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Global Coverage of RFE/RL's Launch of Radio Mashaal

On January 15, RFE/RL launched Radio Mashaal, a new Pashto-language service to the Pashtun border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The launch was reported by several major international news outlets, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, ABC News, Dawn, and Forbes.

Canada's The Globe and Mail also featured an extensive story on the launch:

"U.S.-funded Pashto radio a new weapon in war against Taliban"
Sonia Verma
The Globe and Mail
January 16, 2010

When Taliban fighters vowed to cut his throat to muffle his songs of peace, love and the futility of war, Haroon Bacha, a famous Pashtun singer, fled his home in Peshawar, leaving his wife and two children behind.

But yesterday Mr. Bacha fought back: He sang to the Taliban, he sang to his family and to anyone else from his homeland who happened to tune in to a slick new radio program aimed at countering militant broadcasting in the insurgent heartland bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"I am very hopeful this will help fight Islamic extremism," Mr. Bacha, 37, said in soft baritone from the studio in Washington D.C., where he will host a cultural-affairs show on the daily broadcast of Radio Mashaal - Pashto for "torch."

Funded by U.S. Congress, Radio Mashaal represents a first salvo in a new war of words against the Taliban that the West acknowledges it has been losing.

As Washington steps up drone attacks in northwest Pakistan, another equally important battle is being waged on the airwaves for hearts and minds of Pashtuns living in the border region, traditionally a Taliban stronghold.

"There is an urgent need for accurate, objective news and information in Pakistan's tribal areas," U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said.

While polls show support for the Taliban is flagging, the movement's message still dominates in the street. In Pakistan's tribal areas, there are just a handful of legal radio stations, compared with nearly 200 illegal stations run by militants, often from the back of a motorbike.

Last summer, Washington established a new unit within the State Department to counter militant propaganda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, spending up to $150-million (U.S.) a year to fund a range of efforts including new radio stations, expanded cellphone service and journalists' training.

NATO officials deny they are dealing in propaganda and are wary of the appearance of such: "We are simply offering people another option to be open to a different kind of news and entertainment," said Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, NATO's director of communication in Kabul.

Radio Mashaal's first broadcast yesterday featured male and female presenters reading a newscast. There was an analysis of the impact of Mr. Holbrooke's visit to the region, a discussion of an article from The Wall Street Journal and messages from tribal leaders from the region.

"It went perfectly," said Akbar Ayazi, who oversaw the establishment of the new service, which is broadcast by Radio Free Europe out of Prague.

"During the first hour, we received over a hundred voice messages. It was a terrific response," he said.

A team of 25 journalists is based in a bureau in Islamabad, reporting from "the mountains and villages where the extremists are active," explained Mr. Ayazi.

Many of the journalists are themselves victims of the Taliban. "One had to emigrate from his native town in Balochistan to Karachi because of serious threats ... another had received warning letters from the Taliban ... on the house door of her parents and a third one, a journalist and popular singer, said he was forced to produce his new CDs with a pseudonym," recounted one of the members of the hiring committee.

Yesterday, there was a debate in the newsroom over whether Radio Mashaal journalists should post their pictures and true identities on the station's website, for fear of retribution.

In Washington, Mr. Bacha, the singer, expresses his fears in his lyrics: "I wish there were no worries, no terror / I wish my beloved and I lived in peace," he sang yesterday.

His new role as a radio host fuels fears for the safety of his family in Peshawar, who listened closely to yesterday's broadcast.

He wonders whether the Taliban listened as well.