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Afghanistan: Independent 'Kabul Weekly' Returns To Newsstands

The "Kabul Weekly," the only independent newspaper in the Afghan capital, is back on newsstands after being absent from the city for six years. The newspaper's editor in chief and some of the staff recently spoke about their return to public life and the importance of a free press to the future of the fledgling nation.

Kabul, 28 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Many things have returned to public life in Kabul since the Taliban fled the Afghan capital in November. Music. Schools for girls. Kite flying. Women in public life. And now, the "Kabul Weekly."

The independent newspaper -- published from 1993 until the Taliban shut in down in 1996 -- just put its first post-Taliban issue back on the city's newsstands. The newspaper's staff held a press briefing over the weekend to talk to the foreign media about their plans.

In a front-page editorial, "Kabul Weekly" Editor in Chief Fahim Dashty says, "The presence of a free press in Afghanistan can be extremely useful in creating an independent, peaceful, and stable Afghanistan, in which people can determine their own political destiny and national sovereignty."

Dashty emphasized this point at the press conference: "Our object for printing this weekly is that we want to show that an independent newspaper can work in Afghanistan. As you know, Afghanistan is going to change dramatically. And as you yourself know, without an independent press, a democratic country cannot be established."

"Kabul Weekly" is printed in four languages -- Dari, Pashtu, English, and French. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, promises to pay the expenses for publishing the newspaper and the wages of its staff of 12 men and three women for the next three years.

Currently, UNESCO is giving the newspaper about $5,000 a month to publish the 10-page paper. The weekly says it soon plans to expand to 12 pages and a staff of 35, for which it says UNESCO will give them about $10,000 a month.

The French organization Reporters Without Borders and AINA, a French nongovernmental organization, are also helping the newspaper and its staff. There were 2,500 copies printed of the Thursday, 24 January first issue, but the paper plans to increase its circulation to 6,000 soon. All printing and purchasing of materials are handled in Kabul.

"Kabul Weekly's" first issue carries articles in the English section on the Tokyo donors conference, the cultivation of opium in eastern regions of the country, and the training of women teachers for work in elementary schools, due to reopen in March. On the newspaper's second page is a column called "People Say." It simply repeats common rumors or gossip heard on the streets of Kabul, such as increases in the crime rate or the common complaint that ministers in the interim government seem to spend most of their time abroad.

Dashty denies it is irresponsible to print such gossip, pointing out that anyone can hear these comments just by walking down the street and that the column allows the newspaper to print things that readers can't say publicly out of fear.

The Dari and Pashto sections carry articles about the necessity of freedom of speech, the role of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, the overall security situation in the capital, and the payment of back wages to civil servants.

Dashty also ran an article about the 9 September assassination of Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud by suicide bombers posing as journalists. Dashty says he was there when Massoud was killed and said at the press briefing that he will continue to run articles about the assassination, using the descriptions of different witnesses to help readers understand exactly what took place that day.

Despite UNESCO's help with funding, the newspaper's biggest problem is distribution. Deputy Editor in Chief Breshna Nazari says that the first issue was not widely available: "We couldn't organize the distribution of the 'Weekly' properly. [Presently], you can get the paper at the Writers' Association [of Afghanistan], and at kiosks in [the] Temurshahi and Deafghanan [bazaars]."

Nazari could have added that as a clever marketing ploy, the staff also distributed copies of the newspaper to Kabul hotels where foreigners stay. The first issue was distributed free of charge, but the newspaper says it does plan to charge for future copies. Dashty says they have agreed on a price of 2,000 afghanis per copy, roughly the price of a loaf of bread in Kabul (28,000 afghanis equals one U.S. dollar).

"Kabul Weekly" also hopes to bring in money by selling advertising space, but none of the staff is prepared yet to say how much that will cost.

The introduction of "Kabul Weekly" brings to three the number of regularly appearing newspapers in the Afghan capital. The other two, both state-subsidized, are "Anis" and "Haiwad," printed in Pashto and Dari.