January Issue 2005
Afghanistan’s Media Renaissance
Halfway between the western Afghan city of Herat and the Iranian border, in the dusty village of Ghoryan, the Afghan media is going through a reincarnation. Returning after two decades of exile in neighbouring Iran, Jamshid Nekjoo Azizi and his photographer friend, Hafizullah Haqdost, cobble together a television station with 7,000 dollars from their own money. With a borrowed VHS video camera, some cheap video cassette recorders and CD players and a rebuilt transmitter, they are now beaming three hours of broadcasting into 500 homes around Ghoryan. “We had an onslaught of Iranian TV broadcasts so we tried to create our own station as we were not receiving any transmissions from the central TV station in Kabul or the regional station in Herat,” says Azizi.
Earlier this year, in recognition of their efforts, an international media development organisation, Internews, helped them establish an FM radio station called Nadaye Sulh or the voice for peace. “Within our coverage area we have 100 per cent listenership but we have a long way to go. We need equipment and lots of training,” says Haqdost. Around 20 enthusiastic students work on volunteer basis at the station with no renumeration.
Radio Nadaye Sulh is part of an Internews-managed and United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded network of 15 independent community and commercial FM radio stations across Afghanistan. The network is expected to grow to 45 stations by the summer of 2005.
This network is just one success story in the struggle of many eager Afghans and some international organisations to establish a vibrant and independent media in the new Afghanistan. Most Afghan journalists are overly optimistic about the success of such efforts. “In December 2001, after the fall of the Taliban, we started from absolute zero. Since then media development has been unparalleled in our history,” says veteran Afghan journalist Habibullah Rafie. “The involvement of international actors in the post-war media development in our country is a good omen,” he said, adding that although initially after the fall of the Taliban, it was the factional press associated with the victorious Northern Alliance that stormed the capital, but that has gradually changed.
Today, close to 300 publications are registered with the ministry of culture. With a large chunk operating from Kabul, most Afghan cities and towns have their own modest publications often in the form of magazines. Catering to a wide variety of tastes, these publications include dailies, weeklies, bi-weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies.
While some of them are mouthpieces of political parties and military factions, such as the Payam-e Mujahid and Afghan Millat, which are associated with Jammiat Islami and the Afghan Millat political party, others like the weekly Killid are more neutral and are often funded by international donors since the Afghan print media is a long way from financial independence. As only three out of 10 Afghans can read and write, circulation at best reaches a few thousand copies, while the lack of efficient distribution networks further limits readership. A vast number of Afghan publications are bilingual appearing in the two national languages, Dari and Pashto.
Afghanistan is still steeped in a radio culture as the majority of the population, particularly in the remote rural regions, depend on radio for news and information. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and many other international stations broadcasting in Afghan languages provided the only reliable sources of news and information during the country’s 25 year conflict. Most Afghans still rely on these radio broadcasts which led to stations such as the BBC, which is now broadcasting in 16 Afghan cities, to dramatically expand their programming, providing quality broadcasts around the clock.
In addition to the projected 45 Internews community stations, the state- run Radio Afghanistan has 17 stations. Owned and managed by the business savvy young Australian-Afghan Mohsini brothers, Arman FM is the country’s most successful commercial pop station. Starting in late 2003, the station soon captured the imagination of Kabul’s four million people. Attracting around 80 per cent of the city’s listenership, it’s still the most popular station in the capital. Every week the station receives thousands of letters, while mobile phone networks crashed during its call-in shows. “We wanted to provide alternatives to the public. Our aim was to target the younger generation and we have been extremely successful,” says Saad Mohsini, director Arman FM. The station is now extending its network to six major cities across Afghanistan.
By contrast, the development of television in Afghanistan has been slow. According to most estimates, only one- third of the Afghan population has access to television, while all attempts at reforming the state-owned Afghan television have been abandoned. Many in the ministry of culture and information now believe that privatisation might be the last resort for white elephants such as Afghan TV and the Bakhtar news agency, another subsidiary of the information ministry. With USAID funding, Arman FM has started Afghanistan’s first independent commercial TV channel, Tolo TV, in early October, although its success has yet to be ascertained.
Media pundits believe that sustainability is the key challenge facing the nascent Afghan media sector. Says an international media consultant, “We not only had to create media outlets, we also have to create a media market.” Compared to neighbouring countries, press freedom in Afghanistan has improved, but much more needs to be done to provide a lasting enabling environment to the media sector. Although international journalists often face little intimidation, scores of Afghan journalists have been threatened and victimised by various warlords and militia commanders.
According to young Afghan journalist, Muhammad Nabi Tadbeer, compared to the Taliban era, the Afghan media has undergone momentous growth but its ultimate success hinges on political stability. “Over the past century we have had cycles of relative stability and development, but any development has always been destroyed by conflict and turmoil.”