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Afghanistan's media explosion

Zang e Khatar is the most popular satire and comedy programs in Afghanistan. Join us weekly on Tolo TV Afghanistan and International.Before 2001 Afghans had only the Taliban's Radio Sharia. So they depended on transistor radios tuned to external services, primarily the BBC Persian service, for independent information.

In that light the explosion of media in Afghanistan following the end of Taliban rule in 2001 is a success story. But Afghan journalists are being killed on the security frontline, jailed or silenced. The government and parliament are in conflict over the country's media law, and journalistic professionalism is in its infancy.

The current diverse clutch of Afghan media owners include the Australian-Afghan Mohseni brothers, wannabe politicians who lives overseas, mullahs with links to Iran and powerful provincial warlords who were cashed up by the US during the 1980s civil war. But they also notably include more than 35 independent, community radio stations across the country. Two are owned and managed by women.

In a country with high illiteracy rates, especially in rural areas, newspapers are struggling but radio is strong. Network and local television are growing, particularly in those regions, like Herat, which have electricity.

Measuring audiences is still an infant science and quantitative and qualitative research is bedevilled by demography and security. But the Mohseni brothers' Tolo TV is probably the most popular television network in Afghanistan. An overwhelmingly young population enjoys its Indian soap operas, racy by conservative Afghan mores. So it is popular with advertisers.

The Government has tried to censor Tolo and another leading network. The latter bowed to pressure. Tolo refused, more out of respect for its bottom line than for media freedom.

Financial viability is crucial in an industry which has expanded so rapidly, with networks and stations vying for a share of the advertising market which in 2006 was worth up to AUD $31 million.

The International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) is a dominant advertiser. As part of its psychological operations to win hearts and minds, it produces and pays stations to broadcast a range of messages on human rights, health, agriculture and Western development assistance. In some regions military advertising is considerably greater than commercial advertising. This calls into question Afghan media's long-term financial viability.

From ISAF's strategic perspective, to rely on one-way messages in an era of multi-platform, interactive media is curiously old-hat. Mobile phones have leapfrogged the internet as a communications channel. Phone-in audience participation — from discussion forums to music requests — is clearly popular.

Television is fine for broadcasting community messages or warnings such as 'don't approach military convoys: you run the risk of being shot'. But its use to persuade locals that Western Coalition forces are in Afghanistan to protect Afghans is problematic. The Afghan rumour mill tells people of the increasing number of civilians being wrongly targetted and killed. So many locals believe foreigners are in Afghanistan to promote their own interests.

Remarkably, the greatest fuss in post-conflict Afghanistan has arguably been the government's resistance to a media law which was ratified by parliament. In September 2008 the parliament ratified a media law which the President refused to have published. Although the law was based on recommendations by an Afghan group, the Government argued that it was influenced by foreigners.

Journalists are left unclear whether they should follow the outdated restrictions of the 2006 law or the new, ratified but not official law. They are also under many other pressures: death on assignment in an insecure area, jailing, or a late-night phone call at home where an unidentified voice suggests they drop a story.

In February this year the daily newspaper, Payman, was closed after its editor was briefly jailed for alleged blasphemy. It had carried a contentious article, downloaded from an Afghan website. The article carried the predictions of a Bulgarian woman which cast doubt on all prophesies, including those of Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohamed. The Ulema issued a fatwa against the paper.

Despite Payman acknowledging that it had printed the article in error and frequently apologising for it it, the Ulema threatened national action. The government caved in. The Attorney General stated: 'Our society cannot tolerate anti-Islamic propaganda.'

President Karzai was also under pressure. After his term expires in April, he plans to contend for the position of interim President until national elections are held in August.

Despite the difficulties in developing a professional journalistic culture many heartening stories can be told. At a training course in Kabul, where the journalists came from Taliban country, young men talked about a close shave outside Kandahar.

They had taken a route through dangerous country in their eagerness to do training, 'because we must'. They were stopped and interrogated at a roadside checkpoint by Taliban who, luckily, did not search and discover their journalist ID cards.

If they had the story might have had a different ending: some of their names were on anti-Taliban stories in the local media.

I pin my hopes for an independent Afghan media on this simple story, because I must.

Jan ForresterJan Forrester worked for three months in Afghanistan as a media trainer with a US-based media development NGO, Internews.

Topic tags: jan forrester, afghanistan, media, taliban, tolo tv, Mohseni brothers



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