Written evidence submitted by BBC World Service (AFG0024)

 

 

Introduction

 

BBC World Service provides trusted news to radio, TV and digital audiences around the world in 42 languages including English, reaching an audience of 351m.  It is chiefly funded by the UK Licence Fee with additional funding of £94.4m a year coming from Government in the form of a Grant via the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

 

The BBC’s unrivalled status in Afghanistan as the most reliable, trustworthy and independent news source[1] and its extraordinarily high reach has meant that it was regarded by some as a national broadcaster in recent years. 

 

The BBC is both an independent observer of recent events in Afghanistan and is directly engaged with them – prior to the Taliban takeover, it had over a hundred staff in Afghanistan, working on essential lifeline services in Pashto, Dari, Uzbek and Persian.  As well as covering the story, the BBC has worked hard to ensure the welfare and safety of these staff. The World Service’s longstanding presence in Afghanistan makes the BBC an important source of trusted news – it reaches 11.4m people every week – over 50% of the adult population[2] - but like all media in the country the BBC has to calibrate day to day how it can best continue to provide these services and support its staff.

 

This evidence sets out to explain the World Service’s history in Afghanistan, its response to recent events, give an overview of the current media environment and plans to continue to serve Afghan audiences.

 

The BBC in Afghanistan

 

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the BBC’s Pashto serviceThe service started broadcasting in 1981 in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and at the height of the Cold War.  At a time when information in the country was under strict government control, the BBC’s radio broadcasts in Pashto became staple listening for millions in Afghanistan.  Mullahs were asked to adjust the evening prayer times to allow people to tune in to the BBC.

 

From the mid-1990s, the weekly radio soap-opera New Home New Life broadcast on the World Service in Pashto as well as Dari working in collaboration with the BBC’s international development charity BBC World Service Trust (now BBC Media Action) started to raise topical issues such as awareness of mines (a scourge that claimed thousands of civilian lives), immunisation, and refugees’ return to their villages.  Aimed at empowering women, it is also a radio drama in its own right, bringing together entire families where radio sets had to be shared with neighbours.  It is now produced by the Afghan Education Production Organization (AEPO), with continued editorial support from BBC Media Action.

 

Another notable BBC World Service/BBC Media Action collaboration was Afghan Woman's Hour which was broadcast for five years from 2005 to 2010.  The weekly radio show highlighted the role of women in Afghan society and aimed to inspire women and girls to participate more fully in the rebuilding of their country.  Programmes focusing on female issues such as domestic violence, female identity, women’s rights, and sexual and reproductive health have also featured across language services directed at Afghanistan.

 

Distribution channels in Afghanistan have increased over the years with BBC content now available on radio, TV, online and social media platforms in Pashto, Dari, Uzbek, Persian and English.  The BBC operates a network of 32 BBC FM frequencies across the country and offers TV and social media content in Pashto, Uzbek and Persian working with partner channels.  Dari and Pashto is also transmitted on shortwave to provide complete geographic coverage of the country.

 

Until recently the BBC also operated a partnership with Afghanistan’s national broadcaster, Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), enabling the BBC’s flagship radio news programmes for Afghan audiences to be rebroadcast live in Dari and in Pashto daily via RTA’s FM network as well as on medium wave.  

 

Commercially funded English services BBC World News TV and bbc.com/news are also available in Afghanistan. 

 

BBC Media Action projects in Afghanistan address important issues such as health, political participation and accountability, media development and gender rights and inclusion. Health communication projects have included maternal and child health, polio immunisation and most recently, on awareness and hygiene behaviour change around COVID-19.

 

Its discussion and debate programme, Open Jirga, established in 2012 in collaboration with the World Service ensured ordinary people from across the country could question leaders and hold them to account.  Made in partnership with RTA as a flagship programme for the channel, it was also broadcast on BBC Pashto and Dari.  Impact research found that 70% of respondents reported learning about the peace process and talks from Open Jirga and 79% reported learning about voting rights.  In 2021, Open Jirga focused on the Afghan peace process, accompanied by a digital initiative aimed at young people.

 

Media environment

 

Development of the media has been one of the biggest achievements of the past twenty years in Afghanistan.  From 1996 to 2001, when the Taliban held power over roughly three-quarters of Afghanistan, and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, TV and the internet was completely banned in the country.  There was only one radio station, which was called the Voice of Shariat (meaning Islamic law). 

 

In the last 20 years and thanks to financial and logistical support from the international community, private media have developed to the point where they have edged out state media in terms of influence.

 

By 2020 there were approximately 60 private TV channels and 175 radio stations as well as hundreds of publications.  However, despite this huge growth in media outlets and the introduction of an Article allowing for freedom of the press and expression in the Afghanistan Constitution, attacks on journalists started to increase from 2017 onwards and various actors including the Taliban began attempting to exert more control over the media.

 

The return of the Taliban in 2021 brings with it new challenges including restrictions on media and freedom of movement issues.  The Taliban have already set three broad parameters for media – It shouldn’t be against the a) Principles of Islam; b) National Interest and c) it should be impartialMore specific regulations are expected in the near future which will no doubt lead to more restrictions on coverage and newsgathering.

 

As a result, the space for robust and independent journalism has reduced dramatically and many are scared to speak up.  Social media users have been deleting their posts and are extremely cautious about what they share. A number of local journalists have been harassed, with some briefly detained and beaten mainly for covering protests in various parts of the country. 

 

Local media programmes have already become less diverse in terms of content, less ambitious and less challenging.  A few media outlets have closed and more are expected to do so, mainly due to financial hardship, lack of donor money, censorship and brain drain.  Some, mainly state-run outlets, have been taken over by the Taliban.

 

As the role and reach of local media reduces, competition by regional and international broadcasters will increase.  There has already been a notable increase in the number of Pakistani and Iranian journalists in the country.

 

Meanwhile, the Taliban is embracing social media grasping the opportunity to control its public image nationally and internationally with Taliban officials posting regularly on Twitter in Dari, Pashto, Arabic and English, as described by BBC Monitoring’s Jihadist media expert in the i article included in the footnote[3].

 

It is clear that the BBC’s role in the provision of impartial and independent news and information to Afghanistan will be even more crucial in the coming months.

 

Issues and BBC response following the Taliban takeover

 

Staff in Afghanistan – The BBC has been particularly focused on protecting the welfare of its staff; understandably many of them wish to leave Afghanistan, given the threats to media workers from the Taliban.  We have been working around the clock with governments, the military and expert teams to find options for evacuating World Service and Media Action colleagues and their immediate families from Afghanistan.  We have so far managed to successfully evacuate several hundred people (around a two-thirds of staff and their families) to the UK and a small number to Pakistan.  They have been through a harrowing experience with many facing squalor, mayhem and a lack of basic amenities and will continue to need considerable support.

 

We still have a large number of staff remaining in Afghanistan.  Not all of these staff wish to leave but we are doing everything we can to support those who wish to as well as supporting those who wish to stay.  We are in constant contact with staff and account for everybody every day, as well as having regular communications with them with latest security advice, mental health support and guidance.  There is a special focus on supporting our female staff who face particular pressures and those high risk colleagues who are looking after their safety and security.

 

The intention is to retain a newsgathering presence in Afghanistan as well as open other roles in the region, particularly in Pakistan, where proximity and the refugee story allow us to provide meaningful coverage.  We are also increasing the size of our teams serving Afghanistan based in London. However, the extent of our presence in Kabul will depend on safety issues and what is possible under Taliban rule.  We will not expose staff to unacceptable levels of risk in a deteriorating climate for security and media freedom.

 

World Service availability in Afghanistan - The World Service is still delivering its regular news and current affairs coverage on TV, radio and digital to audiences in Afghanistan in Pashto, Dari, Persian, Uzbek and English.  We continue to operate an FM network across Afghanistan.  However, approximately half of these frequencies are experiencing disruption as a consequence of lack of maintenance visits, lack of diesel re-fuelling or power supply issues. The situation is likely to continue to deteriorate until appropriately skilled persons can be engaged for these tasks.

 

The rebroadcasting arrangement with national broadcaster, RTA, is no longer in place although the programmes in question are part of our own schedule so are still available to audiences across the country.

 

In response to events in August, shortwave transmissions were increased by six hours to offer 17 hours per day.  We have changed four hours of an existing medium wave service from English to Dari/Pashto, providing an evening service of five hours per day.  Some other changes have been made to improve the audibility of services. 

 

There are also plans to expand and develop further the BBC’s digital offer in the languages serving Afghanistan, by increasing the volume of output and platforms to reach the audience. 

 

Editorially, the World Service continues to cover the story of Afghanistan extensively, ranging from programming about the exclusion of girls from Afghan schools[4] and the replacement of the Women’s Affairs Ministry[5] to interviews with newly arrived Afghan evacuees in the UK whose families are still stranded in Afghanistan.[6]  In the podcast series, A Wish for Afghanistan, Lyse Doucet talks to Afghans about their fears and hopes for the future.[7]  

 

The only output we have had to - temporarily - drop is the Global Newsbeat bulletins in Pashto and Dari which are aimed at young audiences.  We hope to bring back more news content to replace this once the roles in London are up and running.

 

We are seeing very large numbers of visitors to the BBC website around the world, keen to follow the story more closely. 

 

BBC Media Action - is continuing to work on health communication with funding from the World Health Organization, amid an increasing health and humanitarian crisis.   However, Open Jirga has now been paused amid the uncertain political and security situation.  The future position of AEPO and the radio drama New Home New Life is also not yet clear, although production is hoped to continue. 

 

Coverage in the UK – The World Service’s long history in covering the country and its deep understanding of audiences in Afghanistan have been utilised in UK domestic coverage.  As well as regular reports from correspondents Lyse Doucet, Secunder Kermani and Yogita Limaye who have been broadcasting live from Kabul and beyond, there has been in-depth analysis from our Afghan journalists in London. 

 

Conclusion

 

The deteriorating media environment, human rights and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan illustrate the increasingly important role of international broadcasters who are able to pose challenging questions to those in power and are better positioned to resist pressure.  However, it is clear that new regulations and tight controls imposed by the Taliban on the media in Afghanistan are likely to have a detrimental affect on the ability of international media to operate to the same level as has been possible in recent years.

 

The BBC is waiting to see how and to what extent it can operate under the Taliban and would of course be happy to keep the Committee across developments. 

 

The World Service has a vital role to play in the continued provision of timely, credible and impartial news and analysis to the increasingly information starved audiences in Afghanistan, especially at a time when rumours, fake news and propaganda are increasing.  In-depth reporting which clarifies rumours and disinformation and holds power to account will be particularly needed.

 

BBC Media Action’s in country work on media and communication projects around democracy and development has also contributed greatly to the development of the media over the years.

 

As well as serving audiences in the region, the BBC also recognises its key role in continuing to provide in-depth coverage of Afghanistan to UK and global audiences.  It will retain an on the ground presence in Afghanistan for the immediate future, with the safety and security of staff a priority and central to any future decisions.  Work around the evacuation of BBC staff and their families who wish to leave Afghanistan and their resettlement in the UK will continue. 

 

With the help of adequate long-term funding from the FCDO and sufficient Licence Fee funding the BBC World Service is well positioned to continue in its mission to provide accurate, impartial and impactful journalism for Afghanistan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 2021

 


[1] GAM 2020 – Brand Tracker

[2] BBC Global Audience Measure (GAM) 2020

[3] A media war has broken out among extremists, i interview 26/9/21

[4] Nuala McGovern's interview with a teenage girl and her father highlighted the painful reality they face as the Taliban have excluded girls from Afghan secondary schools.  The extract with Tarah (not her real name) from her OS interview was used at the UNGA High-Level Panel Event: “Supporting a future for girls’ education in Afghanistan”

 

[5] The replacement of the Women’s Affairs Ministry with the Ministry for “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” was extensively covered by the Dari Digital team in digital reports and posts on social media. This report focused specifically on how the prevention of former employees going back to work has left them, and many other women who are the breadwinners of their families, with no income.

 

[6] This BBC Persian report includes an interview with a member of the Afghan parliament security personnel who survived a suicide attack and is desperate to be re-united with his wife and child. The reporter also visits an Afghan Charity in West London that coordinates donations aided by volunteers.

 

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xtvl0/episodes/downloads