Media helps bring change in Afghanistan

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Freedom | 08/04/2014
The free media covered the election in Afghanistan very well and did a wonderful job of awareness raising,
observers tell NUPUR BASU. PIX: 2014 Afghanistan presidential debate held on "Open Jirga"

“The people of Afghanistan have shown that they are keen to have democracy in this country - they voted, coloured their fingers to say: “No! To Terrorism”, observed 47 -year old NajibaAyubi, award- winning woman journalist from Kabul, who heads the Killid Media Group in Afghanistan. 

Seven million Afghans, of the total number of eligible 13 million voters, including women, first time voters and old people, braved the bad weather and the threat of the Taliban to come out and cast their vote. Like many in Afghan civil society and the fraternity of journalists, Najiba Ayubi believes that Afghanistan’s media had a big role to play in this ‘democracy building’. 

“Fortunately we had a very good election with a strong people participation. We are proud of our army, they provided a good security without help of any foreigners.We are also really proud of the media in Afghanistan because their work on awareness raisingwas wonderful. We saw the result on the day of election - the free media covered the election very well. In Killid, for example, we had 209 reporters in different  locations in Afghanistan and different voting centres and all of them were bringing us live updates on Killid’s radios programs” a jubiliant Najiba Ayubi  told The Hoot from Kabul. 

In the post Taliban years, this young woman journalist drove from province to province – Herat, Nengarhar, Mazar, Kandahar, Ghazni, Khost and Kabul - starting radio stations. Today the Killid group has eight radio stations, online portals, weekly magazines and is flourishing as free media enterprise.  

Recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Awards, the only international award that recognises the bravery of women journalists, Ayubi co-founded the Afghan Independent Media Consortium and the Freedom of Expression Initiative (both with the intention of providing resources and support for independent journalists in her country). Shebelieves that the new media in Afghanistan had a big role to play in the success of the third presidential election that was conducted on April 5,2014. 

From 7 am in the morning on April 5, the TV cameras started beaming the long queues, outside polling stations across the country. Afghan women, the biggest sufferers in the hands of the Taliban, were seen coming out of polling booths showing their inked fingers triumphantly in front of television crews. The Taliban had threatened to chop of the fingers of those who had voted. The day ended with hundreds of voters having to go back as the polling booths ran out of ballot papers! Disappointment was laced with great optimism at the successful election and high voter turnout for a nation that has been ravaged by 30 years of conflict. 

It was also a moment of great satisfaction for the Afghan media that has done its job under huge threats in the last ten years. “This election was very important for my country because this is first time in Afghanistan history that power transition will happen peacefully, now Afghans are happy that they will finally have a strong and stable democracy in their country”, said Ayubi . 

Media in Afghanistan has gone through a huge tectonic change in the last decade. With nearly six dozen news channels and over 160 radio stations, Afghanistan’s media became a crucial game changer as the country headed for an election in 2014. 

Dr David Page, former BBC journalist and co-director of the Media South Asia project told The Hoot from London: “It is very good news that the election in Kabul has gone off well – the electorate have turned up in good numbers- twice as many voted as in 2009 and that is a real vote of defiance of the Taliban, who had vowed to disrupt the polls and discourage people from voting. The Afghans clearly want a democratic future, even if not all of them managed to register in time.”  

According to Page, who is the co-author of the book: Satellites over South Asia,the BBC’s Open Jirga programme definitely influenced the nature of the electoral debates in the last two years. “Programmes like Open Jirga had some influence in bringing leading candidates together on the same platform and requiring them to explain themselves to an audience chosen to represent the Afghan public. This is a new phenomenon in Afghanistan, where in previous elections, the role of the media has been much more a reporting one,” David Page observed. 

As an Indian journalist I had the occasion to watchthe launch of theOpen Jirga’smaidenepisode when I visited Kabul in 2012. Started jointly by the BBC Media Action and Afghanistan’s public television Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), the programme format consisted of a panel of top politicians and other experts being grilled by a live audience from different provinces. The programme was bilingual as the anchor conducted the programme in Dari and Pashto- the two main languages in Afghanistan. Shirazuddin Siddiqui, Country Director, Afghanistan, BBC Media Action had told me on that occasion: “I was keen that BBC join hands with a local Afghan media like RTA to produce a strong programme like Open Jirga”. It was a generosity that paid rich dividends. 

Within airing three episodes of Open Jirga, President Hamid Karzai had reportedly expressed interest in participating in the programme and facing a live audience. The episode with Karzai was filmed in the Presidential Palace and was a first in Afghanistan’s TV history.

At the same time the extremely popular news and current affairs channel in Afghanistan, Tolo News, had taken current affairs programming to another level. “Sarhadke us par” (Across the border) was conceived as a dual anchor programme- an anchor in Kabul and an anchor in Karachi. Both had experts and live audiences and they cut from one to the other on contentious current event topics that concerned Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such intra country programming has not been done even on Indian television till date.

That this proactive free media had begun to engage and enlist new audiences threatened the Taliban. This was clear from the increasing attacks on themedia. The run up to the 2014 election saw an escalation in the threat and actual attacks on the ground. Just one day before the polls, the world was shocked by the attack on two foreign women journalists in the eastern Khost province even as they were covering the Presidential election campaigns.

Anja Niedringhaus, a Pulitzer Prize winning German photographer working for the Associated Press (AP) was shot dead by an Afghan policeman in uniform. Her colleague, Kathy Gannon, a veteran journalist with the wire service, who also had years of experience in conflict reporting, was shot at, but fortunately escaped with injuries. Both journalists had spent long years covering the conflict in Afghanistan. As women journalists, they had brought a humane touch to their coverage and had gone where angels fear to tread to bring the stories/photographs about Afghan civil society that was at the receiving end of the conflict.

Earlier in March, another Swedish radio journalist, Nils Horner was killed in Kabul.Unidentified gunmen shot him in broad daylight in a relatively ‘safe’ zone in the capital city. The Taliban did not spare even an Afghan journalist. Sardar Ahmed, who worked for the news wire Agence France-Presse (AFP), along with his wife and daughter was shot dead at a function in the leafy Serena hotel. Nine were killed in that brutal attack. Sardar’s infant son was the lone survivor from his family. The brazen attack on the AFP journalist who was known for his untiring reportage from the war torn nation, left the country shell- shocked. Angry Afghan journalists declared news blank on the Taliban.

Reza Moini, head of media advocacy groups for Iran and Afghanistan of Reporters Without Borders (RWB), had described it as an attempt to intimidate the Afghan media from covering the elections. “The fact that these two attacks occurred in places in the capital with a reputation for being safe can only have a dissuasive impact on media preparing to cover the elections,” said Moini in a statement. He also blamed the violence on the withdrawal of foreign election-observer missions, making the election’s transparency more dependent on the presence of Afghan and foreign journalists.”

According to the Committee of Protection of Journalists (CPJ), 26 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since 1992- one per month. 31 per cent of those killed were reporting on politics.

Ten years of data gathered by Nai’s Media Watch team on violence against journalists in 2001-2013 puts the figure at 451. The decade’s worst year was 2011 when the figure peaked to 72. A map with red dots put out by Nai on the website showing the areas where violence against journalists have taken place shows Kabul with the largest red dot. Kabul province topped with187 incidents.

The top five media companies in Afghanistan that encountered the maximum number of attacks was its own homegrown Aryana TV (28), Tolo TV (21), Pajhwok (13), RTA (12) and Al Jazeera (12). Nai, which supports Afghanistan Open Media, says: “Journalists in Afghanistan work under extremely difficult circumstances and routinely face violence, threats and intimidation that prevent them from carrying out their work. Many incidents go unreported.”

The Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in its country wise impunity index ranks Afghanistan at sixth position after countries like Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka. The rating puts it at 0.142 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants. It points to the unsolved cases of murdered journalists before 2008, like that of Abdul Samad Rohani, the BBC Pashto service correspondent in Helmand Province who was abducted and shot in 2008. Rohani had reported on the dangerous liaisons between drug traffickers in Afghanistan and their links to government officials, CPJ pointed out. The journalist paid with his life and till date, his murderers roam free.

But clearly the killings by the Taliban, instead of intimidating the journalists, had the opposite effect. As Najiba Ayubi observed, the new and prolific home grown media in Afghanistan, both in radio and television, decided to continue its unplugged coverage in the run up to the election and on election day.

Page pointed out that at a recently held panel debate at SOAS/Chatham House in London on ‘Development, patronage and politics: the prospects for Afghanistan’, Arne Strand, research director, CHR Michelsen Institute, Norway thought that the Afghan media were playing an important role in putting pressure on the Presidential candidates. “The media”, Strand felt “were giving the public more chance to exert an influence on the process.”

Young people with high expectations (60-65 per cent of Afghans are below the age of 25) who were consumers of the media, were impacted and were a big factor for change. “History is changing” in Afghanistan, he stressed. Orzala Ashraf Nemat, who also spoke during the debate, agreed that media had become a ‘new and powerful influence’ in recent years in Afghanistan.

Once the votes are counted and the democratic transition happens from President Hamid Karzai to the newly elected President, the work for the Afghan media will be cut out-- to carry on building the blocks of democracy.

NupurBasu is an independent Indian journalist who has reported out of Afghanistan in 2010 and 2012. 

Links to some of her stories from Afghanistan:


Afghan media blazes new trails
Guns and roses in Kabul
A nation in transition

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