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.”
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.