Future tense

Can Afghanistan's press survive without the West's support?
July 1, 2013

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.

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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.”

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.

Some observers attribute the increased violence to growing tension before the 2014 election to select Karzai’s successor as president. “The attacks on the media will get worse because politicians don’t want to face problems from the media, such as the Hasht-e Sobh reports,” says Faheem Dashty, who runs Afghanistan’s National Journalist Union.

In the Hasht-e Sobh newsroom, Rostami says he’s not deterred. He acknowledges that the stress of the past several months has caused him to lose a lot of weight, but he’s at work on more investigations, which he plans to file in the coming weeks.

Kawa, his editor, is equally determined, despite the looming revenue problems his and other media outlets are facing. “We’re encouraged by the response we’ve gotten on the reports,” he says. “If I could afford to hire four more full-time investigative reporters, I would be able to publish a report like this every week.”

Sabra Ayres is a journalism instructor at American University of Afghanistan