Sanjar Qiam

Free media on the verge of a larger pitfall


Afghan conflict, like any other conflict offers chances for the media to grow and improve, as well as restrictions and dangers. Because of the nature of Afghan crisis people need to know both the good news and the bad news, media disseminates information on reconstruction and development as well as on how the insurgency expands. But Afghan media is not alone, foreign media has a great interest in the crisis because they either have troops here, or ideological allies. The war on terror is a global phenomenon, but it has it’s critics too; quite some resources have been allocated by foreign media for the coverage of what is happening here. Westerners and NATO came here to defeat Taliban and extremism; clearly they are failing. People back home want to know what is going to happen to their troops in the face of a brutal war and what is going to happen at home consequently. Afghan journalists are also victims of the conflict. Afghan reporters have been detained and abused by Afghan Armed Forces, international troops and Taliban. Tawab Niazi is in government detention for maintaining contact with Taliban, without proofs of the nature of contacts. Journalists do get in touch with Taliban for collecting information. Duilio Giammaria, a reporter for Italian TV said “I have learned that journalists in Kabul have been threatened for having contacts with Taliban, we should stand for the freedom of contacts with anyone. Speaking with Taliban doesn’t mean you take sides. We should ask for the right to perform our work freely” Ajmal Naqshbandi is in Taliban custody [he was decapitated recently] for reporting in their area of control with an Italian journalist, while Taliban set the Italian free. International forces confiscated reporters’ equipment and barred them from gathering information after a shooting spree where NATO troops killed 16 and wounded 32 civilians last month.

Censorship exists in three forms, direct, indirect and self-censorship. Discussion around any Islamic concept is a taboo and it is directly censored by the government. TV stations are monitored by ministry of information and culture, not to broadcast scenes of Bollywood and western dances with women skin visible. Afghan TV was penalized by ministry of information and culture for broadcasting bad Bollywood dances. In a music and entertainment dominated media environment, all TV stations are dominated by such dances, curtaining it reflects the identity of a confused and scared society. Ismael Khan, minister of water and energy, stated in a gathering in Herat city, his home town, last week: “Afghan government is not implementing Islamic rules, even though it is legally bound to do so. Afghan television stations showing programs of dancing women is a sign of government not implementing Islamic rules”. Music content is not something that the government should regulate; it is a matter of taste and decency and it is usually covered by TV station editorial policy.

Izatullah wasifi, head of counter corruption, in a public hearing of his work criticized the media and said “unfortunately, some of our journalists are the source of corruption, I don’t say they should be imprisoned, I say we should hang them.”

When posed to an unwanted question, instead of not denying to comment the authorities threaten journalists. Zahir Azimi, spokesperson for ministry of defense had an interview with a colleague of mine, when asked an unwanted question he had his bodyguards throw out the journalist. Questions about corruption, nepotism, strategies and plans are not welcomed by authorities. It seems these issues are going to remain untouched for some while. At a conference, Jabar Sabit, the attorney general of Afghanistan, summoned everybody in the room to laugh at a colleague of mine for his question involving Sabit in nepotism.  

Creating media outlet is easy, establishing a radio station which is the most common medium in Afghanistan, is very easy today. Technology allows us to broadcast from our living room using a PC and a transmitter and it’s going to become even easier, but the important thing is the content. Producing good content is not easy; competing with quality content of other stations is even more difficult. Content is the central issue in building Trust Bridge between audience and outlet. The last five years experience shows, media outlet, resources and technology have little influence on the content. RTA has received millions of dollars from EU, Japan, Germany and other donors, broadcasting with a staff of 1800, content still remains poor. 19:00 O’clock news service, the main news bulletin,  is interrupted with what is perceived as breaking news but the event took place before 09:00 in the morning and people have already found out about it through foreign media. If Afghan media is not writing on the situation, then audience has to get that same information from foreign media. Although Afghanistan has 400 of publications and many TV and radio stations but foreign media remains number one source when it comes to current affairs and analysis. Afghan media is still a medium of entertainment, predominantly radio stations at local and national level play music and entertainment. TV, the newest growing medium, has already started to be a rebroadcast machine of Indian dramas, most of the dramas take place inside one house with very little connection of any sort of reality. Too much entertainment on broadcast media is why people feel detached. Inclusive doesn’t mean only local content but also accuracy. The reason an Afghan still tunes into BBC Farsi is because we don’t double check our sources.

The government has realized the fact that Afghan media is populist and does not pay enough attention to accuracy.  Inaccurate information harms the government and media. The central reason for the government crack down on free media is not the quality of media but the principle disagreement of some hardliners in the regime. Karzai and NATO turn a blind eye on it because they want media nose out of security, corruption, secret deals and counter drug strategies.  

Afghan parliament has a very similar view of the media to that of the state, views have been brought even closer when Karzai appointed Ab. Karim Khoram as minister of information and culture. Khoram has sacked the reformist head of RTA and in a parliamentary hearing he suggested journalists should wear a special uniform. In most democratic societies the parliament is more supportive of media and state has just to accept free media – in most cases.  Parliament is pressuring state radio and TV to give extensive coverage of the parliament. RTA parliamentary coverage is not according to journalistic standards but the way parliament wants it. The MPs from religious and cultural committee of the parliament are mad at media because they are not getting enough coverage. “When we (members of religious and cultural committee) were meeting with the minister of higher education, we didn’t have TV camera to report. We were discussing issues of public interest, state radio and TV do not know what is for public interest. We need to bring state radio and TV under control” said the deputy for religious and cultural committee of the parliament.

Even if foreign media is based on accuracy, they serve a foreign agenda and they are biased. Through the wars we have witnessed how foreign media has conducted a psychological warfare. Heavy investment has been made in foreign media after 9/11 to deliver “information” for Afghans. I popped the question to some people in Kabul, Abdul Hakim, a 45 years old man, who has been doing business in Iran said “for five years I was listening to BBC and RFE, everyday they were reporting on changes and improvement, I was convinced it’s the time to return, but now I have returned to my village, nothing has changed”  

Professional and plural media is an insurance for the government, a trustworthy outlet could be handy for the government in crises, a situation where people need some advice and information. Foreign media wouldn’t describe a government perspective. Foreign media has a foreign way of looking into things. 

We have let the initiative slip into the hands of foreign media. Afghan media is following the trends of global gossip village, we are translating foreign reports. “Poetry, carpet weaving and masonry is among our professions but journalism is not, we have learned it from westerners, we have to become professional through learning from their experience. Content selection of journalism then could be our choice” said Baqir Moheen a BBC journalist. A responsible media is painting social problems along with potential solutions, it is possible in Afghanistan, the country has a strong political culture. It is oral but it is pretty strong. For instance if we compare the audience of an Afghan radio station with the readers of a popular western newspaper, people in the west don’t have to think about a lot of the issues but they do in Afghanistan.

The ethnically-divided nature of Afghan [the word itself is the controversy] society is a huge obstacle in the way of building a nation. Loyalty and values are divided along ethnical lines; Afghanhood is a challenge to promote. Ahmad Shah Massood is constitutionally the national hero for some but a war criminal for the others. Zahir shah is constitutionally father of the nation for some but an old dictator for others. Reporting on Massood and Zahir Shah is always going to be unacceptable for some no matter how unbiased the report is. National media ought to broadcast for a nation, media creates a trust link with the nation. Without this link media will remain vulnerable.

An Afghan joke goes “two Afghans have three views”. The media is addressing an audience with various values and standards. Human rights and modern concepts of state and nation hard sell merchandize for an audience committed to thousands of years of tradition. Wars and betrayal of interventionists made people so cynical that they don’t believe in anything anymore.

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