New Options on the Airwaves

Radio and television stations are springing up in the northern part of the country, but some worry if they will be truly independent.

New Options on the Airwaves

Radio and television stations are springing up in the northern part of the country, but some worry if they will be truly independent.

Wednesday, 16 November, 2005

In a country where watching television or listening to secular music on the radio was forbidden as recently as 2001, Afghanistan is seeing a sharp increase in the number of broadcast stations, especially outside of the capital where the rate of illiteracy is especially high.

Just last month in Shibergan, the capital of the northern province of Jawzjan, a new private television station, called Aina, or mirror, began broadcasting. Its signal can be received throughout the province, as well as in the neighbouring provinces of Balkh, Faryab and Sar-e-Pul.

Meanwhile, in Balkh province, a new independent FM radio station, called Nou Bahar-e-Balkh, or New Spring of Balkh, recently began test broadcasts. The station, operated by a local non-governmental organisation called Anjuman-e-Musharekat-e-Melli, was financed by funds provided by Internews, a US-based organisation that provides training and support to independent broadcasters and publishers around the world.

Dr Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, the minister of information and culture, presided over the opening of the new television station. "Jawzjan is a centre of culture which has now achieved another cultural landmark by the launch of this television station," he told nearly 1,000 guests attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Raheen made a point of saying he hoped the station would make the promotion of women's rights a part of its mission. And indeed, on its first day of broadcasting, Aina televised female singers. Similar programming by a government broadcaster in Kabul had been sharply criticised by members of the country’s supreme court as well as conservative mullahs.

General Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of the Junbesh-e-Melli movement, was also on hand and recited a few verses from the Koran.

He discounted concerns that the new station cannot be considered truly independent because it is housed in property that he controls. Some worry that the channel could become little more than a propaganda tool for the militia leader.

"Aina Television is a private station and, as it is operating in Shibergan, I like to take part in its cultural affairs," Dostum told IWPR. "I encourage them ideologically, and I am proud of the company."

There are currently three government-run television stations operating in northern Afghanistan, located in Balkh, Shibergan and Samangan provinces. Afghans mainly watch these for the Hindi films they broadcast, as well as the news programmes, which are strongly biased in favour of the local warlords.

Sayed Fahim Zaffar, the person responsible Aina Television, said launching the channel cost about 1 million US dollars. As for the station's current location, Zaffar said, "We have hired a house belonging to General Dostum, but in the near future we will construct a proper new building to house the television station under international broadcasting standards."

Zaffar insisted that "our programmes will be completely impartial, nonpartisan and broadcast for the wishes of the people".

Sayed Anwar Sadat, the chief editor of the new station, said there were also practical reasons for locating in Shibergan. "We chose Shibergan . . . because it is a good centre from which to broadcast to other provinces as well," he said. "Shibergan has a good electricity supply. Most of all, security is ensured here. I only hope that it will serve the people in the area."

The station currently employs 32 journalists, 25 technical staff and 12 administrators. In addition to its main transmitter in Shibergan, it also broadcasts from Mazar-e-Sharif and Faryab Province. The station currently broadcasts six hours a day, with programming in Uzbek, Turkmen, Dari and Pashtu.

Until now, radio was the primary source for information for the vast majority of Afghans. And when they have wanted to hear news concerning their own country, they often turned to international broadcasters, in particular the BBC, which has daily broadcasts in Dari, Pashtu and Uzbek.

So listeners in the Balkh district were understandably pleased to have their own news broadcaster.

"We are happy with the new radio station and hope that it will tell lots of good stories," said Zakia, 12, in a letter she delivered to the radio station.

Mir Ahmad Fahim Zawish, who managers Internews' Afghan radio section, said Nou Bahar-e-Balkh is one of 16 stations his organisation plans to establish across Afghanistan.

"These radio stations are being set up by demand of the people," Zawish said. "The stations' programmes follow the policies of Internews, which are to pursue international standards of journalism and to help improve national unity and build up a free media for the country."

For now, the station broadcasts programs provided by Internews on CDs from Kabul. Topics covered by the programmes include news, health, culture, law and entertainment.

Rahim Gul Ibrahimkhel, the chief editor of Nou Bahar-e-Balkh, said the programmes "are all important from every point of view in our society, and we will broadcast them". Currently, 70 per cent of the station's broadcast day is given over to music. Ibrahimkhel said it currently has a very limited reach. He hopes it can eventually install a more powerful transmitter so that it will be heard in neighbouring districts.

While Ibrahimkhel insisted that "our radio is totally independent of the government", he expressed the same concerns as those heard in Shibergan. He worries that powerful political and military figures in the region may try to curtail the station's independence.

"As these people are armed, the possibility of security problems do exist," he said, adding that he had already contacted the local security authorities, who promised to protect the station.

However, Amir Hamza, the police chief of Balkh district, has already made some demands on the station. "The radio programmes should be broadcast according to Islamic law. Western songs, which might harm our culture, must be avoided," he said. "But if the programmes accord to the tradition of the people, we will back the new radio station."

Listeners have their own idea of what the station should be broadcasting.

Ekram-ud-din, 35, said he was satisfied with the broadcasts but wanted more educational programmes.

Ahmad Jawad, 20, told IWPR, "I hope the station will broadcast good Afghan and Western songs. The education programmes will also be useful for young people."

Then, with a broad smile, he added, "This is the first time that we have had a radio station in our district, and it's a great pleasure."

Parwin Faiz and Noor Ahmad Ghafori are freelance journalists working with IWPR in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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