A signal for truth

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During a recent foray into Afghanistan, Rahimullah Yusufzai, the BBC's man in Peshawar, met a Muslim rebel commander nicknamed "the Wrestler". The Wrestler, it transpired, was an avid BBC listener.

"He told me that when he and the other commanders hit a Russian tank, they didn't actually believe they'd done it until they heard it reported on the BBC," Mr Yusufzai says. "You hear plenty of Afghans joke that only the BBC can bring peace to Afghanistan - by not reporting on the fighting. If the mujahedin can't hear of their exploits on the BBC, they'll soon stop. I only wish it were true."

Every day and night, millions of Afghans tune their battered short-wave radios in to the BBC's Persian and Pashtu services. In villages fortified by high mud walls against raiders, the single working radio is often hooked up to amplifiers and the BBC takes the place of town criers.

"Afghans are so dependent on the BBC that they time their evening prayers and dinner so they don't conflict with the news broadcasts." The BBC offices receive up to 500 letters a week, often from Afghans grumbling that bad weather or atmospheric interference has drowned out London's puny signal.

The BBC's broadcasts in Hindi, Urdu, Pashtu, Persian, Nepali, Bengali, Tamil and Sinhalese are heard by tens of millions of listeners throughout South Asia. In this region, where the BBC World Service has 50 per cent of its overall audience, the electronic media is usually state-run and little more than an official mouthpiece for the government.

Some may criticise the World Service as the last vestige of colonialism, but as Mark Tully, the BBC's most renowned India correspondent, explains, "The majority of people here don't have television. They rely on the BBC World Service which has almost become synonymous with news in this part of the world."

Mr Tully, an opponent of proposed cutbacks and restructuring, described a recent train journey through northern India. "I was talking to two farmer types and when I told them I was from the BBC, they said you must be Mark Tully. And they told me why they listened to the BBC: `Because it gives the news fast and truthfully.' Throughout the villages of northern India you hear the same thing."

Loyalty runs deep. In the Tamil rebel-held territory of Jaffna in Sri Lanka, where electricity has been cut off for years by fighting, boys pedal stationary bicycles to generate enough power for their radios to crackle alive with the BBC news.