Afghans struggle to rebuild media

Sep 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Kabul, Afghanistan
The morning of Nov. 13, 2001, as Taliban and al Qaeda forces fled Kabul, Radio Afghanistan resumed broadcasting. It began with a reading from the Koran followed by the first song to be broadcast after six years of Draconian Taliban rule. The song, “My Sweetheart Kabul,” was once a popular hit by exiled singer Farhad Darya.
The following day Afghan TV returned to the air with news reports read by female announcers.
Since the fall of the Taliban more than 100 newspapers and magazines have begun publication, but with more than 70 percent of the population illiterate, the real battleground for freedom of speech in Afghanistan is taking place in the nation’s television and radio stations.
Although a new media law, passed in January, encouraged the creation of independent electronic media, the law failed to set up protocols to ensure the independence of existing channels, particularly the State TV and Radio Afghanistan in Kabul. With clumsy attempts by the central government to control and censor TV and radio in Kabul and the virtual control of electronic media in the countryside by regional warlords, the rebirth of a free media in Afghanistan is suffering agonizing labor pains.
Few societies in history have had their national institutions of communication destroyed as completely as the Afghans under the Taliban. Today, media and journalism must be rebuilt from the ashes.
“Our media suffered badly under the Taliban,” said Afghan TV Director Mohammad Zahir Siddiq. “Television was shut down. Radio broadcast only religion and decrees of the regime. Printing presses were smashed, newspapers stopped and music banned. People buried their TV sets. Journalists who wrote anything the Taliban didn’t like were flogged in public.”
The past 23 years of war has taken a heavy toll on the development of journalism and the media in Afghanistan. Few Afghans can remember anything but propaganda from its newspapers, television and radio. Journalists-those who were not flogged or killed-fled. The few who remained became simple conduits for the ruling factions or local warlords.
Right now the main source of information for Afghanistan radio and television is the 40-year-old government-run Bakhtar News Agency, not independent news organizations. The Bakhtar News Agency gathers and edits news from foreign broadcasts, embassy press attach ‘s, press releases from all government ministries, President Hamid Karzai’s office and dispatches from its own regional reporters.
“We have about 100 reporters now and one in each of the 28 provinces of Afghanistan,” said Sediqulla Sidiqi, deputy director of Bakhtar. “We have a hard time keeping in touch because there are few telephones out there. Our journalists write their stories and send them by road that takes a long time these days. Bakhtar sends our reports free in Dari, Pashto and English to all government and Afghan news outlets, but we charge foreign agencies and embassies for our service.”
The restoration of the media in an oppressed country is always a hopeful process. In Kabul, now Afghans are queuing up at newsstands to purchase any of the more than 100 new publications that have appeared since the government passed a law authorizing the creation of independent newspapers. Small-screen Chinese black-and-white TV sets can be purchased for as little as U.S. $25 and are being eagerly snapped up.
However, even in areas of the city where the TV signal can be received when electricity is working, viewers have found little of interest to watch. At the government-controlled Radio and TV Afghanistan broadcasters are struggling to produce new programs using ancient equipment held together with makeshift parts.
TV facilities lacking
A visit to Afghan TV in Kabul is like stepping into a broadcasting museum. Most of the equipment was installed in 1977, and the Japanese manufacturers say replacement parts are no longer made. “We desperately need everything-new transmitters, new programs and even new tape stock, and especially training for our staff of 1,300,” said Afghan TV Director Dr. Siddiq
Dr. Siddiq is starting to produce new programs, but is hopeful programs from the West on PAL tape (the European standard for video) will be donated to satisfy the tremendous demand for information and entertainment in this war-ravaged nation. Of particular interest would be documentaries, youth and children’s programs, sports and anything about how handicapped or disabled people cope with life. Even empty tapes would be welcomed. “Our 3/4-inch tapes are all over 15 years old and each has been used about 500 times, and you can imagine the dropouts,” Dr. Siddiq said.
The evening newscast is broadcast from a small studio where a set designer recently painted a new backdrop of the Kabul skyline. Royal Megabit, a studious looking woman of 22, and her male counterpart Safi Danshyar, 25, read the news. They share one microphone between them. In a city where most men wear “Kameez Shalwaz”-the baggy trousers and long shirt that are traditional attire for men in Pakistan and Afghanistan-and beards, Mr. Danshyar was clean-shaven and wore a smart double-breasted blue blazer. Ms. Megabit wore a black shawl over her hair and sweater. Neither is a journalist. By day, Mr. Danshyar is a medical student at Kabul University. The news is written and prepared by reporters and producers who have had brief training in recent months from the British Broadcasting Corp. Most nights the news seems to be little more than a list of press conferences and reports on visits by foreign aid organizations. There is usually tape of whatever activity President Karzai and Defense Minister Fahim were involved in that day.
Western journalists said that when controversial news is breaking, Afghan TV is not aggressive in coverage but awaits direction from the Ministry of Information and dispatches from Bakhtar, the official government news agency. Most of the older and experienced journalists working at TV/Radio Afghanistan learned their trade under the dictatorial regimes of Mohammed Daoud in the 1970s and during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Newscasts look like old Soviet television, where the activities of the president and key ministers are broadcast each evening in painstaking detail.
“In March, an earthquake in Nahreen was relegated to the second story on the newscast after President Karzai’s appointments of the day,” said BBC correspondent Seema Zand.
‘Broadcast without changes’
“Some ministers send through their speeches and announcements with orders to ‘broadcast without changes,'” said Bakhtar news agency Director Sultan Ahmed Baheen. “Many journalists have been threatened in this way, which is a major obstacle to the independence of the media.”
The influence of a new generation of Afghan journalists trained since the fall of the Taliban is only slowly being realized and has not yet made much impact on the entrenched forces against an open media. Although the BBC, Internews and Institute for War and Peace Reporting have been conducting small training classes for Afghan journalists in Kabul, the demands for training vastly outnumber the spots available.
Training needs include not only skills but also attitudes. Most Afghan journalists in senior positions received formal training, if at all, in the Soviet Union. As one frustrated Western trainer said, “Afghan print journalists are basically copyists and the TV reporters are just announcers. They have never learned that journalism means asking tough questions.”
Media trainers here have also been frustrated to see their best students lured away to better-paying jobs with the United Nations or other International Aid organizations. An English-speaking reporter, editor or producer at Radio-TV Afghanistan or one of the major Kabul newspapers is paid the equivalent of about U.S. $100 per month. A modest apartment in Kabul these days costs over U.S. $50 per month. An interpreter charges at least U.S. $100 per day, and even a driver with a car to rent in Kabul can expect U.S. $100.
One of the most effective training programs is being carried
out by the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting on a small budget. IWPR trainers are working with local journalists to develop news stories that will make a difference in this vital period of Afghanistan’s history. Many of the IWPR stories by journalist trainees are being published in Afghanistan and abroad.
Radio making inroads
Perhaps the most independent voice of Afghan media right now is on radio. Radio Afghanistan airs “Good Morning Afghanistan,” a Western-style morning talk show produced by Afghan journalists, with direction and training from the Danish-based Balkan Media Center.
Since it went on the air it has proved enormously popular in both Afghan languages, Dari and Pushto.
It features health news, advice on where to find aid, music and weather.
A recent survey found that 60 percent of Kabul residents listen to the show at least four times a week. A team of 20 young Afghan men and women, many returning from exile in Pakistan, struggle against high odds to produce the one-hour show every morning in one of the two newly built state-of-the-art studios based on computers, digital discs and cassettes at Radio Afghanistan. (The studio was recently built and donated by the BBC, which also donated staff training.)
Since almost no one in Kabul has a telephone, booking guests is frustrating. Guests often fail to arrive at the studio because their bicycles have broken down. The government also insists “Good Morning Afghanistan” begin each broadcast with the Islamic incantation Allahu Akbar (God is Great.) Barry Salaam, a 23-year-old from Peshawar, is the executive producer and freely admits “Good Morning Afghanistan” is not likely to severely criticize President Karzai or his cabinet.
“We’re only in the initial stages of being a free press,” he said. “It can’t happen overnight. We’re trying to have some fun, because people need to have fun. We want people to understand there is someone out there who cares about them, what they think, what they feel.”
Road to a free press
Before “Good Morning Afghanistan,” innovative news and entertainment was only available on foreign stations that beam signals into Afghanistan. In years of turmoil, the BBC established trust and the largest audience among Afghans. Second to the BBC in popularity is the Voice of America, followed by Deutsche Welle.
One of the most hopeful signs that the government of Ahmed Karzai is basically supportive of the notion of a free press is their decision to call a conference in mid-September of the Ministry of Information, the Bakhtar News Agency, Unesco, BBC advisors and other media support groups such as IWPR and Internews. They will attempt to establish a public service charter for TV and Radio Afghanistan, along the lines of PBS in the United States and the BBC in the United Kingdom.
Another sign of hope is that one
of President Karzai’s closest advisers, Ashraf Gghani, has been named Minister of Finance. Ashraf Ghani, a returning exile who used to teach anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, is one of the most powerful members of the new government and a strong advocate for a free press.
“We want to use the present as a bridge to the future,” said Ashraf Ghani, “and not be condemned for the past.”