In short, community radio is “good for democracy,” says Najiba Ayubi, the director of the Killid Group, which owns eight radio stations and two magazines. Like Moby and Salam Watandar, Killid was started in 2002 with money from USAID and others. In the last year, Killid has gone through a series of layoffs and cost-cutting to stay afloat. Ayubi says the group, which now relies on both grants and ad revenue, is stable—for the moment, at least. “If the grant-based media isn’t creative at this time, then they will have no means to survive,” she says.
With the 2014 deadline looming, most of the country’s independent media are looking for ways to increase revenue. The international donor community is also changing the focus of its grants, emphasizing marketing training designed to help stations and newspapers do just that. Too many of the Afghan media outlets are trying to “be everything to everybody,” says Masha Hamilton, the director of communications and public diplomacy at the US Embassy in Kabul. They should focus on their core audience, she says, and market themselves accordingly.
If the country’s independent media collapse, there is a real danger that a politically partisan media will emerge to fill the gap. Already, a number of outlets are owned by Afghan warlords or polarizing ethnic leaders. More worrying, some say, is the influence that neighboring Pakistan and Iran have on Afghanistan’s media. Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, the executive director of NAI, an Afghan nonprofit that both trains journalists and lobbies the government on behalf of the media, estimates that Iran controls at least four of the 60 Afghan television broadcasters. “They are literally sending news packages to the station in which the reporters are referring not to the ‘leader of Iran’ or ‘the president of Iran,’ but simply to ‘the leader,’ ” Khalvatgar says.
ToloNews’s Najafizada suggests that Iran and Pakistan are simply trying to replicate the success the US and other Western nations have had getting their democracy-building messages out through grant-funded media in Afghanistan. “When people are dropping bags of cash off at the president’s palace, you shouldn’t be surprised when you see that others are also trying to influence Afghan media,” Najafizada says. (In late April, President Karzai confirmed a New York Times report that CIA agents were bringing cash to the president’s palace as part of monthly payments to influence the Afghan government.)
Even without the outside interference, journalists must contend with the consequences of their reporting. Afghanistan, after all, is not a place where the powerful are used to dealing with nosy reporters. In January, the country’s leading daily newspaper, Hasht-e Sobh, published an article based on government documents that named more than 300 former ministers, parliament members, and influential citizens involved in claiming land they did not own. It was a big story, and showed what serious investigative reporting could do.
The day the story appeared, the reporter, Akbar Rostami, and his editor in chief, Parwiz Kawa, received threatening phone calls. And men who refused to identify themselves showed up at the newspaper’s office demanding to speak to the editor. When they were turned away, they asked for detailed information about the office’s security systems. Kawa called the police, and that night two armed officers were stationed at the newsroom.
Two months later, Rostami produced another report that revealed corruption in the Ministry of Mines, based on hundreds of pages of leaked documents. Both Rostami and Kawa again received threatening, anonymous phone calls. In April, Kawa was called to the attorney general’s office to face a complaint from the mining minister. According to Afghanistan’s 2009 Media Law, the attorney general does not have the authority to summon journalists to answer a complaint until a special regulatory commission investigates. In this case, Kawa says, the protocol was not followed. “Karzai has said that freedom of speech has been his biggest success, but that’s not true because there are people in his government who are creating laws restricting access to information,” Rostami says, referring to an amendment proposed last year to the Media Law that contained vague language limiting the media’s ability to cover subjects that would jeopardize national security or Islamic values. Parliament has since shelved the amendment.
Violent attacks against journalists have increased, too, according to NAI’s Khalvatgar. From January to May of this year, 41 incidents of violence against journalists—including three deaths—were registered, compared with 21 during the same period last year. Seventy percent of those incidents were categorized as government pressure on a journalist. The others were threats, physical harassment, or beatings.