Afghanistan’s media has undergone an unprecedented transformation in recent years. Following turbulent decades of censorship and propaganda that echoed a wider turmoil in Afghan politics and society, the sector today is at its most independent, vibrant and effective. But the successes are fragile.
In 2001, on the eve of military intervention by the US, UK and their allies, people had only one reliable option to find out what was happening in Afghanistan: the international media. There were a small number of dedicated and committed in-country Afghan journalists, but most of them were working for international media or international news agencies. The only Afghan media entity within the country, with the exception of a few clandestine publications, was the Taliban’s Shariat newspaper and a radio station of the same name. Of course, both of these outlets provided the ruling regime’s account of events.
As with its predecessors, the Taliban regime exercised tight control over freedom of expression. Nonetheless, their ability to control reporting by international journalists had some limitations. Kate Clark, the BBC’s Kabul correspondent during the Taliban era and current head of the Kabul office of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, recalls that visiting international journalists had to work with interpreters registered at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which allowed the government to monitor and control whom they spoke to and what they saw. According to Clark, in some cases, English-speaking translators helped journalists “find interviewees who were not state-sanctioned, often at great personal cost”. If caught, at a minimum they would lose their job. During this period, a small community of Afghan journalists worked with international media organisations including Associated Press (AP), Agence France Presse (AFP), Reuters and the BBC.
In the absence of a functioning Afghan media, Afghans went back to using the oral tradition; and a large number of satirical stories and jokes (usually coloured by rumour-based myths) were in circulation.
In this context, Kabul-based international media were vital for providing news coverage of Afghanistan at a time when the country was extremely isolated, while also keeping domestic audiences informed with balanced and independent news. The Taliban were not “as heavy-handed as might be assumed”, Clark remembers, at least as far as the international media were concerned, adding that they accepted reporting that was “fair and fact-based”. However, their attempts to control reporting did increase in their last year of power, arresting, for example, a BBC translator, accusing him of being a communist. The Arab fighters of al-Qaeda felt at liberty to do the same, detaining AFP’s correspondent when they caught him photographing militants in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US.
Censorship and media control was not the monopoly of the Taliban. Between 1992 and 1996, media development was severely disrupted by civil war, though the warring parties did produce party-affiliated newspapers of varying frequency. In the absence of a functioning Afghan media, Afghans went back to using the oral tradition; and a large number of satirical stories and jokes (usually coloured by rumour-based myths) were in circulation. The international media continued to play the role of surrogate national media, and gained further traction in the absence of any functional homegrown press, including that of the state.
Propaganda and counter-propaganda
Going further back into Afghanistan’s tumultuous past, tight control was exercised during the 1978 to 1992 reign of the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The only difference, perhaps, was in the number of outlets and platforms run by the state and the party, whether directly or through entities linked to the party. The PDPA era saw the development of state-run television and the expansion of state-controlled radio and print media. Most of these outlets were managed and controlled by the regime or the party, and were used extensively for what was called tablighat and zid-e-tablighat (propaganda and counter-propaganda).
Some media entities were more successful than others. The flagship publication of the central committee of the PDPA, Haqiqat-e Inquilab-e Saur (The Truth of the Saur Revolution), consumed most available funding for media, but its readership remained limited to party members and failed to appeal to the general public. The party imposed the same control on state-run papers as it did its own. The trajectory for journalism of this period was established soon after the PDPA came to power, with an edition of Anis on 3 May 1978 announcing that “The power palace of the last murderer of Nader Shah’s dynasty was destroyed for good.” Ghulam Mohaiudin Anis, the paper’s late founder who took great pride in Anis’ independence, would have been distressed to see his publication being used as a shameless propaganda tool. As far as the regime was concerned, there was little difference between a journalist and a soldier. An edition of Haqiqat-e Inquilab-e Saur published in October 1980 ran an article headlined: ‘A fighter-journalist gives his life in the battlefield and does not take a step backward’.
Three successive coups by party leaders added to the regime’s increasingly desperate attempts to secure the confidence of the public. Some freedom was granted to the media during the reign of Dr Najibullah, the last PDPA leader, who retracted many of the party’s more left-leaning programmes and policies, rebranded the PDPA as the Watan (homeland party), appointed a number of independent university professors as ministers, and embarked on a series of measures aimed at gaining the goodwill of religious communities. The mission of tablighat deployed every available means – from superstition to Islam – to win ‘hearts and minds’. But Najibullah’s ability to change the image of the regime he inherited was hampered by financial hardships as the Soviet Union severed military and financial assistance. Akhbar-e hafta (News of the Week) went into print at this time (allegedly with funding from the national intelligence service), and achieved some success after criticising the corrupt practices of select government ministers, mainly those who were not party members.
Most media outlets throughout these periods claimed to be ‘independent’, regardless of the nature of financing or editorial leadership. But the sort of genuinely independent journalism of the early 20th century epitomised by Ghulam Mohaiudin Anis and Mahmud Tarzi, the independent-minded editor of the fortnightly Seraj Ul-Akhbar (Torch of the News), was forgotten. The memories of Tarzi and Anis were buried deep in the country’s history. The mission of journalism, as sanctioned by ruling regimes, was defined as being ‘for the awareness of the people’, largely through the medium of tablighat.
An unprecedented flourishing
Today the word ‘tablighat’ is still occasionally used but it has lost its currency in media circles. The unprecedented flourishing of the media industry over the last decade has brought about a fundamental shift in attitudes towards journalism. Since 2001, the number of journalists has grown, and they have benefited from workshops and interaction with their international colleagues, and now conduct themselves more professionally and independently. They have gained experience working in formats ranging from simple reporting to investigative journalism, even if in a somewhat limited form. More than 10,000 people are believed to be employed by the media sector today, working with Afghan and international media across print, broadcast and online platforms. The flow of news and information has grown enormously and it is reasonable to assume that a majority of newsworthy stories across the country receive coverage. Earlier this year, Kay Johnson of AP wrote that “The proliferation of Afghan media in the past 12 years is one of the most visible bright spots of the fraught project to foster a stable democracy.” According to Johnson, “The sheer number of media outlets… is stunning. That they are mostly free to set their own agenda is even more so.”
The unprecedented flourishing of the media industry over the last decade has brought about a fundamental shift in attitudes towards journalism.
Akbar Rustami, who works with Hasht-e Sobh, a national daily, is one such journalist. In the three years that the 26-year-old has been working with the paper, he has produced over 30 investigative reports on topics as diverse as illegally built housing complexes and ministerial level corruption in the mining sector. Mr Rustami says both he and his newspaper have been threatened on several occasions as a result of these reports. But while some journalists express frustration at the indifference with which their investigative reports are received by the government, Mr Rustami is upbeat, pointing at how his reports on mining contracts and illegal housing both resulted in parliamentary debate.
Siddiqullah Tawhidi, Director of Media Watch, a journalism-monitoring initiative of Afghan NGO Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, believes the biggest achievement of journalism in the past decade has been its role in “the public awakening”. He argues that a cultural shift has taken place in Afghan society and people are more willing to express opinion openly, something unthinkable in the past. “Afghanistan has many voices… and no voice is silenced nowadays,” says Tawhidi, adding, this is a “culture that has been institutionalised by the media”.
For outspoken journalists like Ali Asghar Akbarzada, just staying alive has been an achievement. Now a senior editor at Maiwand TV, Akbarzada used to run a popular show that exposed corruption called ‘The City Mirror’ on the state-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA). He was repeatedly threatened but his dogged determination to pursue stories meant he was never silenced. Though in 2008 Akbarzada was lucky to escape unhurt when his car came under gunfire from unknown assailants, the following day he was back at his desk working on his show. The sustained pressures he came under became the subject of a documentary produced by the UN. Akbarzada believes that awareness of a journalistic ethos and the gradual spread of investigative journalism are achievements worth celebrating. He thinks the public’s awakening means that “they [the public] will no more be deceived by warlords,” nor accept their authority.
Mir Abdul Wahed Hashimi, Deputy Chief of Party in Afghanistan for Internews, thinks that the development of plurality and professionalism are important achievements for Afghanistan’s media. He believes the new skills gained by young journalists in particular, have led “to Afghan-isation of most functions performed by internationals in the past… Every institution that has recruited younger journalists is different today”. Hashmi has invested his hopes in “young journalists to carry forward the experiences of the past decade and the tradition of media freedom”. For Hashmat Radfar of the Independent Election Committee, the “measured steps by media practitioners” have facilitated “the move towards democratisation and the institutionalisation of modern human values”. He believes the media has played a key role in “raising awareness on citizenship and citizens’ rights” which has “challenged a regressive mentality”.
There is also a greater sense of financial freedom enjoyed by journalists. In late 2001, I took part in a BBC delegation to Kabul to conduct a media needs analysis ahead of the first donor conference in Tokyo. Almost every journalist who spoke talked about the need for free and independent journalism as the way forward, but none wanted to be taken off the government payroll. The general sense was that only the government payroll could offer employment security. Today, in contrast, a large number of journalists are either running their own media outlets or are employed by private media institutions. On balance, private media provide more freedom and higher payment. Akbar Rustami says, “I prefer working with private media as it pays better than state-run media.” He thinks that state media is financially better off, but that the government “has failed to put the ample resources at their disposal to effective use”. He also believes that “private media are more professional and provide better chances for [career] development”.
Social media and accountability
In addition to the proliferation of traditional media in the broadcast and print sectors, new media has also contributed to the diversification of information sources. Blogging has become popular among Afghans and numerous websites are pumping out different types of information. The use of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, has increased among Afghan families with access to computers and the Internet, often to keep in touch with relatives abroad. The mobile phone industry has seen massive growth in the last decade, with the arrival of more sophisticated phones making it possible for mobile users to access the internet and regularly update social media accounts. The combination of these platforms has made it almost impossible for any government to control the flow of information within its borders.
The use of social media by government and public officials is likewise increasing. While the Afghan National Police (ANP) have come under repeated criticism for being weak and corrupt, the current leadership has been trying to be more responsive and improve their image. Campaigns by the ANP are played out visibly on social media, particularly Facebook, with the current Minister of Interior, Mohammad Umar Daudzai, regularly posting messages. In a post entitled ‘Police with the people’, he informed the public of his imminent appearance on a nationwide live television show, providing the date and time of the show and asking people to call in to share “any local problems or issues you may face in relation to the national police so together we take practical actions towards reform and change”. His Facebook account shows he has been appearing on national TV at regular intervals, apparently unafraid to take questions from members of the public in live phone-in programmes.
Beyond community engagement, the use of social media has more practical dimensions. The police chief of Kabul, General Mohammad Zahir, posted a message on 19 February, saying one of his Facebook ‘friends’ had sent him a tip-off supported by pictures showing ‘harassment of vendors’ by the police in Kabul. He said “he had detained” the police officer in question after an “initial investigation”. The post received more than 1600 likes, and was shared by more than 180 users. Though changing the image of the police is a tough undertaking and requires bold steps over a sustained period of time, the regular use of traditional and new media to respond to public concerns is encouraging.
Not all rosy
On 15 March, President Hamid Karzai made the following statement on the media’s evolution during his time in power:
There was not a single non-government radio station, newspaper or publication in our country 12 years ago. Currently our country has hundreds of magazines and newspapers, dozens of TV and radio stations. Afghanistan has the most free and outspoken media in the region. Freedom of speech is one of our more significant achievements in the past 12 years. My message for today’s media outlets and future leaders is to respect freedom of speech and people’s vote based on the Afghan constitution.
Despite Karzai’s optimism, all is not rosy. There are some serious challenges facing Afghanistan’s nascent journalism. Most glaring is the financial sustainability of media organisations, the majority of which have been propped up by donor funding. Funding for media has been in decline for a few years now, resulting in most media institutions cutting back on production and laying off staff. With the withdrawal of international financial aid – which is linked to international military support – this trend is bound to continue. The sector is likely to consolidate, which could result in more job losses (particularly in those institutions that have worked with relative independence), in turn directly impacting independent journalism. Due to the weakness of the Afghan economy, the advertising market is too small to support the number of media outlets that are currently in operation across the country.
Afghan reporters constantly complain that they have no access to government figures beyond reporting on their public appearances, and journalists say their requests for information from government offices are almost always ignored.
While financial stability is important, for Siddiqullah Tawhidi of Media Watch, “government officials intimidating and insulting journalists”, is of greatest concern. “Security officials tend to impose their view, sometimes by force, on journalists,” he says. He also believes that gaining access to information held by the government has continued to be a challenge. Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists has written, “Afghan reporters constantly complain that they have no access to government figures beyond reporting on their public appearances, and journalists say their requests for information from government offices are almost always ignored.” According to Hashmat Radfar of the IEC, deeply rooted “traditional, regressive and ideological attitudes” will continue to threaten the development of the country’s media. The “violent norms that have ruled over political thinking” inherited by the current generation of Afghans worries Radfar, and a partisan media could perpetuate rather than challenge such mindsets.
Policy concerns are likewise widespread. The lack of reform in the state-run RTA is a cause of dismay to many within the sector who argue that its reform is directly linked to protecting the national voice and securing the future of media in Afghanistan. RTA is the only organisation that has near-national reach and broadcasts in most languages of the country. Its transformation could provide safeguards for the media freedom achieved over the last decade.
According to Akbarzada, without reform, the domination and direct control of RTA by powerful people in the government may push the sector into the hands of those who can afford to pay. “RTA should be taken out of the claws of the government. It should be turned into a national broadcaster in the service of Afghanistan and its people,” he says, adding, “its infrastructure and equipment should be rescued and put to good use”. The organisation’s attachment to executive power is seen by many media managers as a ‘bad example’.
Innovations, however limited, are encouraging. One RTA programme, ‘Open Jirga’, has helped RTA reclaim some of its lost audience share. The programme, produced jointly by BBC Media Action, the BBC World Service and RTA, has been on air since December 2012 in two languages, Dari and Pashto, and provides a platform for ordinary Afghans to question high-ranking government officials and national leaders. So far, panels have included the president, 28 ministers (current and former), 19 MPs and senators, 8 heads of commissions and 5 provincial governors. It has become a model for audience-led programming in the country. Since the launch of ‘Open Jirga’, debate programmes have emerged on a number of stations, and shows that existed before have improved audience opportunities for interaction with the panel. While it is difficult to claim that these can be directly linked to ‘Open Jirga’, it certainly shows the role that RTA can play in setting new standards and pushing the bar higher in the sector. Nonetheless, RTA needs to undergo organisational reform and gain a sufficient degree of autonomy from the government so that it can set its own financial and editorial policy.
One cannot place sufficient emphasis on the need for a public service broadcaster for Afghanistan, especially when generously funded ‘warlord media’ are flourishing and following a narrow ethnic and religious agenda. While there is plenty of evidence that funding for private media will continue to decline, there is no evidence that the same will happen in the partisan media sector. These so-called ‘warlord’ stations have not yet gained a massive following, but they have proved themselves capable of provoking the public to participate in protests that have turned violent. RTA has the potential to provide some badly needed safeguards to protect the national voice and thereby play a leading role in carrying the current journalistic successes into the future.
Throughout much of Afghanistan’s modern history, independent journalism has barely existed, with media press-ganged into the service of those in power, or those planning to seize it. The last decade or so has witnessed a remarkable surge in Afghan media which, while funded by the West, has been shaped by Afghan journalists and media enterprises. A legacy has been established, but it is a legacy in danger.
The achievements in the media sector are important and must be owned by the whole of Afghan society, and a strategic plan is needed to ensure its ongoing viability and independence. Afghan journalism, despite tough challenges, has contributed to important cultural transformations and has played a significant part in the country’s progress towards stability. Unless a well-thought-out strategic focus is brought to bear, and unless the immediate sector-wide problem of financial sustainability is resolved, the entirety of the successes achieved could be undone in no time at all.
~Shirazuddin Siddiqi is Country Director for BBC Media Action in Afghanistan and co-author of the 2012 policy briefing ‘The media of Afghanistan: the challenges of transition’.