‘The media here is one of the greatest tools of democracy’
NILLI CITY, Afghanistan — Mahsooma Sehrat was just out of high school when she defied the wishes of her family in this deeply conservative town to become a radio reporter. Five years later Sehrat, an intrepid young woman of 23 who walks to work in the mornings and regularly leaves 15 hours later, is one of the most recognized voices of Radio Daikundi, the scrappy station that has become the beating heart of democracy in the high mountain center of Afghanistan.
From cramped studios in a small, low-hung building that gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter, Mahsooma and the station’s 11 other staff members have exposed police abuse of detainees and failed government response to disaster. In reports infused with irony and in cutting parodies they consistently defy local authorities. They air programs advocating the rights of women and girls to education, and last year, they brought substandard medical care at a local clinic to light.
When local officials attempt to hide the workings of government, Sehrat says, she sets them straight.
“Our station has established a reputation for independence,” Sehrat wrote in an email. “They have to provide me with information in light of the Access to Information Law. If they are refusing or denying me information, I explain the law to them in order to further my work.”
Radio Daikundi and its small band of smart, scrappy reporters are brave and defiant, but they are not alone. Since the collapse of the Taliban 16 years ago, dozens of rural radio stations developed in partnership with Internews have mushroomed throughout this war-torn nation of 31 million people, providing an outlet to citizens who previously had none.
Today, even as a resurgent Taliban threatens their reporting, their independence and in a worrying number of cases, their lives, the radio reporters trained by Internews in some of Afghanistan’s most isolated, insecure and needy regions risk everything to cast a lifeline of broadcasts to the people of their nation. In the past two years, the Taliban has grown lethal once again, and its resurgence threatens nascent democratic institutions. The Afghan government controls or influences just 57 percent of the country’s districts, down from 72 percent 18 months ago, according to the Pentagon. Last year was the most violent on record for journalists since 2001.
“What (Internews) is doing in rural communities is creating a network of stations that Afghans really run themselves,” said Rick Rockwell, a communications scholar who as a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. communicated by Skype with Afghan reporters at the Internews-developed network, discussing a wide range of journalistic techniques. “Of course I would like to see a real, functioning democracy in Afghanistan that works and that is not in the middle of war and where reporters can do their work without being under constant threat. My sense is that one way to build that is by having a national conversation, the kind of conversation that radio and radio programming can best provide.”
Perhaps nowhere else in the world has radio answered such an urgent call so rapidly as in Afghanistan, which was bereft of independent media of any kind when the repressive Taliban government fell in 2001.
Beginning in 2003 Internews, with support from the U.S. Agency for international development, built radio stations and transmitters across Afghanistan. Its workers carried microphones and recorders in backpacks to isolated small towns and trained hundreds of young people, many of them women who had never worked before or even been allowed to leave their homes, in journalism. Today the network Internews started, Salam Watandar (“Hello, Countrymen”), has grown to 74 stations, operating in the rural, isolated parts of this country where three quarters of the population relies on radio as their primary, and often only, source of news and entertainment. The stations seek local advertising and donors, but still rely primarily on donor support. They are part of a vibrant media landscape that includes roughly 100 TV channels and about 250 radio stations total, according to a survey of Afghan media in 2016. There are more than 200 newspapers and magazines, most in private hands, 34 news agencies and more than a dozen journalism schools.
In that burgeoning media landscape it is easy to think that radio in general, and this network of small community stations in particular, is of limited importance. That would be a mistake.
In places like Nilli City, where illiteracy rates among adults approach 58 percent and where shortages of electricity and fuel make it hard for television to make the inroads it has in the major cities, radio rules. Unlike television, radio stations are inexpensive to start — a microphone, a transmitter, a receiver, a generator and a few reporters are all it takes. In a country whose rugged mountains have engendered dozens of different languages and dialects, national programming has limited reach. But local radio reporters face none of those obstacles. They have made a tradition of challenging authorities, running citizen forums and covering feature stories on area schools, sports and culture. And from the capital of Kabul, Salam Watandar’s production company shares high-quality programs to the network on current affairs, culture, social issues and sport, akin to a National Public Radio model. The Kabul office has served as a strategic hub for mentoring and training its partner radio stations.
“In many places our radio is the only source of information, the people don’t have anything else,” said Nasir Maimanagy, managing director at Salam Watandar.
“They are in a complete vacuum and information void and that’s where radio comes in, to fill that void. Our approach gives amplification to the local voices that didn’t exist. It tries to find solutions to problems from within. Instead of talking about the challenges of Kabul, our reporters try to talk about the problems in their own communities. Their schools not having teachers, that’s what they talk about, their corruption in their government, that’s what they talk about. They provide an important platform for the community to engage and to feel part of Afghanistan.”
The radio stations have become so much a part of the fabric of local life that sometimes listeners will go to extreme lengths to keep the broadcasts on the air. Two years ago in Khost, an isolated area north of Kabul, the local radio station announced that it wasn’t going to be able to air a much anticipated cricket match between two popular teams because it was to take place later than the normal air hours and the station was short on fuel. Within an hour, a dozen men showed up at the radio station with drums of petrol and generators.
In Nilli City, an elderly man walked into Radio Daikundi one day several years ago to ask the exact times for Salat, the prayers recited by Muslims five times each day, saying he trusted no other source. Ever since, the station has broadcast prayer times. When an announcer forgot one day, he got a call from the mullah at Nilli City’s largest mosque pleading with him not to make the same mistake again.
In Paktika, a southeastern province, the local station, Radio Milma, caused a stir when it reported that exorbitant bridal dowries were crippling the financial resources of many families. Upon hearing the broadcast, elders in the Surobi district of the province gathered and decided the practice had no basis in Islam. They decreed the dowries be lowered.
And at dozens of the radio stations, reporters have learned that the farmers who make up much of their audience are deeply in need of agricultural news. When reporters at one station heard that shipments of pomegranates were being returned from international markets because they had been sprayed with toxic dose of pesticides, they discovered the problem: farmers could not read the labels on the pesticide packaging. They developed a program, which they broadcast nationally, on the proper application of pesticides.
Still, the challenges to independent journalism in Afghanistan are immense and growing. Reporters face physical attacks and intimidation from the Taliban, warlords, criminals and the country’s own U.S.-backed government, which has imprisoned at least 60 journalists, according to media watchdog groups. And funding for media from the United States and other Western governments, is dwindling, leaving many radio stations with aging equipment sorely in need of repair.
“Afghanistan’s is a donor-created media, that’s the reality of it,” Maimanagy said. “There is no advertising market of any significance and there isn’t going to be for a long time. There is this adamant enemy that considers media a promoter of values they don’t believe in, like women’s rights and democracy, and they are not timid about attacking journalists.
We don’t know what this all means for our future. But we know that the media here is one of the greatest tools of democracy, and we need to fight for it.”
Originally posted on internews.org. Sharmini Boyle is Internews Country Director in Afghanistan. Internews’ work in Afghanistan is supported by the US Agency for International Development. Read Local Radio in Afghanistan: A Sustainability Assessment, prepared by Altai Consulting for Internews.