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

Readers Unimpressed by Afghan Papers

The culture of reading newspapers has yet to take root.
By IWPR Afghanistan
Under Afghanistan’s post-Taleban government the country has seen an unprecedented flourishing of the media, but the apparent choice of print publications belies the fact that no one is actually reading them.



The easiest explanation should be Afghanistan’s high rates of illiteracy, especially but not only among women.



Yet that does not appear to be the main reason - instead, the papers themselves have yet to become attractive enough to win a regular readership in a country where radio has traditionally been the major source of information.



Since first newspaper, called Shams ul-Nahar or Midday Sun, came out in 1863, the press has had difficult time - sometimes censored, rarely independent and in recent decades both actor and victim in a succession of conflicts. That changed after 2001, when international funding for media and liberalised press laws created an explosion in the number of titles.



Mubarez Rashidi, recently appointed as deputy minister for information and youth, told IWPR that there are now 532 newspapers across the country registered with his ministry, 437 of them independent and the rest state-run.



But what these figures do not show is that most titles are based in Kabul, and circulation figures are low - even a prominent newspaper like Arman-e-Milli has a daily circulation of just over 4,000 - and many of the ostensibly independent ones serve as the mouthpieces of the politicians or factions that stand behind them.



Rashidi is optimistic about the increased number of newspapers and the relative freedom they now enjoy, and says the main reason people are not reading them is that the change has been so swift. “It will take some time to boost the culture of newspapers reading," he said.



Fahim Dashti, the chief editor of the independent Kabul Weekly, shares this view.



"Reading newspapers is a cultural phenomenon. In other countries, people are used to reading the paper during breakfast and when they come homes from work – even in their cars…. It will take time for this culture to grow in Afghanistan,” he said.



He added that the problem applies particularly to young people, and is also in part a consequence of low literacy rates, which mean radio and television are dominant.



Evidence of low sales was provided by Waliullah, who runs a stationery shop in Kabul’s Da Afghanan area and stocks a range of newspapers, many of which he gets for free from chief editors desperate to boost circulation figures.



Yet he is not selling more than 10 to 15 copies a day.



“Most of the youngsters want magazines with nude pictures. They aren’t used to reading newspapers," said Waliullah. "I haven’t seen any benefit from this business. I’m not going to stock newspapers any more."



Some like Mohammad Jaan Haqpal, a Kabul University lecturer who is also chief editor of the Diwa magazine, said readers still dismiss much of the press as poor quality and irrelevant.



Manija Bakhtari, also a lecturer at the same university, agreed that many titles were ill-conceived and unattractive-looking, with no idea of what potential readers might want to see in them.



"Many newspapers and magazines lack specific aims, not even a publication strategy…. They only aim to make money. This means they look bad and definitely won’t attract a readership," she said.



But Bakhtari also noted that readers are wise to - and mistrustful of - papers that are tied to particular political groupings or foreign interests and print whatever their backers want.



Daud Daadras, a student at the university, also sees the low demand stemming from a perception that “most of the newspapers in our country are factionally, linguistically- or ethnically- based, and are not neutral".



In any case, he added, readers will not learn anything they have not already heard on the radio or TV news.



Daadras recalled an amusing incident which showed the lengths publishers - in this case the peacekeeping International Security Assistance Force, ISAF - will go to win people over.



"I saw a few ISAF vehicles outside the foreign ministry handing out copies of Sada-e-Azadi [Voice of Freedom; ISAF’s own newspaper],” he said. “Since people aren’t interested in reading papers, the ISAF forces were giving everyone a banana in return for taking a copy.”



At Kabul University, where literacy and education are certainly no obstacle, this IWPR reporter saw stacks of newspapers by one of the entrances waiting to be picked up for free by students arriving for morning classes. After half an hour, all the students had gone in, but only three had taken copies.



My excitement rose as a man appeared and lifted all the newspapers – could they still be destined for a group of eager readers? Unfortunately not.



Followed into a snack bar, the man explained with a smile, "If they were for reading, the students would have taken them themselves. They’re for wrapping the burgers, chips and sandwiches."



Jawed Omid is a freelance reporter in Kabul.