Chagai Hills, Southern Afghanistan — The blanketed Afghan rebels huddle inside the tent while their group leader, a 23-year-old student from Kabul, carefully tunes the reception know of a West German-made transistor radio.
The set crackles with whines, whistles, voices, and music. Suddenly the calm , authoritative voice of the BBC's daily Persian service emerges from the crowded airwaves of the shortwave band. The tribesmen murmur a chorus of "ahs" and lean forward to capture the rising and fading tones of the news broadcaster.
With Afghanistan's more than 85 percent illiteracy and a communist-controlled government press, shortwave radio broadcasts such as the BBC's remain the only source of news for many tribesmen. As with many other countries, including neighboring Pakistan and India, it is often the only way for listeners to reliably learn what is happening not only abroad but within their own land.
It is therefore more than tragic that the BBC, undoubtedly still the world's most respected external broadcasting network, may soon be forced to make serious cuts in its programming.
According to a 1979 UNESCO report on international broadcasting, there are now over 12,000 hours a week of foreign shortwave broadcasts originating from more than 80 countries. Among the most influential external services in the number of hours broadcast and listeners tuned in are the BBC, the Voice of America (VOA), the West German Deutschewelle, and Radio Moscow. With over one billion transistor radios in the third world, potential audiences are vast.
But from my experience in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, although audiences regularly listen in to VOA, Deutschewelle, and Radio Moscow, whether their Persian, Urdu, Hindi, or English services, none of them quite has the impact of the BBC.
In Pakistan, for example, where the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq can normally rely on a thoroughly muzzled but frustrated national press to toe the government line, normally critical newspapers often publish touchy new items verbatim from the BBC.
"This is the only way to get around certain stories," said one Pakistani journalist. "We could write the same thing ourselves in an editorial or a news story, but the government would crash down on us. By quoting the BBC, it is no one's responsibility."
Whether condemning its broadcasts as lies or using them to establish a point, high government officials regard the BBC as the accepted yardstick for political comment. "I heard it on the BBC last night" is a common phrase in conversation. Opposition leaders such as Benazir Bhutto, dauguter of the executied former prime minister, can only make themselves heard to the country via the BBC.
In both India and Pakistan, the BBC's New Delhi-based correspondent Mark Tulley is one of the Asian subcontinent's most popular figures. "If there were ever one man for whom both Pakistanis and Indians would overwhelmingly vote for president," said one European diplomat, "it would be the BBC correspondent."
The BBC cautiously estimates a regular worldwide listenership of roughly 75 million adults with 711 broadcasting hours a week. The Voice of America (804 hours) makes similar claims. Radio Moscow with over 2,000 hours a week --placed on the shortwave dial right next to the BBC -- claims to have millions more.
Unfortunately, I often found the reception for both the BBC and VOA in central Asia and in the Indian subcontinent to be of poor quality. Deutschewelle was a great deal better. Radio Moscow, with booster stations running along the southern borders of the USSR came in loud and clear.
Although the proposed (and for the moment postponed) BBC external service cuts will not directly affect this part of the world, one cannot help but be aware of the increasing importance of relatively unbiased news broadcasts to regions where a free movement of information is impossible. The thirst for reliable news is painfully present such as here in central Asia and not to provide it would be downright irresponsible.
"BBC foreign broadcast audience ratings would beat any television or radio ratings at home," noted a British businessman, who regularly travels to the Indian subcontinent. "I see both sides of the story and it amazes me whenever I find people in London unable to grasp that the BBC is their best foreign policy instrument. It has a reputation which no British diplomat could ever equal. If cuts must be made in the British budget, then rather knock out one or two embassies abroad and allow the BBC to continue operating."