For many Afghan reporters, the attraction of journalism lies as far as possible from these military and political aims. Afghanistan is an old country in the throes of sudden modernity, its people forced by international invasion and globalization to undertake a radical form of time travel. Storytelling comes naturally here, and journalism feels both innate and modern. For young Afghans, especially in big cities, it is a pathway to union with the wider world, like cell phones or the Internet. Perhaps most important, Afghan reporters view journalism as a force for justice in a place where justice is rare. “As a young person in Afghanistan, I know I cannot help,” the Afghan journalist who worked with me on this story confided. “But we believe that if we join many drops, we can make a sea.”
Journalism is burgeoning in Afghanistan for all these reasons. Under the Taliban, there were no private news organizations. Today, thirty-five TV stations, dozens of radio broadcasters, and hundreds of newspapers and magazines compete for Afghans’ attention. Most receive at least some funding from the government, political parties, or international donors.
In recent years, the U. S. military has become more directly involved in funding Afghan media. In eastern Afghanistan last winter, an Army unit I spent time with was funneling tens of thousands of dollars to a local TV station, while maintaining that the station’s editorial decisions were independent. The U. S. military routinely sets up local-language radio stations as part of its information operations campaign. The WikiLeaks release of military records last summer documented payouts to Afghan-run radio stations in return for airing content generated by U. S. military psychological operations teams.
The rapid growth of the media—and expanded funding from some quarters—have not made reporting in Afghanistan any easier. In fact, journalism has become more difficult as security has deteriorated. Political alliances have grown murkier under the weak Karzai government, deepening war has muddled the international community’s intentions, and militant and organized crime networks have grown fat on foreign aid. Afghan journalists are relatively new to their work, and they have been criticized for lacking professionalism. But Afghan journalists describe the world they see: a complex place, littered with overlapping, conflicting accounts. There are no reliable sources here.
Mohammad Nader is about thirty-five years old, bearded, with a stocky build and blunt features. Born in Kandahar, he and his family left Afghanistan in 1985 to escape fighting between the Soviets and the Afghan mujahideen. He spent his adolescence in and around Quetta, Pakistan. His father died when he was three, so Nader’s mother supported the family by working as a cook and cleaner. “There were no jobs for educated Afghani people,” Nader told me. Once, an employer gave his mother 200 kilograms of flour to make bread for a wedding party. She kneaded dough all night, earning sixty Afghanis—a little more than $1. Nader quit school to sell vegetables in the market. “Our great teachers were cleaners there,” he said. “We were very happy when the coalition forces came.”
In 2001, Nader and his family returned to Kandahar. “People were going places and taking pictures,” Nader told me. “I like the camera and I can use the camera. These journalists were trying to be the first to take a picture. I like this—I wanted to take pictures before anyone else.” He began working as a fixer for Al Jazeera’s Arabic news channel. He spoke a bit of Arabic, but mainly he worked in his own language, Pashto, calling in reports. “We were giving correct and confirmed news, not making up news by ourselves,” he said. A friend of Nader’s worked for CNN, and he inspired Nader. When Al Jazeera closed its office in Kandahar, Nader stayed behind with a video camera to document the changing Afghan south.