The world and Afghanistan ‘celebrated’ World Press Freedom Day a short while ago. The annual international press freedom index, published by Reporters sans frontières (RSF), (*) ranks Afghanistan number 147 of 178 states, better than a number of its neighbouring countries, including Pakistan (151), Uzbekistan (163), China (171), Turkmenistan (176) and Iran (175). Our guest blogger Martin Gerner(**) pleads not to confuse the growing number of Afghan TV stations with media freedom and tells the story why an independent Afghan weekly had to give up.
‘The number of media increased from zero to 200 within one month after the Taleban regime collapsed’, the acting minister for culture and information, Seyyed Makhdum Raheen, was quoted in a recent press release of his house. But the amount of Afghan TV stations growing at a dizzying speed in Kabul and other major cities alone is of course neither an indicator for the freedom of the media or journalistic quality nor necessarily a sign of an improving civil society. Mushrooming TV stations rather seem to be part of the problem, a number of them being in the hands of what the west now calls ‘power brokers’ or of pure businessmen.
Fundamental problems of Afghan media persist. First, the war has taken its toll. Reporters and media face growing problems to fight their way to obtain independent information somewhere between the front lines of the Taleban, NATO forces, NGOs, private consultants, non-transparent Afghan government institutions and legal obstacles arising from the current media law.
Secondly, in the line of the 2014 withdrawal logic (but have your doubts on what the date exactly will be) some donor countries, after years of foot-dragging, have shifted to the ‘big is beautiful’ option now. A multi-million US funding, for example, has just been awarded to Internews, a media NGO with the merit to have introduced the network of Afghan local radio stations in the post-2001 period. The current plan is to extend the model to an independent network of provincial TV programs. In the best of cases, this could prove challenging for the stakeholders already in place – see Aina TVwith Abdul Rashid Dostum, Noorin TV with Burhanuddin Rabbani, Tamadunwith Ayatollah Asef Mohseni or Farda with Mohammad Mohaqeq, all purely servants of distinct political agendas. As a media watchdog observer put it, the ‘war’ on politics has also become a ‘war of the media’.
The losers of the ever more intense battle for the Afghan media can be found amongst the independent print media. One reason for this is that a major portion of the advertising market now goes to TV and radio stations. With an ever growing number of Afghan households turning to entertaining serials this is where the money lies. Illiteracy is another reason. And even the owner of the most remote chaikhana in mountainous Badakhshan or dusty Herat defines his modernity through a TV set these days, whereas for a regular newspaper it is much harder to reach the same area through the few but heroic distribution networks that drive out to the remote districts.
(The international armed forces engaged in Afghanistan also have discovered certain television programs as a potential tool to promote their interests. Tolo TV has been regularly mentioned in this context.)
As to print media, few of us seem to have taken note of the disappearance of Kabul Weekly. This publication printed in Dari, Pashto and English had been a Westerners’ darling of the emerging Afghan media scene directly after 2001. After running out of funds (from UNESCO and RSF, amongst others) sometime between 2006 and 2007, its situation has become even more serious now. Fahim Dashty, its publisher and editor-in-chief, recently distributed the paper’s own archives to institutions interested to preserve a little treasure of a ten-year printing press chronology and closed the paper down.
Dashty who is a survivor of the assassination that killed Ahmad Shah Massud on 9 September 2001, had flagged Massud’s name as the newspapers ‘founder’(***); former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah also is his uncle. Some observers have seen Dashty in political proximity to what was the Northern Alliance and, therefore, have questioned the weekly’s claimed independence. But Dashty always has insisted on his paper’s independent position. The fact that he rather gave up his paper than accepting financial support with strings attached, should be sufficient proof for that. RSF, an independent body, also rejects the assumption that NA leaders did finance Kabul Weekly in the past. It was mainly the paper’s criticism of the Karzai government that made him unpopular with the President’s camp. In fact, Dashty never obtained an interview with the President.
Dashty acknowledges that ‘mistakes’ were made during the time of civil war, but talking about Massud’s role in that remains difficult for him, he admits. Some might point at him with the finger, others will argue that in admitting his problems he symbolises a deeply troubled and traumatised nation. An open debate on these years, however, is still missing, also in the Afghan media.
Kabul Weekly, as it looks, could be saved with very little money – as compared to the big funds mentioned above. To some extent, the paper’s financial problems are also the result of a failed in-depth foreign assistance for independent media in the starting years after 2001. Donors and their media NGOs in the first couple of years often did concentrate much or exclusively on training journalism basics. What they did not do was accompanying the new independent media with a sufficient degree of support for proper business management and accountability skills in order to prepare them for the years to come. The disappearance of Kabul Weekly, thus, also reveals some of this approach’s elementary strategic weaknesses.
And while journalism trainings – which are crucial in building civil society – have been plenty in Kabul in the past years, demand in even some of the close-by provinces remains unmet. Young people in Charikar, for example, just 60 kilometers outside the capital, are very eager for trainings that would come their way rather force them to travel to Kabul.
(*) Click for the index here.
(**) Martin Gerner is a free lance journalist for German ARD broadcasting union, Deutsche Welle and national print media covering Afghanistan since early 2004. He has helped to train a new generation of Afghan journalists with different media NGOs and Afghan universities in the field of radio and print journalism, as well as documentary script writing. Author of the feature-length documentary film ‘Generation Kunduz: The war of the others’ and founder of the Afghanistan Film Festival Cologne.
(***) Kabul Weekly’s first version was established 1993 in the capital Kabul under the same name (which, in Dari, is ‘Haftanama-ye Kabul’ ) by Dashty.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020