Context & Culture

“No Microphone for the President”: Can Radio Television Afghanistan still become a public service broadcaster?


The RTA building in Kabul (Photo Source: Report by DSWCI)

The RTA building in Kabul (Photo Source: Report by DSWCI)

Turning government-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) into a public service broadcaster, a symbol of a democratic state, has been on the agenda of both donors and the Afghan government since 2002. However, only small, cosmetic changes have so far been made. As a result, many argue that this goal is no longer realistic. The overstaffed, cumbersome government institution would require strong political and financial buy-in to change its way of doing business and presenting the news. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks into the government’s plans for RTA.

A new attempt at reform?

“I want our national TV [RTA] to be like the BBC. It must be a true national TV, which should reflect the voice of Afghans,” tweeted Ashraf Ghani, during his presidential campaign in August 2014. That day, just before this eager tweet, he had met with a group of journalists and told them that RTA “should become a media station that gives the opportunity for dialogue to all, and it should be under an independent, impartial institution. RTA should not be a microphone for the President and his deputies.”

This aim was also reflected in the National Development Strategy 2010-13, ie for the Ministry of Information and Culture to develop “a truly editorially independent public service broadcasting of a high standard by 2010.”

Since Ghani’s enthusiastic words were spoken and he took office, there seems to have been some movement between the president’s office and RTA about the transformation. Everything, however, is still very hush-hush.

AAN was recently given two confidential documents, which both deal with the future of RTA. The first document is a 2015 confidential feasibility study on the reform of the institution, which was carried out on the president’s request and authored by David Page, a well-known media expert and a former BBC world service staffer. The second document is a lengthy proposal on RTA’s transformation to a public service broadcaster (PSB) developed by the institution’s own Director-General, Zarin Anzor (a well-known writer, Pashtun scholar and journalist), and submitted to the president several months ago. The second document was a direct result of recommendations made in the confidential feasibility study.

RTA: some facts, figures and problems

Currently, RTA has approximately 2,000 staff on its tashkil (the formal staffing spread-sheet). Of this number, 1,050 are in Kabul and the remaining 950 in the provinces. All RTA staff are government employees, and most of them are over the age 35, which makes RTA less competitive on the market, where most privately-owned TVs are run by young professionals who speak to an equally youthful population. (62 per cent of Afghanistan’s population is between the age of 20 and 40, and 75 per cent of the population is under 35 years of age.) According to the people interviewed for the 2012 BBC Media Action Policy Briefing on Afghan media in transition, “RTA has only one shortcoming: it has less young people… If they hire young people as anchors or newscasters, it would attract a younger audience.” However, there is also a beauty in preserving institutional memory with the ‘old-timers’, as captured by this 2002 BBC feature story on a RTA staff member in charge of the pre-computer age tape archive of Afghan radio.

RTA’s operational budget for 1395 (2016/17) is 404 million Afghani, approximately 5.9 million US dollars; the development budget for the same year is around 2.4 million US Dollars. (Afghanistan operates with this kind of split budgeting). This is a rise compared to the previous year, when operational costs of 343 million Afghani (5 million USD) and developmental expenditures of 1.6 million US dollars were allocated to it. At the same time, RTA generates revenue from advertising and other sources that amount to approximately 220 million Afghani (3.2 million USD). This shows that RTA is far from being self-sufficient. However, RTA, although an independent directorate, does not manage its advertising revenue directly; this is handled by the Ministry of Finance. (1)

The proportion allocated for personnel expenses is over 60 per cent of the operational budget (five years average 2008-13), both in its TV and radio sections. As in many other Afghan institutions, this accounts for its largest expenditure – meaning fewer resources for modernisation. Program production costs, for example, account for only 1.3 per cent, while the budget for producing original content is almost zero, as shown by the Japanese development agency, JICA, in December 2013.

However, according to Abdul Rahman Panjshiri, RTA’s director of planning and international relations, the crux of RTA’s problem is not the availability of financial resources, but the management structures of the state-owned broadcaster.

“The money we receive from the government is sufficient, but our management is weak,” Panjshiri told AAN.

Different approaches to transformation

President Ghani appears to have a strong personal vision for RTA. In November 2014 following his inauguration, he repeated his ambition for the broadcaster to become independent and took the conversation one step further in a meeting with a senior BBC manager. “He talked about putting in place a robust enough system to prevent RTA from becoming a ‘political capture’ after it has become independent,” the BBC’s Shirazuddin Siddiqi wrote in a paper presented at the Global Media Freedom Conference (GMFC), held in Copenhagen in April 2015. (2)

A confidential feasibility study authored by David Page also notes that the views of senior official advisors to both the president and the CEO are very similar and favourable for turning RTA into a public service broadcaster.

The confidential feasibility study suggested two models for structural transformation, such as that of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) or the Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC). Both organisations are based on Afghan law (the MEC on a presidential decree, the AIHRC even has constitutional rank), and receive direct funding from it, but in a way that safeguards their independence and their ability to act in the public interest. A similar change for RTA, according to the study, should allow for its transformation into a public corporation with greater autonomy in finances and human resources.

RTA planning director, Mr. Panjshiri, told AAN in 2015 (AAN could not confirm the exact date) that President Ghani met with RTA’s management and asked them to prepare a detailed report and plan for transformation. The RTA’s management probed the president’s resolve regarding the introduction of a licence fee paid by TV viewers. The president, however, advised RTA’s management to first improve its programme quality and increase its reach to its audience, and then “to start thinking about the licence fee.” Following this meeting, RTA organised a committee, which included representatives from UNESCO, the BBC and the Afghan media organisation Nai, which works locally on the empowerment of independent media outlets and organisations.

However, an internal disagreement (between Anzor and Panjshiri) soon surfaced regarding how the PSB should be organised. This disagreement reflects conflicting ideas about the central issue as to whether RTA should become a broadcaster governed by an independent commission or remain a national broadcaster under the control of the government. (3) This inevitably resulted in halting the committee’s work.

Anzor’s proposal, which includes a strategic plan of transformation, a draft PSB law, a proposal for RTA’s reform and three programme documents for 2015/16, is a light take on the reform and does not make significant changes to RTA’s governing structures. For example, according to the draft law the candidate for the post of Director General will still be proposed and appointed by the president, not through public bidding (locally called kankur) and approved by an independent commission (to be formed), as is the case in many other countries. According to international PSB standards, the most important way of securing the independence of the governing board is through appointments of its management governing bodies through a multi-party body, not by an individual minister.

The proposal covers the period from 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2019 and will cost 13.5 million US dollars for the first three years. (The budget for 2019 is not included in the document AAN received.) On a technical level, the proposal includes changes such as a conversion from analogue to digital transmission, the establishment of four TV channels (global and national, entertainment and news) with 33 studios, ie one in all provinces, a correspondent network in Pakistan, India, Russia, Iran, the EU and the US and the incorporation of the Wolesi Jirga channel, currently managed by parliament itself. It also proposes the recruitment of 300 new employees during its structural reform, but omits to mention what would happen to current staff. Additionally, 40 new radio and 15 new TV programmes (including talk shows and entertainment programmes) are to be produced during this period.

The transformation proposal for RTA also suggests an annual licence fee of 100 Afghani (1.5 US dollars), which would be collected from customers along with electricity bills by the state-owned Afghanistan Electricity Company, better known as Breshna. (4) According to the proposal, this would result in annual revenue of 400 million Afghani (5.8 million US dollars). Additional resources would be collected through advertising, on average 200 million Afghani (3 million US dollars) per year.

This all sounds attractive, but it remains technical to a large extent, avoiding changes in the management and the very character of the institution. “A PSB is a system of principles, you can not accept some and reject others,” Panjshiri told AAN, adding, “Anzor’s proposal did not capture the essence of the PSB. It is like a mouth without the teeth.”

Earlier reform attempts

Talks about RTA’s reorganisation and its new role in society started in 2002, on the eve of the interim administration’s general effort to reform everything and to revive old, ‘prestigious’ institutions in the country. The Minister for Information and Culture during Hamed Karzai’s interim administration issued policy directions on Reconstruction and Development of Media in Afghanistan on 6 June 2002. An International Media Conference, which brought together representatives of the Afghan government, local civil society and the international community followed in September 2002. The conference declaration together with the Afghan government policy direction from June 2002, constituted the basic framework for the development of media policy in Afghanistan. The declaration specifically recommended:

… that work begin immediately on transforming Radio-Television Afghanistan into a public service broadcasting system. In recognition of the significant role the media will play in the debate over national reconstruction, a timetable for the conversion should be agreed to by the end of 2002 and a detailed plan initiated with the aim of significant progress towards this goal being achieved by June 2004. This should include early creation of an independent board of governors that reflects Afghanistan’ s diversity.

In 2004, the first comprehensive strategy for the reform of RTA was handed to the government. But reform dragged on, and the target – progress by mid-2004 – was clearly missed. Between 2004 and 2007 yet another set of reform plans was drafted, as “a funding package between 15 and 40 million Euros was potentially on offer from the EU and other donors,” as a recent confidential feasibility study on RTA reform shows. The study further reveals that although “the Parliament voted to make RTA independent by a two-thirds majority, the project was not ultimately approved by the President [Karzai] and the EU withdrew its offer.” (For the 2007 WJ discussion on the media law see here.)

Panjshiri summarised these efforts in one sentence in his interview with AAN: “[S]ince 2002 there has been a lot of talk on transforming RTA into a PSB, but these were just words, nothing materialized in practice.” According to Panjshiri’s observations, then minister of culture and information, Dr Seyyed Makhdum Rahin’s fear of losing control (5) was the main obstacle to serious changes. He said Rahin, who served as the minister twice (2002–05 and 2010–15), never really pushed for transformation.

However, Panjshiri also had some serious disagreements with Rahin’s successor Abdul Karim Khurram, minister from 2005 to 2009. He even resigned in September 2007, directly citing the minister’s efforts to curb the station’s independence as his reason. “During my 29 years of service with RTA I have not seen such an attempt to suppress freedom,” he said in comments published by Radio Netherlands. Since January 2007, following the resignation of RTA’s director Najib Roshan over policy differences with the minister, RTA staff complaints regarding Khurram were numerous. He became well known for his use of threats and violent language against any RTA employee who objected to unqualified or political appointments made at RTA, and was reported by international actors involved in the process. Khurram had RTA employees who voiced objections physically removed from the premises by his fifty armed bodyguards who regularly accompanied him to meetings.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in its report on media freedom in Afghanistan 2008–11 also named Khurram, who belonged to president Karzai’s inner circle, as a key opponent to the transformation.

It was not until March 2014, as noted in the confidential study on the reform of RTA, that Karzai was finally persuaded to re-designate RTA as an ‘independent directorate’:

…the organisation since incorporated this title into its branding. In effect, this means that the Ministry of Information no longer directly manages the broadcaster, which is a big step forward; previous Ministers of Information had an office on the campus and were involved in most major decisions.

RTA's new logo (Source: RTA)

RTA’s new logo (Source: RTA)

Mass Media Law(s): forward into the past?

Four different media laws, from March 2002, April 2004, June 2006 and August 2008 (the latter gazetted July 2009), have been passed in the meantime. But even the last one, that of 2009, still does not make RTA a public service broadcaster. (6)

This was prevented by a long discussion that preceded the 2009 law (currently in force), and during which quite a few articles that dealt with RTA were amended or deleted at the last minute. This was mainly due to President Karzai and Khurram’s opposition to a more independent national broadcaster. The delay of several months in publishing the law led to the belief, “in some circles”, that there had been a deliberate effort to ensure that provisions on the obligations of state-owned media organisations, which would have limited the government’s influence on them, were not made operative before the presidential elections on 20 August 2009, notes the IFJ report.

The 2009 draft of the Media Law stated that the “director of RTA shall be appointed by the President and approved by Lower House of parliament.” The High Council of the Supreme Court, because of the pressure coming from the President’s office, considered this to be “inconsistent with the Afghan Constitution.”

According to the IFJ report, the final compromise on this issue was to split the difference. In the final text of the law (article 13), finally ratified in July 2009 by President Karzai, RTA was described as “a mass media that belongs to the Afghan nation and shall perform, as an independent directorate, within the framework of the Executive Branch.” RTA’s budget, the law stipulated, would “be provided by the Government and through advertisements and provision of services” (see IFJ report Reporting in Times of War: Media Freedom in Afghanistan 2008 – 2011 http://www.ifj.org/uploads/media/2011_Afghanistan.pdf). A second clause of this article, which stated that RTA’s director would be appointed by the president, subject to approval by the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, was deleted. With this, RTA remains in the Executive’s control and nothing close to becoming a public service broadcaster.

Its status is laid out in six articles in the electronic mass media chapter, including one that sets up RTA’s commission (heavily controlled by the Ministry of Information and Culture and the de jure and de facto powerless) and constitutes the entire legal regulation on the national broadcaster. (7) However, there is strong ownership of the 2009 Media Law among MPs of the Wolesi Jirga, who approved it by a two-thirds majority vote and worked on the draft. (The IFJ report finds that members of parliament, who themselves had business investments in the media, had allegedly been responsible for writing RTA’s article as a public service trust into the proposed law.) (8)

Nevertheless, according to media experts, the 2009 Media Law was a great success as it set out worthy objectives relating to freedom of thought and speech, the promotion of free, independent and pluralistic mass media and the protection of the rights of journalists. The law is also seen as a new attempt to set in motion the transformation of RTA into a public broadcaster. According to BBC Media Action Policy Briefing, the 2009 law “allows RTA to play a more independent national role, with a governance structure in which government, parliament and civil society organisations are all represented.” However, this is not yet the law needed to set up a public service broadcaster, due to the limitations imposed on RTA and the de facto control of the Ministry of Information and Culture over it that is provided for by the law.

Shirazuddin Siddiqi of BBC Media Action told AAN “the current media legislation is the best Afghanistan ever had.” However, according to Siddiqi, back in 2008 a legal charter on RTA was also given to the parliament with the draft law, but MPs refused to discuss it and said their job was to deal with the laws, not the charters. (9)

What of the RTA commission?

The 2009 Mass Media Law established three commissions under the auspice of the High Media Council, the Mass Media Commission, the Commission of National Radio Television and the Commission for the Bakhtar Information Agency, the state-run Afghan news agency. (10) In the original draft of the law, the High Media Council was an over-arching body with representation by the government, parliament, the judiciary, civil society, the Ulema council and journalists. It was to provide long-term media policy directions, while the Mass Media Commission (which has yet to be appointed) had a supervisory role over the private and public media sector. Among others, its duties was to include a review of complaints, refer mass media violations of a criminal nature to justice institutions and provide technical consultations to mass media officials. However, in the final approved draft, the Ministry of Information and Culture reinstated its control over the Mass Media Commission and the RTA commission, as explained in the confidential study:

Despite the liberal character of the law, the Ministry of Information succeeded by a variety of means in retaining day to day control of RTA: the new governance structures were modified in ways that undermine their original purpose and the entire structure has not been fully implemented to this day […] In the final version, however, the Ministry of Information takes responsibility for paying salaries of the members of the Mass Media Commission, and that Commission’s role is expanded to include supervision of RTA and the scrutiny of its budget. At the same time, the RTA Commission is deprived of the role of appointing the Director General and approving appointments of other directors proposed by DG. Contrary to the original intention, the Ministry of Information managed to re-assert its dominant role in the management of RTA, undermining its national independence and blurring the clear lines of responsibilities set out in the original draft.

The three-year mandate of the last RTA commission expired in May 2015. The new commissioners have not yet been appointed. Furthermore, the last commission was widely seen as the creation of Minister Rahin, who also declined to establish the Mass Media Commission. According to Panjshiri, the last RTA commission used to meet every week, but mainly “to sip tea and coffee.” The RTA Director General is also a member of the commission, leaving no space for it to independently look at RTA’s programming or financing.

Dispatches from the ‘court’: The RTA news programme

After 2001, RTA’s leading bodies faced political interference into their news programming. In a speech held at an international seminar in Kuala Lumpur in May 2006, former director Muhammad Ishaq gave an example of how then-President Karzai was interfering, after RTA broadcast one of his speeches, one and a half hour long, but somehow omitted “about one minute of it.” “The next day, the deputy director of Radio-Television was summoned to the president’s office to explain the omission. […] The mistake was rectified by the re-broadcast of the speech with a note that the re-broadcast was due to ‘the repeated request from viewers’,” Ishaq recalled.

In 2002, Karzai had indirectly accused the former ‘Northern Alliance’ (officially United Front, with Jamiat-e Islami as its strongest component) of turning RTA into its own mouthpiece. RTA’s first two post-Taleban directors, Abdul Hafiz Mansur, now an MP, and Ishaq, are prominent Jamiat members. Mansur was sacked for the alleged politicisation of RTA by then Minister Rahin.

Some ten years later, despite all criticisms, support and training, the quality of RTA programming is still very low and under the government’s influence. Every evening at 8pm, RTA broadcasts its main news bulletin, which mainly showcases the government’s activities of the day. The news sequence is prioritised by the seniority of the person involved, not by its relevance or newsworthiness. According to AAN’s observation, every evening the same schedule applies for the news bulletin: first the news from the president’s office followed by news from the vice-presidents’ offices, the chief executive’s office, the ministers, parliament, and lastly the provincial governors.

The recent confidential feasibility study confirms this impression and notes:

Each of these offices prepares its own news, either with its own staff or with RTA staff, and expects to be put on air by RTA unedited. The News Editor has no idea half an hour before the main 8 pm bulletin what he will receive and how long it will be […]. Frequently, packages prepared by the RTA news teams have to be dropped to make space for government material of less news value.

The study indicates that RTA’s “protocol approach” to the news “has a direct bearing on its credibility with the public” – and very likely to the number of viewers. The study concludes that “[u]nfortunately, RTA is seen very much as a government mouthpiece.”

Viewership on the increase?

After obtaining authorisation for 50 terrestrial TV channels for the whole of Afghanistan, RTA facilities located in 37 places have been transmitting the programme directly to the provinces as of November 2012. Prior to this, videotapes with the programme content were flown from Kabul to provincial centres, often delaying the broadcast.

The current coverage area is about 40 per cent of the entire country. This partial coverage is mainly due to the low transmitting power of RTA stations, often only reaching the outskirts of provincial capitals. RTA also broadcasts via satellite, Insat, but is not connected to the large Galaxy or HotBird satellites.

According to research carried out by Altai Consulting, RTA’s audience declined from 7 per cent in 2010 to 2.9 per cent in 2014. The latest 2015 BBC Afghanistan Country Report, however, shows RTA’s reach as high as 40 per cent, just after Tolo TV with 51 per cent and Ariana TV with 42 per cent.

Panjshiri questioned the BBC’s latest ratings. For a number of years, he said, RTA distributed survey questionnaires to over 6,000 people in 34 provinces and none of those surveyed under the age of 35 ever mentioned RTA as their preferred TV channel. Siddiqi of BBC Media Action, however, thinks that RTA viewership might be on the increase for several reasons. “There is a general lack of trust in the private TV stations, radio listenership has gone down in the past several year, there is a general decrease in interest in soap-operas broadcasted by the private channels, and the quality of the talk shows on the RTA has increased,” he explained.

What comes next?

So far, RTA has not heard back from the president’s office on the submitted proposal. (AAN heard from the presidential palace that several proposals are on the table and the president is still deciding which option to go for.) Neither is the EU, one of the strongest advocates for turning it in to a Public Service Broadcaster, aware of the government’s plans. The EU mission in Afghanistan told AAN in an email correspondence:

We were informed, last year, by BBC Media Action, that the Government had plans to restructure RTA. We are however not aware of any recent development in that direction. Pending a government decision, we have not yet adopted a position on this matter.

For Panjshiri, who has worked with RTA since 1978, turning the government channel into a PSB remains a matter of honour, but he fears that the opportunity might be lost. Whether the opportunity is lost or there is still a chance to reform RTA, the answer is in the president’s hands.

 

(1) Before the Soviet period, Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA) was a state broadcaster with a monopoly over the market. Though RTA had a long history dating back to 1925, it was generally perceived as the voice of the government.

RTA is heavily dependent on donor support. The Governments of Japan and India have each invested substantially in rebuilding the infrastructure of the state broadcaster during the 2000s. RTA also received support from a number of other donors over several decades, including UNESCO, Deutsche Welle (the German government broadcaster for abroad), UNDP, the Asian Broadcasting Union and, in the 1960s and 1970s, from the Soviet Union, Germany, the Government of Japan and other countries. (See also BBC Media Action Policy Briefing on Afghan media in transition)

(2) See “Media and its role (in) the development of society in developing and fragile states”; a draft paper by Shirazuddin Siddiqi, a senior Manager at the BBC.

(3) A 2010 study by Altai Consulting found that a national broadcaster is the preferred model by the Afghan government, while a public broadcaster is a model more strongly supported by the international community.

(4) De Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS, Afghanistan Electricity Company) is a state owned but corporate national power utility and the sole producer, transmitter and distributor of electricity throughout the country (see here).

(5) Dr Rahin, a Seyyed from Kabul with a Masters and a Doctorate in Literature from Tehran University, served on the Constitutional Commission under President Muhammad Daud (1973-78) in various culture-related posts in Pakistan and the US and was active in the Rome group that, in the late 1990s, pushed for a return of the former King. Minister of Culture in the transitional authority from 2002 to 2005, he failed to receive parliament’s vote of confidence in the new 2006 cabinet. Later he was Afghan Ambassador to India.

(6) There was an attempt to pass a new media law in 2012, which was effectively an attempt to reinstate state control over the media. However it was struck off the Wolesi Jirga’s agenda after strong criticism from both Nai, a media organisation supporting open media in Afghanistan and Human Rights Watch (here  and here). This draft law did not foresee any change with regards to RTA. In 2015, there was another mass media draft law in circulation, but this too was taken off the agenda “due to some flaws.” According to Afghan media experts, the 2015 draft law also attempted to restore state control over the media.

(7) In line with principles of the Declaration of Sanaa from 1996, (adopted as the Resolution 34 on the 29th UNESCO general conference, held in 1997), “state-owned broadcasting…should be, as a matter of priority, reformed and granted status of journalistic and editorial independence as open public service institutions.”

A separate law regulates public service broadcasting in most countries, see for example the UNESCO’s PSB model law guidelines and the list of international standards for PSB.

(8) The joint commission of the Meshrano and the Wolesi Jirga worked on the Media Law draft. The head of the commission was Muhammad Mohaqqeq, now deputy CEO, which explains provisions that political parties and government organisations may establish media outlets. Mohaqqeq is head of a political party and the owner of several newspapers, radio and TV stations, including Daily Outlook, Daily Afghanistan and Rah-e Farda TV and radio.

(9) The charter was an attempt to regulate RTA in a way similar to the BBC, which is regulated by the so-called BBC Charter, renewable every ten years.

(10) Internal politics in the Ministry of Information and Culture are the reason the Mass Media Commission has not been appointed yet. In short, the politicking boils down to who controls the Media Violation Investigation Commission (MVIC) established in 2005. This was suppose to be dissolved with the passing of the 2009 Mass Media Law and replaced by the three new commissions, however it continues to function (see AAN’s dispatch on the commissions here and the 2015 Freedom House Report). The commission is still controlled by the government as it is part of the High Media Council (the body which proposes National Radio TV’s budget to the government and submits annual activities report to the National Council).

 

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