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Afghanistan: Media Rely Purely On State Funding

The Taliban has been chased out of Kabul, and state television and radio are again broadcasting music and the voices of female announcers. But private media -- one of the cornerstones of a civil society -- have yet to appear, and there are few signs they will do so soon. RFE/RL's Charles Recknagel is in Kabul and looks at the media situation in the Afghan capital.

Kabul, 11 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- At Afghanistan's state television and radio buildings, the mood is close to euphoric.

It is still just weeks since the Taliban abandoned Kabul, and the corridors of the buildings are filled with excited former reporters and broadcasters returning to their work. State television was off the air for the five years of the Taliban's regime because the fundamentalist militia regarding any images of people as contrary to its interpretation of Islam. State radio continued to operate -- but as Radio Sharia, with women and music banned from the studios and the programs a drab mix of government propaganda and fundamentalist dos and don'ts.

One of the women now bustling around the television studios is Saoraya Rahim Aria. She -- unlike many of the women in the corridors -- has abandoned her face- and body-enveloping burqa and wears only the headscarf acceptable to mainstream Muslims. She is ebullient because she is a recent hire and already is appearing regularly on camera on the nightly news program.

"Three days after the Taliban left Kabul, I [and other women] came to the television/radio to make test recordings of our voices," she says. "We told them [the management] about our previous experience. I studied journalism at Mazar-i-Sharif University."

Aria, a Kabul resident, left the capital during the Taliban regime so that she could study in the opposition-controlled north of the country. She is now one of 50 women at the television station. She says that already people in the street recognize her face and name from the nightly news program. And she says she feels secure going about the capital's streets unaccompanied by a close male relative and with her face uncovered -- both of which were serious offenses here a little over a month ago before the Taliban fled.

The 50 women now working at the TV station still represent just a handful of the roughly 1,000 women who used to work in Afghan TV and radio before the Taliban came to power in 1996. At that time, women made up some 40 percent of the total staff. Now the station's new management says it wants to quickly return to that pre-Taliban situation.

The director in charge of television is Shamsuddin Hamid. He has long experience as a reporter and producer for Afghanistan state radio and television but left his job during the Taliban era. He says the most important change now is that men and women can work together again and without fear of discrimination due to gender, ethnicity or ideology.

"The important change is that men and women staff are working here again," Hamid says. "They can come to work without fear, and nobody is asking whether a man's beard is long enough [to conform to Taliban standards]. And no one is asking about your ethnic identity or ideology."

Hamid says the television station currently broadcasts only during the evenings from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The broadcasts are limited because the station has just one weak transmitter with no backup if it burns out. The broadcast area extends no farther than the outskirts of the capital.

But while the television station has now recovered its former diversity of professionals, it still remains a state organ. The same is true for the rest of the few media outlets in the city, including the state Bhaktar Information Agency (BIA) and the government-owned newspapers, which -- like the television and radio -- distribute the information agency's news.

Sultan Ahmad Bain is the acting chief of BIA and was the agency's deputy director before he was forced from his job under the Taliban. He says the agency's correspondents gather some news themselves, while other news is sent in by government ministries. He says the agency in the past also received foreign news from the French AFP and German DPA wire services, but that this was discontinued under the militia.

Bain also says there is now no money to subscribe to foreign wire services. And he hopes the wire services and other foreign media will assist by providing some form of temporary cost-free access to their reports. There have been no such offers yet, and meanwhile, the agency takes its foreign news from international short-wave broadcasts.

The existence of purely state-controlled outlets in Kabul raises some questions as to how the media in Afghanistan will be able to play a full role in helping to develop the civil society so desired by the international community. That role usually depends on the equal existence of independent, privately owned news organizations, which can freely criticize the government without relying on the government's permission to do so.

But long-time journalists in Kabul, such as the BIA's Bain, say they see little likelihood of private media developing in Afghanistan given the economic situation. Bain says the country has never had a press not funded by the government or political parties because the economy is too poor to offer the necessary revenues from subscriptions or advertising.

"[Nobody] could operate a newspaper here as a business by selling it to people. Any newspaper in the past, even the freest ones, were supported by the government, paid for the government, or by some [political or religious] parties," Bain says. "So without support from the outside -- from the government or any other [source] -- you cannot open a newspaper and run a newspaper in Afghanistan."

Bain says so long as the economy remains poor, there is little reason to expect the media situation to change. That is, unless the international community steps in to foster a free press independent of the government or the political parties whose factional struggles have proved so devastating for the country in the past.

Currently, Afghanistan is among the poorest countries in the world. The UN says that among the present population of some 20 million people, 7 million are in danger of starving. The country has been ravaged by decades of war and a three-year drought, which has devastated its rudimentary economy, based on agriculture and animal husbandry.

UN experts have estimated the cost of rebuilding Afghanistan will be at least $10 billion. The reconstruction needs are to be addressed at an international ministerial-level conference of donors in Tokyo in January.