Afghan media blazes new trails

IN Media Practice | 12/04/2013
It's a far cry from the days of the Taliban, when satellite dishes were banned.
NUPUR BASU finds that both government and private broadcasters are getting bolder and better. Pic- A programme on BBC Media Action.

It’s 8 pm in Kabul. We are tuned into Afghanistan’s most popular private news and current affairs television channel ...Tolo News. The programme titled ‘Sarhad ke uus par’ or ‘Across the Borderis on air. Conceived in a new experimental format, there are two anchors for this programme – one in the Kabul studio and the other in a studio in Karachi. It is a joint production between Tolo TV in Afghanistan and Express TV in Pakistan. There are panellists at both ends as well as invited audiences. The topic is on the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Soon it comes down to the major irritant between the two neighbours: Is Pakistan abetting the Taliban in Afghanistan?

“I was really surprised to find in one of our programmes a young Pakistani youth boldly quizzing their country’s former ISI chief on his organisation’s role in aiding and abetting the Taliban in Afghanistan,” says Mujahid Kakar, Director News and Current Affairs, who anchors this show from the Kabul end for Tolo News.

Munizae Jahangir, the anchor from Karachi, has a challenging time controlling two Pakistan panellists at her end who spar loudly with each other on the Taliban support issue and Pakistan’s role in it. It is good television. The Afghan family I am watching the programme with has the last laugh on the Pakistanis. “Even in their own country, the two experts cannot see eye-to-eye on the issue” a family member comments.

 ‘Across the Border’ airs once a fortnight. To begin with, five episodes have been planned. The programme moves smoothly between the two studios several hundred kilometres apart, with tough questions to the panellists from the audience at both ends. It marks a first in Afghan television. The Tolo News chief observes that his channel had been planning this kind of cross-border programming for a while and finally it has happened. Undoubtedly, it is another feather in the cap of the vibrant free media environment in a war-torn country.

Another programme which is attracting eyeballs is ‘Open Jirga, a one-hour programme started jointly by the BBC Media Action and Afghanistan’s public television Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA). The format consists of a panel of top politicians and other experts being grilled by a live audience from different provinces of Afghanistan. The programme is strategically planned to be bi-lingual. The anchor moves effortlessly betweeb Dari and Pashto to ensure the inclusion of both linguistic groups in Afghanistan. Says Shirazuddin Siddiqi, Country Director, Afghanistan, BBC Media Action: “I was keen that BBC joins hands with a local media like RTA here to produce a strong programme like ‘Open Jirga’I urged the BBC to be selfless and give the total credit to RTA for the programme.”

Their latest programme had President Hamid Karzai on it with a ‘live’ audience asking questions. It was a first in Afghanistan’s television history. “Karzai had watched the first three episodes and told our programme director that he was a fan of the programme. Then he agreed to do one episode himself.” The programme was a coup. The producers kept the fact that the President was going to participate a total secret till the actual filming in the Palace. The audience, invited from different provinces, was taken to the Palace and really surprised to come face-to-face with the President. The programme itself became news.

“The special edition of ‘Open Jirga’ with President Karzai was breaking news on all Afghan channels (TV, radio and print media) as well as on the BBC for two days before it was broadcast in full. But far more important and most gratifying was to see 70 ordinary Afghan men and women (some of them coming from very remote corners) questioning their President for 95 minutes (the usual length of ‘Open Jirga’ is 55 minutes)” Shirazuddin pointed out.

‘Open Jirga’ was inspired by an earlier joint collaboration between The BBC World Service and state TV and state radio titled ‘Salaam Watandar’ (Hello Countrymen)

Director of Planning and International Relations, RTA, A Rahman Panjshiri, who was one of the prime movers of the programme, said: “Initially there was a lot of opposition to doing the programme on RTA – I pushed it for almost one year saying this will give us credibility as a public service broadcaster to do an independent programme since most of the programming on RTA is news we receive from government offices. I can say with some satisfaction now that ‘Open Jirga’ has finally managed to get us this credibility”.

“During the last election when we had invited President Karzai to come on one of our programmes, he did not turn up. We left his spot on the podium empty to make a point,” recalled Mujahid Kakar.

This time, by appearing on the BBC-RTA programme, Karzai has shown that he is happy to patronise this medium even as the country goes into a crucial phase of transition with the departure of NATO troops and the election in 2014.

The competition between the private and government channel has only just begun in Afghanistan. It is likely to get sharper in the coming months.

During the Taliban years, TV and satellite dishes were banned in Afghanistan. That is now history. The number of antennae has gone up substantially on the TV Mountain, the hillside in downtown Kabul which has acquired that name. Since 2002, when the free media environment was unleashed, Afghanistan is today has around 76 channels, 36 of them home-grown channels from Kabul alone. In the run-up to the elections in 2014, media outlets are bracing for more dynamic and innovative programming.

If television is shaping hearts and minds in Afghanistan, then radio, in a country with a difficult terrain, has made even more headway. “Today in Afghanistan, you get media licences more easily than anything else and we have over 150 community radio stations in Afghanistan. We can actually claim to be a leader in many areas in the media,” Najiba Ayubi, Managing Director, The Killid Media had told the audience at a community radio seminar organised by the IAWRT, India chapter in Delhi in March.

In her busy office at the Killid Radio in Kabul’s Karte Se, Najiba oversees the operations of her independent Afghan public media group which runs eight local radio stations, two weekly magazines, a monthly cultural magazine and a news portal. She says: “We at Killid have been doing this kind of interactive programming with audiences from the provinces for a long time on radio...” Najiba, a journalist and author whose father and brother were killed by the Mujahiddeen, is a passionate believer in Afghanistan’s free media and from 2002, the fiery woman journalist personally went driving from province to province setting up radio stations in Kandahar, Herat, Nengarhar, Ghazni, Khosth, Mazar and Kabul. In a country that was just coming out of the clutches of the Taliban and where the Taliban had destroyed all the cables, this was pathbreaking work. In Killid’s busy newsrooms, young Afghan women and men journalists, under Najiba’s guidance, work tirelessly to put out programming that ranges from ‘testimonies’ of war victims to gender, child rights, human rights issues. For the youth there is even a 24x7 music radio channel- Kabul Rock.

“In Killid we are committed to one principle – Afghan ownership of Afghanistan's process. We are fiercely independent and that is our strength. We simply will not bend before any government or corporation – we work only for the people of Afghanistan and we stress the fact that Afghanistan needs more and more radio stations to really empower the people,” says Najiba, a member of the steering committee of Afghanistan National Association for Journalists.

In Killid Media, women journalists have done pathbreaking work week after week despite being under constant threat from the Taliban. For journalists like Amina Mayar, Editor-in-chief of Mursal Weekly, a family magazine for women run by Killid, it has meant making many personal sacrifices. “I have not been able to go back to my home in my village in Maidan Wardak for the last one and half years due to security and death threats…the women in the provinces live in the dark and when we try to do programming to make them aware of their rights, we get threats...I do not know what is the future of our country and the future of our women.” Having said that, she goes right back to her news desk and plans her next issue with her team-mates. Having a fearless woman boss like Najiba helps keep morale up for the other employees under the most trying circumstances.

There is plenty more to achieve and consolidate in the future as far as the free media environment goes. Journalists work under constant threat and their personal safety is usually the first casualty. They face threats from fundamentalist forces and lack of cooperation from the government for information. Both make journalism one of the most challenging and dangerous professions to pursue in Afghanistan.

 There are other issues as well. “Ten years into free media we still do not have a code of ethics for journalists and no avenue of access to information from government with a similar legislation like Right to Information (RTI) in India. Most TV channels in Afghanistan are owned by warlords or religious groups and only a handful are owned by NGOs or independent-minded individuals” says the RTA director Rahman Panjshiri.

According to him, “In the run-up to the 2014 election, free media can play a very crucial role in our country and we look to India and your public broadcaster Doordarshan also for similar support.” RTA has submitted a proposal to the Indian High Commission in Kabul to be forwarded to the Indian authorities to help them on many fronts to shore up their independent work. From his office window, the RTA chief points to a half-completed building and says: “This was meant for building new studios for RTA but the work has stopped due to lack of funds – we want the Indian government to come forward and help us build this and help RTA with new technology.”

Is Prasar Bharati listening to Afghanistan’s public broadcaster?

Nupur Basu is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker. She visited Afghanistan in March 2013.

Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More