribute to HMG’s ‘particular emphasis to helping Pakistan transform itself into a more stable, prosperous and democratic state’.

- Programmes would offer detailed analysis, searching interviews and debates, giving citizens a unique opportunity to call their politicians to account. They would offer a wider, international perspective, explaining how global developments are affecting Pakistan, and how events in Pakistan are seen by the rest of the world. Programmes have a broad agenda, covering a wide range of topics such as culture, religion, IT, business and economy, technology, health and sport.

We propose to increase hours of broadcast for Pashto radio, and to explore opportunities to launch TV programming in Pashto when funding and market conditions permit.

- In Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas, radio remains the main source of news, and BBC World Service leads on trust and audiences in these areas. However, competition for these audiences and communities in vital areas comes from insurgency communications campaigns. The influence that these communications have in increasing violence and instability inhibits the welfare and economic development of fragile states. As the insurgency agenda uses targeted mobilisation to influence communities and individuals to participate in and support the insurgency, both locally and globally, and shifts the perception of the conflict through partisan portrayal of victories and defeats. As David Kilcullen has written: "In military terms, for AQ the main effort is information; for us, information is a supporting effort. Al Qaida is highly skilled at exploiting multiple, diverse actions by individuals and groups, framing them in a propaganda narrative to manipulate local and global audiences. This propaganda capability is central to the objective of creating and manipulating local allies and portraying itself as the vanguard of the resistance". [4]

- As part of a broader communications strategy, the Afghan Taliban intermittently run a number of unlicensed FM radio stations from areas where they feel confident they can broadcast without interference from the US-led coalition or hostile Afghan groups. Reports of this activity have been found in the southern and south-eastern provinces of Helmand, Ghazni, Nurestan, Khost and Paktia. Radio Shar’iah has been described as a typical example, with reports of content including commentaries, pro-Taliban songs, exhortations to Afghans to stay away from the election process and threats to kill those who co-operate with international forces. The Afghan Taliban also operates a multi-lingual website via which a half-hour daily radio broadcast can be listened to.

- In Pakistan’s tribal regions, the Taliban have been broadcasting on FM stations since 2004. Many of these were run by local notables and clerics and some, most notoriously that operated by Maulana Fazlullah in Swat, openly acted as instruments of Pakistani Taliban control of their localities.

Unlike these partisan communications, our audiences know that the BBC is completely independent and impartial – and that is precisely why it is central to diffusing their impact. It earned the trust of the population decades before the insurgency, by honestly and impartially reflecting a plurality of viewpoints and political persuasions. The values that the BBC upholds therefore - accuracy, impartiality, independence, fairness - are a bulwark against the use of media and communications to present distorted and hostile perspectives. It is those values that have enabled BBC World Service to retain global trust and credibility. We propose this expansion to our services therefore as a fundamental contribution to HMG’s development priorities on 'stabilising insecure areas' and 'improving the effectiveness of the Afghan Government'. [5]

11 October 2010

[1] Taliban Cultural Commission’s guidelines for singers and poets, May 2008

[2] National Development Framework, Afghan Government 2002

[3] See the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan ’s Regional Stabilization Strategy revised in 2010.

[4] Dr David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla, 2009

[5] DFID Structural Reform Plan, 2010