Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Candidates Fail to Exploit Power of Radio

A few minutes broadcast nationwide may be the only chance candidates get to reach potential voters, but not all of them realise it.
By Wahidullah Amani

When General Abdul Rashid Dostam – one-time warlord and now one of 18 people contesting Afghanistan's presidential election – was scheduled to turn up for a September 28 press conference, it looked like an ideal opportunity for him to get his message out to the electorate.

The press conference, announced two days earlier, was to be broadcast by the national Radio and Television of Afghanistan the same evening, in a format that is being made available to everyone competing for the October 9 ballot.

The audience may not have been especially large - just 15 journalists and three men who looked like plain-clothes officers from the national intelligence service - but the opportunity to have an election message broadcast on TV and especially radio - the only form of media which has massive reach across the country - was surely not one to be missed, especially for a candidate so closely identified with one area, the minority Uzbek parts of northern Afghanistan.

After half an hour, the general still hadn't appeared. In the event, it was one of his running mates, Shafiqa Habibi - a female journalist from Kabul - who arrived, apologising for being late. The press conference she held was duly broadcast that evening.

Dostam's failure – for reasons unknown – to avail himself of free airtime encapsulates the lack of media savvy exhibited by many of the candidates in this election.

Media figures involved in allowing candidates access to the airwaves have told IWPR that many are failing to capitalise on the powerful medium of radio, because the concept of appealing direct to the electorate is so new.

Mir Wais Sosial, director of the Salam Watandar radio station based in the capital Kabul, said, "It is strange that they don't know how important it is for candidates to use radio, which is broadcast all over Afghanistan."

Salam Watandar – which was set up in Kabul by the United States-based media support organisation Internews – is offering free airtime to all the candidates. The radio station is one of only two domestic broadcasters that can be heard by most Afghans.

The level of awareness is decidedly mixed. "Some of them are not even prepared to accept our invitation to come into the studio," said Sosial. "But others who do know the importance of radio come to the station by themselves, asking for their messages to be transmitted and offering to pay for it."

In an hour-long election special, which goes out on Salam Watandar every evening, one candidate is interviewed on social problems raised in the latest edition of the BBC drama New Home, New Life, played immediately beforehand. In addition, the station is recording a two-minute campaign broadcast for each of the candidates, and three of these are broadcast daily by the national Salam Watandar as well as the 20 local FM broadcasters that Internews supports across Afghanistan.

This effort complements the airtime candidates are already getting from state-run Radio and Television Afghanistan, RTA. The radio arm is now second in importance to the Internews network of broadcasters, and has stations in 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Every day RTA records a press conference by one or more of the candidates, and broadcasts it in a 20 minute slot the same evening on both radio and TV.

Television has a limited reach, and few Afghans own sets.

Radio is easily the best way of reaching the far-flung Afghan electorate. There are currently 40 radio stations in Afghanistan, 18 of them run by the government, 20 in the Internews network, and two – Radio Arman and Radio Kelid – self-standing.

"Radio is the only means of communication – there isn't a home that doesn't have a radio, and that includes the nomads," said Sosial.

Internews has surveyed listenership patterns and found that most people prefer local FM stations because they are easier to hear than medium or short wave, and because they carry local news and a lot of music. According to John West, director of Internews in Afghanistan, "Seventy per cent of FM radio broadcasting consists of music…. It is our job to produce the programmes that people want, and we have to insert news reports in a way that doesn't get boring for them."

Sosial believes radio is the only realistic way of broadcasting messages in this election campaign. He feels the medium has the potential to change minds, but too little time has been allocated for people to be able to get to know the candidates. "It is important to people to know who they want to vote for, which photograph they want to put a mark next to. I am pretty sure that they will make up their minds in favour of candidates they already know," he concluded.

The downside of radio's new role as a medium for political messages is that the media are still weak and can be subject to intimidation.

West says many local radio stations are “not free in many respects". The extent to which they enjoy independence depends on the general level of freedom in the area in question. In big cities like Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, and Jalalabad, the radio stations are "fairly independent", but in some other provinces there are "some obstacles", he said.

Research conducted by Internews for a report on media and the elections shows that journalists are being threatened in some provinces, apparently by political factions linked to some of the candidates. "The candidates do not threaten journalists directly, but people claiming to represent them put pressure on the reporters," it says.

Wahidullah Amani and Abdulbasir Saeed are IWPR reporters in Kabul.