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'The Prague Post' Reports On One Year Of RFE Broadcasts In Pakistan

RFE's station in Pakistan, Radio Mashaal, celebrated its first anniversary on January 15, 2010. The station broadcasts in Pashto to the tribal regions of Northwestern Pakistan. Below is an article from "The Prague Post" discussing Radio Mashaal's first year, its impact in Pakistan, and what the future holds.


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Jack Buehrer | The Prague Post

There are few places in the world, if any, that present more challenges for working journalists than Pakistan.

The country was declared "the world's deadliest country for the press" in 2010 by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Reporters Without Borders calls Pakistan's Swat Valley, which sits on the country's volatile Afghan border, a "valley of fear."

But for journalist Shaheen Buneri, Pakistan - specifically, the Swat Valley - was home for his entire personal and professional life. That is, until last year.

Buneri, 33, is one of 19 Pakistani journalists who moved to Prague in 2010 to be part of Radio Mashaal, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's (RFE/RL's) first Pakistani station, which celebrated its one-year anniversary Jan. 15.

"It is very dangerous," he said of working in Pakistan. "But it is also my home. You don't like to leave your home, but as a resident of the region and also as a journalist, I felt there was a need for a radio station like this."

Radio Mashaal was the brainchild of Akbar Ayazi, RFE/RL's associate director of broadcasting, who also oversees coverage of Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, Ayazi, an Afghanistan native, says the number of extremist radio broadcasts - both underground and on the FM dial - was growing in Pakistan's northern regions. There, the largely rural and uneducated population speaks Pashto, a language spoken by only 15 percent of Pakistanis, but the preferred language of the Taliban in the region.

"We knew the region of the Pashto speakers was extremely important," Ayazi said. "Especially when you think of the new face of Radio Free Europe, which is more in Central and Southwest Asia. We needed to have a broadcast [in Pakistan], and it needed to be in Pashto.

"All of the stations that are broadcasting up there are just spreading hate and recruiting suicide bombers and promoting extremism. Broadcasting in Pashto to these people is an opportunity to counter this extremism."

Initially a one-hour daily broadcast, Radio Mashaal employed just four journalists and one technician, making it a challenge to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle in one of the most volatile regions in the world. Slowly, the operation grew as more staff was added. But hiring journalists, especially those based in Pakistan, willing to withstand the constant threats, intimidation, capture and even murder, proved daunting.

"It was a challenge for us to find people brave enough - and these really are brave men and women - to report for us in these mountain and rural regions," Ayazi said.

"Our reporters are always challenged. It's fearful; it's dangerous. They do get threats; they do get intimidated. Not from the government, but when the extremists find out where the journalists are, they intimidate them and often worse. There's definitely a culture of fear among journalists there. But the ones we've brought on have stood by us."

By June 2010, the staff in Prague was up to 19, with about 20 more in Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, and the station was filling nine hours a day with original programming, talk shows and news.

But in July, monsoon rains put nearly one-fifth of the country under water, and the ensuing floods killed nearly 2,000, mostly in the rural north. It was a major international story, and Radio Mashaal was on the scene and equipped to handle it, sending their own reporters to some of the most remote reaches of the country to report live as the disaster unfolded. According to Ayazi, they were only station able to broadcast live from the flood-stricken regions.

"The flood was one of our biggest events," said Radio Mashaal Director Amanullah Ghilazi. "We were quite involved. Our reporter was there in the region. It was one of the first really big stories that hit the service."

And the news hasn't stopped.

Even as the Radio Mashaal staff prepared to celebrate their first anniversary, the country has once again found itself on the world's front pages with a death sentence being imposed on Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to be executed under the country's controversial blasphemy law. More recently, the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, thought by many to be a result of his liberal views and vocal opposition to the blasphemy law, has caused many around the world to wonder if Pakistan is capable of combating growing extremism in the country. But this global microscope is nothing Pakistani journalists aren't used to.

"Pakistan and Afghanistan are probably the biggest news-producing countries in the world," Ayazi said.

"We are rich with news," Ghilazi agreed. "We don't always have a place to put all of the news that's available to us.

"There's always news happening in Pakistan," he said, "all the time. Maybe people outside of Pakistan have only been paying attention these last few weeks, but Pakistan has been in turmoil for a long time."

As it turns out, people are listening.

Radio Mashaal conducted its first listener survey in August 2010 after being in operation for just over half a year and learned that 5 percent of Pakistan's Pashtun-speaking population was regularly tuning in. They estimate that number has risen to near 10 percent in the months since.

Ayazi and Ghilazi agree that while the majority of the station's listeners are likely men in their 30s and 40s, they are determined to gain the interest of a younger audience - the same audience extremist broadcasts are trying to attract.

"We don't have a lot of young listeners, because of the culture. The young people in Pakistan aren't really interested in radio," Ghilazi said, adding that two new programs, including one aimed at helping the younger generation find educational and employment opportunities, are receiving positive feedback.

The continuing turmoil in their native land causes mixed emotions among the Radio Mashaal staff, especially those, like Buneri, from the country's northwest region. Staffers speak with great pride when asked about their coverage of violence and religious extremism and natural disasters. But they're also aware of the negative light in which those same stories paint their homeland.

"I'm a journalist, but I also have an emotional attachment to my land," Buneri said. "Before us there were [journalists] only focusing on the terrorist incidents. So many journalists here are the byproducts of bomb blasts.

"But I take great satisfaction in knowing that our mission is to not just report on the terrorism but also the history, the culture, the heritage. There are so many positive things in our society, and we're telling those stories, too."