Tag Archives: Afghanistan

When the Music Stops: Media Development in Conflict

When the Music Stops: Media Development in Conflict

Danish Karokhel, head of Pazhwok News Agency. Kabul, June 2011

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?

Afghan past- 1960’s Kabul

Mohammad Qayoumi has put together  a wonderful book of Kabul pictures from the 1960’s.

In a piece for Foreign Policy he says:

Remembering Afghanistan’s hopeful past only makes its present misery seem more tragic.’

and that he

‘ wants to show Afghanistan’s youth of today how their parents and grandparents really lived.’

America wrangles over propaganda control

The US Strategic Command (appropriately, STRATCOM) is wrangling with the Central Intelligence Agency and other parts of the military over contro of the ”strategic communication’ space. They are, according to Marc Ambinder over at The Atlantic, using their role in Information Operations take a larger part of the communications pie.

Ambinder puts the tension well:

The CIA doesn’t think STRATCOM should play in this lane. But neither does Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, or the State Department, or the National Security Staff. Information Operations involves five fields: deception, psychological operations, computer network operations, electronic warfare and operations security. When you hear these terms, you think military, war, penetration of secret bunkers and the like. The State Department and the others want to make sure that Information Operations don’t conflict with what they call Strategic Communications — getting the message out that the US isn’t fighting against Islam, that the Afghan military is a credible institution. State sees IO from the perspective of an ad agency: what does the customer need? STRATCOM sees IO from the perspective of a military targeter: what’s the target, and how to we use all resources to manipulate it.

Which is interesting because its fairly well acknowledged that the military doesnt do so well at at the communications necessary to help build hearts and minds. I presented at a seminar at the United States Institute of Peace in February where there was broad acknowledgement that the psy-ops, strategic communications and ‘hearts and minds’ communications of the American military – with vastly larger budgets than Department of State, or the Agency for International Development, wasnt really working. Instead the participants agreed that ‘extremist propaganda cannot be effectively dealt with through counter-propaganda. Instead, the provision of a robust and credible media environment that encourages an exchange of ideas around needs and solutions is vital in mitigating extremist messages‘ (you can read the account of the seminar here).

But will the Defense Department win?

News Calling – voice based mobile phone news

Fascinating developments in news and mobile phones. In India two projects are delivering news through voice based messages.

In the South, Shubhranshu Choudhary of the International Center for Journalists, leads a project that focuses on citizen reports with dozens of citizen journalists reporting throughout the region. Video here:

In Uttar Pradesh, Gaon ki Awaz (‘Village Voice’) delivers news updates twice a day through voice calls to over 250 subscribers, in their native language. MobileActive has a great case study of Gaon ki Awaz here.

I like the fact that:

  • Its voice of the people – citizen journalism and direct to audience
  • both ideas deliver local news – so important to build a community, and so often missing –
  • Its direct – overcoming SMS literacy barriers

For places where radios are attacked or journalists threatened and killed (Afghanistan, Somalia to name but two), tools like these can deliver information people need, in ways they can use.

CIA backed news site targets militant strikes

Website allegedly supported by CIA funds

The New York Times reported today that a website – Afpax – was set up by a contractor using CIA money, and allegedly used to gather information that was used to kill militants in Afghanistan.

The story is ostensibly simply another example of US funds being misspent. However, it also raises serious issues for those of use who believe in the importance of media and communications to support peace.

A broader concern is the impact  this will have on Afghan perceptions of real journalists, who are often already suspected of spying for the Americans. How can they do their job of holding the Afghan government, the US and its allies if people suspect they arent real journalists and perhaps looking for assassination targets?

It also makes the stabilisation effort harder, as it makes other media organisations subject to suspicion. Its well recognised that communications is critical to resolving the conflict (particularly countering propaganda). That the US and its allies are not doing it well is also recognised – McChrystal said. This kind of strategic communications work only makes the conflict worse.

‘behavioural economics’ for Afghanistan?

Can behavioural economics help make strategic communications work better in Afghanistan?

This is an are that is of close interest to me in relation to my work in Afghanistan and broader work on the use of communication to help support changes in peoples lives. An interesting paper by Steve Tatham (formerly of the Ministry of Defence Advanced Research Grouup) and Andrew Mackay (formerly commander of 52nd Brigade in Helmand) and reviewed by Tim Harford notes in the Financial Times, suggests that behavioural economics has lessons for the use of strategic communications to influence the Afghan public. The paper, titled ‘Behavioural Conflict – From General to Strategic Corporal: Complexity, Adaptation and Influence’ suggests that the military needs to move from a ‘popularity’ based hearts and minds effort and embrace the reality of choices that ordinary Afghans face every day. They emphasise the insights ‘choice architecture‘ offers as relevant to Afghanistan – and point to the National Solidarity Programme as an example . Their conclusions are that the military doesnt have the requisite expertise in psychology or public relations.

Tathams and Mackay’s paper points to a problem that McChrystal recognised when he concluded the best way to win ‘hearts and minds’ was to ‘protect the population’, not hunting Taleban or persuading people to like the international forces.  However their conclusion misses the most critical element of any successful effort to build peace in Afghanistan. Afghans themselves. It is their country and they must be involved in shaping its future. ‘Influencing’ them as part of the international community’s agenda is guaranteed to fail, like so many previous efforts to tame Afghanistan. A report I helped write in 2008 for the Department for International Development on ‘Communications for Stabilisation’ concluded that the most effective use of communication was to create spaces for dialogue and debate, and allowing Afghan voices to really set the agenda, beyond voting in sham elections. This means that strategic communication efforts should focus more on helping Afghans be heard by international policy and decision makers so that they can adapt their strategy to the needs of the Afghan people. Communication efforts should also focus on helping people engage with local politicians – both to increase the responsiveness of the Afghan politicians, but also to increase the accountability of the Afghan state.

I think there is a great deal that choice architecture has to offer those who use communications to help support change. But, note Sunstein and Thaler, the behavioural economists who coined the term in their book Nudge, it is essential to involve the subjects of chose architecture efforts in agreeing to be part of efforts to use such approaches.

What do you think? Can communications help build peace in Afghanistan, and if so does choice architecture have anything to offer?