In the summer of 2012, melon crops in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz Province were nearly wiped out by a bacterial disease. Ninety percent of the farmers in the region suffered economic loss. A local reporter from the Salam Watandar radio station reported the story, and it later was featured in a national broadcast of Farm Talk, a weekly call-in program not unlike an Afghan version of NPR’s Car Talk, only the subjects are pesticides and irrigation, not overheating motors and squeaky brakes.
In Kabul, a deputy at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock heard the broadcast and was shocked. The agency oversees a sector that produces about 27 percent of the national GDP, but this was the first time the overly centralized government had heard of the crop devastation in the northern province.
The ministry immediately gave Kunduz farmers pesticides for the following year’s crops, which are now expected to achieve a near full recovery.
American readers may shrug off such a story of media influence. But Salam Watandar’s role in giving the Kunduz farmers’ plight a voice in Kabul highlights the remarkable emergence of Afghanistan’s media sector as a player in the embattled country’s political and social arenas. A decade ago, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan’s only radio station, which broadcast nothing but regime-approved religious programming. Today, there are so many radio stations in Kabul that it is impossible for startups to find an available frequency. By most estimates, there are approximately 150 radio stations, 60 television broadcasters (some have licenses but aren’t broadcasting), and more than 240 newspapers and magazines in a country of 31 million people.
The media’s rapid growth can be attributed to a huge influx of foreign funding, mostly from the US Agency for International Development, but also from Europe and Japan. To date, USAID has given more than $70 million for startup costs and training of Afghan media professionals since 2002. Separately, the US Embassy in Kabul has shelled out some $99 million for media development since 2010 alone.
The result is an active press corps that, though hardly a robust Fourth Estate yet, is definitely making the powerful take notice. Press conferences are lively and many Afghan reporters aren’t afraid to ask government officials tough questions. President Hamid Karzai points to the thriving Afghan media and its role in the country’s emerging democracy as one of the greatest successes of his two terms.
But there are fears that could change after 2014, when the bulk of NATO troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan—along with much of the international support. While the international community insists that it’s not abandoning the country, large-scale development funding has already decreased from its peak in 2010.
Afghan journalists worry that they are not ready to go it alone. “The concern is that once the troops leave, the economy will decrease—or, God forbid, collapse—which will affect the country across the board, including the media,” says Lotfullah Najafizada, the head of current affairs at ToloNews.
ToloNews, a 24-hour news channel, is part of the Moby Group, Afghanistan’s first major media conglomerate. The group started with Afghanistan’s first independent radio station, Arman FM, after the fall of the Taliban. USAID provided $270,000 for the station’s startup in 2002. That was coupled with about $300,000 from the Mohseni family, Afghan businessmen who had returned to Kabul after living in Australia during the Taliban years.
Moby is now a global enterprise, and has a deal with Rupert Murdoch to produce the Farsi1 television channel in Dubai. Moby’s commercial station, Tolo TV, is hugely popular thanks to the original serial dramas and foreign soap operas it airs.
But Moby is an exception. Media outlets that were born as part of a broader development program that has been funded almost entirely by international donors, will struggle without that support, says Najafizada. Of particular concern is the potential loss of community radio stations, which have brought news and information, and provided a voice, to rural regions like Kunduz. In a country where illiteracy rates hover around 39 percent for men and 13 percent for women, stations such as Salam Watandar have proven vital to engaging communities that otherwise see insurgent groups doing more to help them than their government in Kabul.
USAID helped launch Salam Watandar in 2003. It now has 60 regional affiliates across all 34 provinces of Afghanistan. Ninety percent of the network’s revenue comes from grants from the international community. The rest comes from ad sales to Afghan banks and telecommunication companies, the nation’s most active advertisers.
As economic pressures mount, the network is looking for ways to cut costs without closing stations. “The danger of losing local stations,” says Nasir Maimanagy, the network’s managing director, “is that a lack of information feeds the insurgency, which will take advantage of the situation.”