Talk of Afghanistan in Kabul, Washington and London is all about ‘transition’ – the handover to Afghans and the ‘drawdown’ and pulling back of the international community. Talk ofa 30 year commitment seems but a distant memory.
In Kabul last week Afghan journalists and those watching the media scene told me they were concerned about their future. They wondered what would happen to the now thriving independent radio, television and independent media sector when the money from the international community declines, and the the eyes of the world pay less attention to Afghanistan and the plight of journalists who work there.
The first fear was that asthe international community pulls out, the decline in international investment will also pull the plug on the economy and leave independent media vulnerable. The massive investment in media development has created a strong media sector in Afghanistan, with over 170 radio stations and 70 TV stations. In 2010 alone USAID spent $22 million on building up independent media. But this wont continue. And it will leave the media that doesn’t depend on aid, military ‘hearts and minds’ money or advertising in a stronger position, dominating the Afghan public sphere. This is significant, as the biggest increase inAfghanistans media scene over the last few years has been in ‘political’ media – radio and increasingly TV stations funded by and representing political and religious parties and the protagonists of the Afghanistans last civil war. Since 2007 three religious stations – Kawsar, Tarmaddon and Da’wat – have appeared. They don’t take advertising or international donor support – but they do hire staff trained through media development programmes. Political parties are also launching TV channels. Rahbanni launched Noor TV in 2008, Mohaqiq launched Rah-e-Farda; Noorin, linked to Fahim and Ayna TV linked to Dostum.
What will it mean for Afghan public debate if the broadcast environment is dominated not by moderate, progressive media but TV stations that promote specific interests and agendas? In a country already fractured along ethnic, linguistic and other lines, might public frustration at physical and financial insecurity, lack of employment and fear for the future be channeled against specific groups? After thirty years of war and propaganda, Afghans are incredibly media literate, more savvy than friends back in the UK. But a story endlessly repeated, to a frustrated audience, can often find resonance. It did in Nazi Germany, inRwanda and in the Former Yugoslavia.
The second fear is that the independent media that does survive the inevitable shakeout will be under other, more deadly, threats. Afghanistan has always been a dangerous place to report from. Reporters Sans Frontieres ranked Afghanistan 147th out of 178 countries in the World Press Freedom Index in 2010 – ‘its worst state for six years’, while an Afghan media organisation, NAI, recorded an increase in violence against journalists of 70% in 2010. In 2008 a young Afghan journalist, Parvez Kambaksh, was sentenced to death for writing about women s equality and rights (his sentence was later commuted to 20 years in prison following international pressure). The same year Abdul Samad Rohani, head of the BBC’s Pashto Service, was abducted and killed for reporting on alleged links between drug-traffickers and the Taliban.
And its not just the Taliban. The new Mass Media Law, introduced in 2009, widely regarded as a significant improvement on the last one, still grants the government sweeping powers. These have been used to ban programmes and shut down TV stations and websites – for example shutting down Emrooz TV, ostensibly for inciting sectarian tensions, though its tough anti-government stance may also have had something to do with it.
The broader point is that any negotiated settlement between the Afghan government is unlikely to to lead to greater media freedom. The fear is that threats, harassment, abduction and arrests or murders will increase and the space for independent media will be reduced. As the international community looks for a legacy to leave behind, what might it do to leave a space in which the voices of ordinary Afghans can be heard, and the power of the fourth estate continue to shine an already faltering light on the Afghan powers that be?