Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
New Bid to Reform Media
News-stands in Afghanistan have been brimming with new publications ever since the interim government passed a media law authorising the creation of independent newspapers. Anyone with a computer and a few hundred dollars can now set up a paper.
But the fact that over 70 per cent of the population is illiterate and there is no such thing as a genuinely national newspaper means that the real battleground for freedom of expression in Afghanistan is taking place in television and radio, which remain vulnerable to political interference.
Although a media law, passed in January, enabled the creation of independent electronic media, it failed to set out any protocols or codes to ensure the independence or impartiality of existing channels, most notably the state broadcaster.
Under the Taleban, television was banned and radio became little more than a tool for propaganda and the announcement of government decrees. Broadcasters have therefore had to start again from scratch since the overthrow of the student militia. Recently, a special commission for the media - which will include journalists and civic representatives along with government officials - has been set up. And in September, the ministry of information will host a conference at which UNESCO, BBC representatives and the state Bakhtar Information Agency will be among those who will attempt to establish a public service charter for the state media, along the lines of the BBC charter.
In the meantime, Afghan television and radio still reflects the fact that many of the older journalists learned their trade under the dictatorial regimes of Mohammed Daoud in the 1970s, followed by the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s. The broadcasts are reminiscent of former eastern bloc television, covering the president's activities in painstaking detail.
"In March, an earthquake in Nahreen was relegated to the second story on the news after Karzai's appointments that day," said Seema Zand, a BBC journalist in Afghanistan. "I told Karzai about this when I met him. He was surprised and said that people should be able to watch Indian movies instead of reports of his meetings."
However, the president's modesty is the exception, not the rule. "Some ministers send through their speeches and announcements with orders to 'broadcast without any changes', " said Bakhtar director Sultan Ahmed Baheen. "Many journalists have been threatened in this way, which is a major obstacle to the independence of the media".
In the provinces beyond Kabul, senior officials openly admit broadcasters are tightly controlled by regional leaders. Kandahar has a nightly programme lasting two hours, but it is totally dominated by the activities of governor Ghul Ahmed Sherzai. The finances of the station are run through an account controlled by Sherzai, according to local journalists.
In Mazar-e-Sharif, viewers are subjected to the daily activities of not one, but three competing local leaders - General Abdel Rashid
Dostum, Ustad Atta and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq - who each film their meetings with international organisations and diplomats, then send the tapes to the local TV station, which duly broadcasts them.
The notion of editorial and political independence in broadcasting is as an anathema to many in the government, whose so-called "power ministries" such as the ministry of defence, intervene wherever possible. "Political parties still exert pressure on the media, but we hope that will slowly subside, as in other Islamic countries," said Kiramuddin Haidari, coordinator of state TV's music department.
However, the sacking of Abdel Hafiz Mansour as president of the national broadcaster showed that ministers still have much to learn about the concept of editorial independence. Politically close to the Northern Alliance, Mansour headed Bakhtar in the 1990s, during the presidency of Burhanuddin Rabbani. When the Taleban government first fell last November he was briefly minister of information, but became head of television and radio after the Bonn conference.
For six months, Mansour argued constantly with Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, his successor at the information ministry. When a reporter from Afghan television asked the president of Pakistan, Parwez Musharraf, a question about the highly sensitive border between the two countries, the minister ordered Mansour to fire him. Mansour responded by sending the journalist to cover an official visit to Europe by Karzai.
After the Loya Jirga, Makhdoum sacked the broadcasting chief. Rejecting his dismissal, Mansour repeatedly attempted to enter the television building with a posse of armed guards, finally giving up after a week.
His successor, Mohammed Ishaq, is even more closely connected to the powerful Northern Alliance. Ishaq served as an advisor to the coalition's commander Ahmed Shah Massood and commentators say he is close to another of its leading figures, the minister of defence and vice-president Mohammad Fahim, "He could not have been appointed to this job without approval from the senior figures in the Northern Alliance now in the government," said one industry insider.
It is this kind of political control that the September conference will attempt to address. The event will attempt to establish an independent broadcast authority to regulate the state-run network and to allocate frequencies to private radio and TV stations. But measures such as these need to be accompanied by a more assertive attitude from individual journalists themselves, according to Bakhtar's Sultan Ahmed Baheen. "Decrees and protocols are useless on their own," he said. "Journalists need to express their own independence and they must expose anyone who tries to interfere with that."
Danesh Kerokhel is a freelance journalist based in Kabul.
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