Ahmad Quraishi: Challenges of the media in Afghanistan

Valletta-Malta, South Europe

Nov 9, 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Unlike the stereotypical beliefs of many international audiences who think that the media in Afghanistan came into existence after the 2001 involvement of Western’s into the country, Afghanistan’s history of media goes back to early 1900s.

The first newspaper called Seraj-ul-Akhbar( Lamp of the news) was initially published on January 11,1906 in Dari/Farsi language.

After this and only issue, its publication stopped then it was again revived in October 1911 by Mahmood Tarzai, known as “Father of Afghanistan Journalism”.

Radio Kabul began broadcasting in 1925, which inaugurated a new era of mass media in the country.

The 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan and the Press Law of 1965 provided for freedom of the press, within the boundaries of appropriate behavior. Afghan journalism progressed and developed from the 1950s through to the 1970s, though it remained limited.

The first color television broadcasting appeared in 1978. The media fell into the control of Soviet influences during the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) from 1979 to 1992.

Taliban takeover

Media under the Taliban was characterized by strict media laws, including the banning of television, seen as "morally corrupt" and music banned under Sharia law.

The only radio station broadcast religious programs and Propaganda, but aired no music. Around 70% of the population listened to its broadcasts. In 2000, the government launched The Islamic Emirate, an English-language newspaper designed to counteract information produced by the "enemies of Islam".

After the fall of the Taliban

Since the 2001 the press restriction in Afghanistan was gradually relaxed and private media grew rapidly operating under a wide range of ownerships- from the government, provincial political-military powers and private owners to foreign and NGO sponsors; though quality has not always kept pace with quantity.

Newspapers

Afghanistan has a low readership of newspapers, coupled with the low 28.1% literacy rate.  Many newspapers suffer some form of censorship and financial difficulty, often relying on supporters.

However, despite an incredible number of publications, outnumbering radio stations and television channels by far, print media plays a limited role in Afghanistan, due to not in time circulation, lack of interest in reading and the impact. The over 800 print outlets in Afghanistan are classified into government, private, small party backed and magazines. From a financial point of view, the large majority are struggling to become self-sustainable. Due to low income from print media, it is not possible that print media should become independent soon.

Radio

Radio is the most widespread source of information in the country. There are many radio stations today, with AM, FM, and shortwave mainly in Dari/Persian and Pashto.

It was reported in 2011 that there are as many as 175 radio stations broadcasting throughout the country.

Television

By late 2011 it was reported the three were 75 terrestrial TV stations; most operating in Kabul and four other regional provinces of Balkh, Nangarhar, Kandahar and Herat.

Much of the output on private TVs consists of imported Indian music shows and serials, and programs modeled on Western formats.

State-owned Afghanistan National Television  re-launched in 2002 after being shut down in 1996 by the Taliban. Four cable stations appeared after the overthrow of the Taliban, carrying Indian and American programs, though cable was banned in 2003 by the supreme court  on moral grounds.

Internet

Internet access is limited and computer literacy and ownership rates are low. There were more than 1.2 million internet users by December 2011 (Internetworldstats.com).

The launch of 3G mobile services in 2012 is likely to boost internet activity, including social media use.

There are over 11 news agencies in the country, most of them based in Kabul. There has never been this amount of news agency in the history of Afghanistan. The government agency, Bakhtar (BNA), and private ones, such as Pajhwok (PAN), Roz, Hindu Kush, Wakht, Mahal, Bost and intern news. Intern news supports local media and shares news with their local media channels.

Social media

As recent as early 2011, many Journalists have at the very least opened a Facebook page, if not twitter. They do use the social media for journalistic purposes by sharing their own published articles, photos and video links. They also share their organizations’ web site by constantly linking various topics to their personal Facebook. But since the medium is aimed a social networking, they do not follow the journalistic code of ethics when commenting on their own and other people’s posts and expressing their personal views. Sometime you find a very reputable journalist on the very extreme side of a matter on his/her Facebook page.

Twitter has recently been known and used by a fraction of these Facebook users.

Many of journalists also have created personal blogs, where they post their own written articles and photo albums as well as their online videos.

The first long term online journalism training was held for 20 women journalists by Afghanistan Journalists Center in Herat, in 2011.

Brief introduction of the AFJC

The Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) is an independent, non-governmental, non-political and non-partisan organization working for promotion of freedom of expression under Afghanistan’s Media Law.

The center came into existence in June 16, 2009 officially licensed by the Ministry of Information and Culture under the name of ‘Center to Support of Journalists of Afghanistan’. In September 2011, the organization changed its name shortening it to ‘Afghanistan Journalists Center’ under the renewed license from the ministry.

Why AFJC was created?

Freedom of media is one of the tremendous achievements of the post-Taliban government. However, this achievement has been undermined by ongoing war, an unfriendly environment for establishment of democracy and a prevailing culture of warlordism in many areas has threatened development of the media.

Such continuing threats alarmed some journalists and media freedom activists to raise and defend freedom of expression in Afghanistan, establishing the Afghanistan Journalists Center.

Who runs AFJC?

Currently, a 12-member team of journalists and media freedom activists based in Kabul, Heart, some other provinces and abroad are leading AFJC.

How AFJC is funded?

Most of the funding so far comes from personal donations and membership fees of the journalists and board of directors.

What are the main AFJC activities?

Currently, AFJC organizes training courses and seminars for journalists to increase their awareness and skills of dealing with their rights. We also hold courses for building professional capacity of Afghan journalists.

Through our website, we offer a variety of services such as

  • News about national and international media and journalists
  • Job opportunities in the media industry
  • Information and announcement of educational opportunities for journalists
  • Studies and information for improving professional knowledge of Afghan journalists as well as journalistic ethics.

The site operates in three languages of Persian/Dari, Pashto and English. It keeps an eye on media development across Afghanistan.

Articles aimed at promotion of freedom of journalists and advocating for media freedom are published on all three languages. It also publishes statements and studies on the status of Afghan media and individual journalistic cases.

This is the first comprehensive website in Afghanistan with a broad coverage and regularly updated news and information on the Afghan media developments. The portal works as a key tool for promoting awareness about the Afghan media and journalists and as an important outlet for lobbying for journalists’ rights and freedom of expression.

From what sources AFJC gets the information?

AFJC has a hard-working network of journalists stationed in various provinces of Afghanistan and abroad who work voluntarily. They report what goes around with regard to media developments and journalists. The information is collected, verified, coordinated and published on the website. They are then discussed with relevant government officials and national and international partners if necessary.

When and how to contact AFJC?

When a journalist faces an incident related to his/her job; or if he needs information about the general conditions for freedom of expression in specific area; or needs guidance how to deal with a particular media-related incident s/he can contact AFJC by going to the Contact us tab on our website and sending us an email or calling us on the given numbers.

What kinds of incidents AFJC cover?

AFJC covers the threats by known rights violators and less-known violators, stress elements and factional political lobbyers trying to suppress the nascent democracy and freedom of media. Annually, there are annually of various kinds of cases of threats to media from psychological pressure to murders.

AFJC publishes all such cases after getting them verified and putting them forward to relevant entities.

Achievements

In the past  ten years, media in Afghanistan have played very crucial and effective role in providing information, awareness, education, criticizing the government and international community’s activities, empowering democracy, analyzing the country’s situation and providing entertaining programs to the extent that experts believe the role media in encouraging the people in participating in the two rounds of presidential elections and the two rounds of parliamentary elections have been extraordinary. The presidential debates, even though with some difficulties, were among the most important achievements of the democratic press in the country.

Reporters and media managers of Afghanistan have learned and gained countless experiences by studying and learning at the universities, doing practical work, exchanging experiments with international media and working with them.

Media have managed to produce serious talk shows about the topics of great importance the country is currently facing. The non-government media monitor and observe the situation via their round table discussion programs. These programs usually criticize the government activities, the policies of involved countries into Afghanistan affairs as well as the policies of the international community. Discussing the mentioned topics, unveiling the wrongdoings of government and international community, disclosing the involvement of high ranking government officials in corruption and exposing the irregularity and hidden secrets of the society are among the main positive achievements of media in the past ten years in the country.

Challenges

Journalists in the country operate in one of the world's most complex and contested information environments. At times, the lines between propaganda, intelligence and journalism blur, and some journalists covering Taliban activities have been accused of treachery or arrested, while others have been kidnapped, beaten or harassed by Taliban insurgents.

Challenges and difficulties are as follow:

1-1 Insecurity

Ten years after the involvement and presence of international community in Afghanistan, the deadly incidents and violations against reporters and media personnel are about the same as it was in the first years of post-Taliban. Media activists in Afghanistan still face serious challenges.

Based on Afghanistan Journalist Center (AfJC) database, only in 2011 four reporters have been killed in Urozgan, Herat, Laghman and Kabul provinces. The reports indicate that an ISAF soldier killed the reporter in Trinkot city, while the mine explosions in Herat and Mehtarlam cities caused the death of two reporters and the fourth death was as a result of a rocket launcher attack in Kabul city.

With inclusion of these four reporters, the death toll of media personnel since 2001 reached 31 reporters, 17 of who are Afghans.

2-1 Unprofessionally

Another challenge is that most of reporters are unprofessional. This is due to the fact that free media is really young and immature in the country. This challenge has caused the print, sound and visual media personnel not to deliver what the citizens really need. Some reporters’ lack of basic information about media regulations and ethics caused them violate the ethics and media rights and defame real people, offend them and invade their privacy.

3-1 Ethnic interests

The ethnic and tribal biases of some media organizations in Afghanistan have also caused the shortage in reflecting the truth and presenting bias reports to the people. Some of the media programs are affected by the tribal, partisan and regional beliefs to the extent that they have caused tensions among different ethnic groups in the country.

4-1 Partisan and ideological media

The increase in partisan and ideological media has caused that such parties and ideological groups enforce their political, economic and ideological objectives on to general public. These media cannot reach any subject further than those of their parties and groups. Another group of such media is state-run and follow the government’s will. Such media are considered “spending media”.  There is no creativity in such media that can criticize the ruling government.

5-1 “vulgar programs”

Broadcasting vulgar programs of some media which are called by clerics” an anti-Islam motivation” is another challenges of the media in the country. It is usually due to the funding sources of some media by the Western countries, or because of business and financial gains. This is against the Afghan Constitution and against the Afghan Media Law.

6-1 Dependency in the international aid

The media that are grown like mushrooms are the creation of civil society organizations, NGOs and some foreign countries. These media’s slogans are the freedom of speech and human rights, but when it comes to their performance all they have done is to attract funds and fulfill the will of their funding sources. Most of such media organizations have come to an end by the end of their funding cycle.

7-1 Iran and Pakistan influence

If western donor support tails off, it will be replaced by covert funding from neighboring Iran and Pakistan - with all the influence that will buy those countries, especially after foreign security forces complete their withdrawal in 2014.

Media outlets which have bowed to Iran and Pakistan may intensify their activities against western interests, as well as against freedom of speech and democracy in Afghanistan.

In April, Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, the domestic intelligence agency, accused certain media outlets of working for Iran or Pakistan.

"Certain media outlets supported by neighboring countries and by spiteful political parties working against Afghanistan's interests will be strengthened," he said. "There is a concern that these media outlets will be used as a tool against democracy." Pakistani and Iranian official deny they are attempting to exert influence in the country through the media.

Not all media outlets depend on donor support, and some have developed successful business models.

8-1Access to the information

The reporters are currently facing the challenges such as threats by some government officials, Taliban, some armed forces, insecurity and war, limited access to information, death and injury that make them less able to report the events as truly as they should.

The access to information as natural right of citizens, guaranteed in the Afghan Constitution’s article 50th and the Media Law’s article 5th, have unfortunately been violated by the government, insurgents, foreign troops and irresponsible armed forces.

9-1Lack of work security and insurance

Despite the considerable increase of media organizations in the past ten years or so, reporters still don’t have the work security and insurance.

Generally, the work contracts are unjust and biased in favor of the media organizations. Reporters and other media personnel are hired for low salaries. The work insurance is almost non-existence.

The role of government and anti-government armed forces

The Afghan government has continuously bragged that it believes in the press freedom and supports it. However, as observed to date, such claims have not come from the roots of the system, but rather from the individual persons.

While the right to access information is guaranteed in article 50 of the Afghan constitution and article 5 of the media law, the Afghan government either did not manage or did not want to implement these articles.

A number of high ranking government officials in central and provincial departments have repeatedly refused to provide information to reporters.

Reporters and media activists are being arrested by governments for no obvious reasons. The anti-government armed forces also threaten reporters for coverage of events that do not reflect their goals and agendas.

In such a critical situation that media activities in Afghanistan are facing an increase in challenges and problems, the talks with Taliban, who refuse the Afghan constitution and have no believe in press freedom or freedom of civil society, have added to the concerns of media activists over the vague future of media and press freedom in Afghanistan.

Result

 

The legitimacy of media and the encouragement of staff in accepting responsibilities in their duties alongside the freedom of speech, meaning paying attention to all aspects of human life, is one of the main responsibilities of the Afghan media.

Increasing and promoting the capacity of human resources, attracting media professionals, and treating the people with respect will also help the media create a sound and competitive environment in informing the public.

If Afghan media want to play a role in development of the country, they must focus more on educational and training programs and they must use the inputs of professionals and experts in such fields.

Keeping distance from decimation and reflecting the reality of the society, making constructive criticism of the government activities, staying focused on national interest and national security and creating a sound and competitive media environment can empower the government, which in turn will cause the national unity and empower democracy and freedom of speech.

Likewise, the government is also responsible to implement and enforce the media law and to follow up the media violation cases and prosecute the violators, so the rule of law is implemented on one hand, and the behavior of the partisan media are observed on the other hand. This will create a fair environment for freedom of speech in the country, and the media system of Afghanistan will become a fair, free and responsible one.

Changing the system of a full free media to the system of free and responsible one is another way of having a desirable system of media in the future of Afghanistan.

End

Thank you