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Analysis: In Radio-Centric Afghanistan, Western Donors Work With Local Realities

By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

A viable and free media in Afghanistan is widely recognized by the international community and Afghans themselves as a top priority in the reconstruction of one of the world's poorest and most war-ravaged countries. Yet Western donors have also come to see that conditions in Afghanistan have meant both scaling back expectations and adapting to realities on the ground. When governments pledged $5.2 billion in assistance for Afghanistan in 2002, with $3.8 billion to be given in the form of grants, media development was envisioned as an important, albeit secondary priority. Millions of dollars have now been spent to reform or create media since the war, yet money alone has not been able to surmount basic logistical difficulties and philosophical differences.

So far, the United States, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and other countries, as well as UNESCO and other UN agencies, have all contributed millions to media assistance in Afghanistan. With so many diverse projects and differing definitions of what constitutes a "media" project (some humanitarian reconstruction projects contain media infrastructure), it is difficult to assess how much of the aid packages worked out by the West really target media issues, and of that figure, how much has gone directly to subsidizing local Afghanistan media.

Noah Miller, currently business manager of Internews Afghanistan, a U.S.-based media-assistance nongovernmental organization, is working to make local media sustainable. As a graduate student last year at the London-based Stanhope Center for Communications Policy Research, he published a study of Afghan media-development issues. Miller cited the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority's database of 31 media-assistance projects with funding requests totaling $56.8 million. But he found that the requests had generated donor commitments of only $29.8 million, of which only $4.7 million was disbursed at that time, that is actually transferred into accounts to which grantees can gain access.

Furthermore, of the $4.7 million, Miller found that $2.22 million was spent repairing facilities damaged during the U.S.-led 2001 bombing campaign or on radio broadcasts providing information on relief operations and the Loya Jirga, rather than on local community-news development. More funds have flowed since Miller's study last year, but the time lag between requests and expenditures and the difficulties of getting projects going and sustained in Afghanistan mean that such programs cannot be assessed only by their budget line at donors' conferences.

Last year, the U.S. military distributed 200,000 free transistor radios -- an indication of the very basic needs of Afghanistan, which differ considerably from nearby Central Asian countries and even some African developing nations. With only about 36 percent of the population literate and with the country's poorly developed infrastructure, radio remains by far the most popular medium. Many areas still lack electricity and television sets, so reaching most the population through television is not an option.

About 37 percent of the population, or 7.5 million Afghans, listen to the radio, Internews reports. Another Internews survey found that 24 percent of rural Afghans can be reached by local radio or television stations, although many households do not have electricity and the number of those who possess radios and batteries is not known.

In addition to the reformed government-broadcasting system, Radio Arman, the first independent station, was launched in 2003. Some conservatives were outraged that "young girls can be heard laughing on the air," according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a nongovernmental press-freedom group. The station grew popular in what an Afghan journalist told RSF was a "radio-centric" country, and others soon followed.

Internews has now set up 14 radio stations across Afghanistan with funding from the United States Agency for International Development's Office of Transitional Initiatives. Additional support from Germany has been provided for such Internews activities as a publication called "Media Monitor," which tracks press-freedom violations and development issues for the local media community and the general public.

In July 2003, Internews asked station managers across the country to map the footprint of their radio stations. They found there is a disparity between urban and rural listeners. International broadcasters such as VOA, RFE/RL, the BBC, and Deutsche Welle have all organized programming for Afghanistan. In a study of Afghan media prepared last year called "Afghan Media Landscape," the Baltic Media Center (BMC), based in Denmark and implementing programs in Afghanistan, says that for now international stations "provide pluralism in a country where private broadcasting can hardly survive." Without a thriving, independent business sector, advertising cannot flourish, the report noted. The BMC is concerned that international projects might inadvertently displace domestic efforts that also need support. "In a midterm perspective, the immense competition from these [foreign] radios will threaten both Radio Afghanistan and possibly Afghan private initiatives," the BMC study worries.

Such concerns, however, might be misplaced. Although foreign stations have considerable audiences, when Internews conducted a survey last year of 2,000 radio sets, they found that 80 percent were tuned to the two Afghan independent radio stations, which feature mainly Indian, Afghan, and Western music with some news programming.

As with other areas of support for fledgling civil society and liberal institutions, media developers have to face the reality that journalism as a profession is not established or protected in Afghanistan. In its annual report, RSF describes as "old enemies" of the press "warlords, conservatives, and the Taliban." RSF and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have tracked dozens of cases of threats, harassment, and even murder of Afghan journalists for their work.

With the history of suppression of women's rights in Afghanistan, donors have also focused heavily on building the capacity of women to access and use journalism training and to participate in broadcasting. Internews and other media-assistance providers have found that radio listening is a male-dominated activity, and broadcasts came at times of the day that are not convenient for some listeners.

Slowly, this is beginning to change. Women have begun to work for national media outlets, and at least four stations that are specifically run by women and feature women's issues have begun broadcasting in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jabul Saraj, and Herat. These stations can only broadcast a few hours each day, and face challenges from various forces challenging their effort to participate in society. They have experienced the difficulties of all fledgling institutions in Afghanistan, with conservatives clashing with liberals -- many of whom are returning from exile -- in a dynamic that affects all of Afghan politics, including the media.

Aina, or "Mirror," is an organization that was founded in 2001 by an Iranian photojournalist to promote press freedom. It is based in Paris with offices around the world, and it supported an educational mobile cinema in Afghanistan, the first women's radio station, and the first school for photojournalists. The London-based nongovernmental Institute for War and Peace Reporting runs training programs and publishes the weekly "Afghan Recovery Report," which uses stories written by student journalists.

Donors' plans for television have clashed with realities such as the January 2003 conservative Supreme Court ruling banning cable stations on the grounds that the programming was "pornographic" and "anti-Islamic." A Justice Ministry official has said that Voice of Afghan Women radio is "against Shari'a law." But in April, cable-television networks resumed broadcasting, reportedly evidence that more liberal forces in the Karzai government had prevailed. An official ban on singing on television and state radio remains in place, but radio stations ignore it. The cable programs likely do not reach an audience greater than 100,000, and a lot of the programming is strictly entertainment oriented.

The BMC says that when Afghanistan began to reform and reconstruct, it moved faster toward freedom of expression than most of its Central Asian neighbors did. There is reason to be optimistic about local support for press freedom. One reason is that the ministers now responsible for the media lived in the West for many years and have some understanding of the importance of editorial independence. Another reason is that the same international donors who worked in the Balkans and Central Asia have not pushed as much for full-fledged free-media legislation that "lives up to international -- in reality, Western -- standards," says BMC. Yet another factor is that donors have introduced conditionality by providing equipment under the pledge of editorial independence. This was not always done in the former Soviet Union in the haste to professionalize the media. But the freedoms gained have been quickly seized upon by factional forces controlled by various warlords, and without a clearly established institution of the "fourth estate," freedom could paradoxically lead to less freedom over time.

Culture and Education Minister Yonus Anon was quoted in an interview with BMC as saying the media could promote a new culture, the rights of women, and national unity as long as they do not undermine the government, which he believes is the only hope for peace. The BMC voices the concerns of many Western donors when it says it believes that extensive training and the founding of ethics boards can reduce the tendency of journalism toward "destructive sensationalism."

Differences over how media should be developed reflect the larger divisive issues of the society, says BMC. For example, some officials want to promote media freedom and others want to suppress it. Even many of those promoting it want the media to perform certain missions. The official state media body Radio Television Afghanistan is described by BMC as "a profound defender of editorial independence" while also demonstrating "warm support of Islam as an integrated part of programming." Anon defends independent public broadcasting and wants some programs featuring religion and some free of it.

So far, despite the professional training that occurred in the Soviet era in Afghanistan and that some experienced while in exile in the West, local institutions have not been formed easily. Journalists who tried to create an independent journalists' union last year with international help failed because of political conflicts, says RSF. RSF believes that the tensions playing out in other areas between progressive journalists and conservatives, made the union impossible. "The editor of an independent publication exclaimed at a preparatory meeting: 'I see so many warlords here that I wonder when they became journalists,'" RSF reported.

RSF says that one problem in media development is that Taliban groups and others such as Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have abused the media for their political goals. RSF has documented dozens of incidents in which reporters have been intimidated, detained, and even killed by various factions. Media outlets find themselves under constant pressure. For example in Jalalabad, staff at one radio station went on strike after armed mujahedin came to the station to complain it was not giving their activities enough coverage.

Although Western assistance officials fret about media footprints and have to cope with daunting logistical and cultural differences and physical danger in trying to launch media projects, war-torn Afghanistan already has an existing, durable, portable, and effective system for disseminating information and knowledge: the mosque. People might be without radios and electricity, but as the Afghanistan Peace Education Program of McMaster Center for Peace Studies in Canada has noted, "there is one mosque for every 50 to 100 households, while countless villages have no school at all."

Looking at the institutions already in the communication business, the McMaster Center has pointed out that mosques are "community-built, community-run, and community-supported institutions, the expenses of which are paid through voluntary or community-organized mechanisms." In addition to the mosque, many Afghans get their news by going to the bazaar, family weddings, or other local cultural events. These age-old methods for spreading information may be low-technology, but they are trusted and used, without any special Western training, and very accessible.

(Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is the editor of "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies.")