The BBC's Afghan lifeline

In Kabul, the BBC's World Service has become the only real source of news, and it is listened to religiously, writes Liz Kershaw
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It is the stuff of broadcasting dreams. An entire nation listening to one radio station. In Afghanistan, whole families waiting to be blitzed are quietly gathering round their wirelesses for 45 minutes at a time to get the latest news from the World Service. "We know that getting batteries is becoming a real problem. But if they know anything, it's from us," Baqer Moin, section head of the BBC's Persian and Pashto section, told me this week.

With the threat of US attacks, the country is emptying by the day, but he estimates the population to be around 20 million, and that, according to a United Nations survey, 80 per cent of them listen to his output. "We are the national medium. We are the only source of news. There are no newspapers or TV." His colleague Shirazuddin Siddiqi told me recently: "Local radio is government-run and so has no credibility. In any case, most of the radio stations have been destroyed, or damaged and looted. Those that are still up aren't really running. They lack basic production tools, and transmission is tricky when there's no electricity."

Most schools have been closed for more than a decade in a country in chaos, where fighting has also wiped out most transport and communication links. In the summer, Shirazuddin Siddiqi described to me how, as the head of the BBC World Service's Afghan Education Project, he's trying to introduce schooling via a radio set.

"The children have no books, pencils or paper," he said. "They lack the most basic materials and writing skills. They have nothing to colour with. No postal services. No stamps. The authorities disagree with educating girls anyway.

"There's also no local production expertise. But there's no shortage of qualified teachers with time to spare, so we recruited 21 primary-school teachers as writers and producers. They developed five strands of programmes, each focusing on a different subject or geographical area. We want them to know where water comes from. And we are trying to teach them about landmines."

Isn't that contentious with the authorities, I wondered. "No. It's not about their use. It's about how to spot a landmine so the children don't play with them or go near them."

According to Baqer Moin, "People tune in for the latest on the whereabouts of landmines. We give out news of polio vaccination programmes so that fighting groups can hold fire for the day. We also provide analysis in both languages, as well as speeches and religious supplications. All the family sit round and listen, or the women [who are not allowed to work] may listen on their own when the men are out.

"There are so many stillbirths that we broadcast information on gynaecological matters, health and hygiene. And music from female singers who have had to leave the country. The word "BBC" is more famous in Afghanistan than in Britain. Muslims pray five times a day. We're known as the sixth prayer.

"We recently did a series of programmes and a book on the history of Afghanistan. We were congratulated because it was untainted."

And rather courageous, because isn't this kind of candour and listener-loyalty punishable by death? "No. Too many people tune in. We know the impact we have through audience research. That is, relief agencies going into communities and reporting back. We also get feedback in people's letters. The only postal service is in Kabul. It's very limited but our listeners are very enterprising. They hear of people coming to see us and give them letters to deliver by hand. Even the Taliban listen. We know because they have complained. For instance, when the sacred statues were destroyed, an American professor came on the air and said the perpetrators were ignorant. The Taliban leaders heard that and expelled the BBC boss."

Perhaps Bin Laden himself is a listener? "Oh well, he would mainly listen to the Arabic or English service, but having said that, we have had criticism from his followers. They complain through the Taliban."

Is there any censorship on the grounds of security or sensibilities? "Our reporting is exactly the same as you hear on the World Service in the UK. It is polite but tough and objective. We never insult anyone. We don't patronise or take anyone for granted." So a certain knowledge of the West can be assumed?

"Of course. Afghans know what a skyscraper is. Don't forget that they had TV until four years ago. And although the Taliban normally ban pictures, they haven't banned a BBC magazine that we produce."

From the safety of Bush House, he must be wondering what will become of his staff and studios if George W starts clobbering the Khyber Pass. "It will affect our access to ordinary people, to interviews – our correspondents are currently reporting from Pakistan and Tajikistan. But our studios and transmitters are in the Gulf or Thailand, so war will not stop us broadcasting. In fact, we're increasing our hours."