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Afghanistan: Different Views Of Loya Jirga Predominate According To Region

  • Charles Recknagel

As Afghanistan prepares to hold an emergency Loya Jirga that will help rebuild a sense of national unity, the country still suffers from a fragmented media that leaves many outlets in the hands of regional powerholders. RFE/RL reports on how Afghans may get different views of next week's Loya Jirga proceedings depending on where they live.

Kabul, 5 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In theory, Afghanistan has a single state television and radio network that people nationwide rely upon for news.

But in fact, the past decades of war have destroyed the national network and left a scattering of regional broadcast facilities that have difficulty communicating with each other and coordinating programming.

The fragmentation means that today, the national television and radio headquarters in Kabul generates its own news programming while the national radio and television branch stations in Herat, Kandahar, and Mazar-i-Sharif largely generate their own. And, due to weak transmitters, people at one end of the country are unable to hear the broadcasts from the other, isolating audiences from one another.

The situation persists despite reported early pledges by several donor countries to recreate Afghanistan's national radio and television network before next week's emergency Loya Jirga. The assembly, which will bring together delegates from every region, is intended to be a major step toward nation building as it approves the head of state and key structures of a new transitional authority to lead the country to general elections within two years.

But top media officials here say that when the Loya Jirga convenes on 10 June, there is a danger that people in different parts of the country will get different views of the proceedings depending on where they live. That is because some regional centers of the national broadcast network remain under the influence of local power holders who may have their own interests in how the events are perceived.

To learn more about the situation, our correspondent spoke with Sultan Ahmad Baheen, director-general of Bakhtar Information Agency. The state-run agency is intended to be a centralized source of domestic and international news for the national radio and television network and it has a large network of correspondents nationwide.

But Baheen said that the state broadcast media, and his own agency, suffer from equipment and communications problems that make operating a unified network under the central government's control almost impossible.

He said that after some international technical assistance since the Taliban collapsed last year, the national television station in Kabul now broadcasts to a radius of some 30 kilometers from the capital. But promised financial aid for extending that coverage has yet to arrive.

"The television covers 25 to 30 kilometers [around Kabul] and radio about 50 to 60 kilometers. The Japanese government [has said it] is ready to provide a satellite link with six provinces and USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] agreed to extend the [coverage] all over the country," Baheen said, adding that: "The director of [national] radio and TV is still hoping to have it before the Loya Jirga. But we are very, very close to the Loya Jirga and they still don't have these facilities."

The U.S. government announced on 6 June that it had completed installation of a satellite terminal which will allow Radio Afghanistan to begin broadcasting nationwide via shortwave beginning immediately. Transmission time is five hours per day for at least six months.

To cover the Loya Jirga, the national radio and television centers outside Kabul will rely in part on information from the state news agency and in part on their own newsrooms. That is because -- just as equipment problems bedevil the state broadcasters -- so do they hamper the state news agency, limiting how much information can be sent from the capital.

Baheen said his agency relies upon sharing time on military radio-communications channels to distribute most of its news to other cities. For the key southern city of Kandahar, the agency also has communication by fax and, for the western city of Herat, it can share time on a wireless radio link with the Ministry of Communications. But the agency's efforts to create its own modern communications links -- including repeated appeals to foreign news agencies to share time on their satellite facilities -- have so far been fruitless.

In addition to these technical problems, the national radio and television network's regional centers also suffer varying degrees of pressure from local administrations. The pressure is reported to range from exerting influence over how news is collected to what is broadcast. Baheen said he has seen this pressure reflected in the news that Bakhtar's own bureau in Herat sends to the capital regarding events in western Afghanistan.

"There is no open influence from the governors or [local administrations] in the provinces, but some of the journalists complain about the influence of the governors, the commanders, and armed people upon the media," Baheen said.

He said that as the director of Bakhtar news agency, he is not happy "with the work that is being done by my people in Herat. Our agency, our representative in Herat, is a kind of propaganda [tool] for the government of Herat."

The province of Herat and other parts of western Afghanistan are under the control of Governor Ismail Khan, who commands a large military force and has close ties with Tehran. Khan, who maintained a relatively secular regime in Herat a decade ago, is reported to have increasingly taken a harder Islamic line, including recently forbidding women to remove their veils. He is also reported to have sought to assure that delegates loyal to him were elected to the Loya Jirga and he has consistently refused to send tax revenues to the interim administration in Kabul.

Such independence is mirrored by the country's other major regional power holders, who recognize the central government but maintain their own fiefdoms apart from it. These include the governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Shirzai. They also include the interim administration's Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum, who holds sway over parts of north-central Afghanistan.

With the state media fragmented, no independent media has yet emerged to provide an alternative national source of information. In recent months, dozens of independent periodicals have appeared in Kabul to take advantage of a new press law passed 2 1/2 months ago to end the state monopoly over the media. But the independents, mostly funded by United Nations agencies or small NGOs, have low circulations and almost no distribution outside the capital. In other cities, independent newspapers and magazines have yet to appear.

Breshna Nazari is the assistant chief editor of one of the capital's most successful independent papers, the "Kabul Weekly." It has been publishing without interruption since January and has a circulation of 4,000 copies, printing 16 pages in Dari, Pashtu, English, and French. The paper, mostly funded by UNESCO, hopes to begin circulating some 500 copies to each of Afghanistan's other major cities soon, distributing through the transportation network of an international humanitarian organization.

Nazari said that the international financing frees his staff of 10 correspondents to write and print news free of pressure from government officials or factions. But he said that would-be independent journalists in the provinces are still only hoping to do the same. "Most of the other cities' publications are supported by the governors of that city. But some of the journalists from the other cities of Afghanistan -- like Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, and Kandahar -- I talked to them a few days ago, and they said that we will publish new independent publications with the support of the world community," Nazari said.