Afghanistan has long been a country of war and thus a target area of a wide range of national and international broadcasting and media activities. From the beginning of their resistance against the Soviet invasion in 1979 to the fall of the Taliban in 2001, freedom fighters, regional rebels, warlords and Kabul based government used radio transmitters and newspapers both in Afghanistan itself and out of Afghanistan as a means of propaganda and the easiest way of communicating their ideas and messages to the Afghan people. During the more than two decades of war Afghans were deprived of reading or knowing the facts, through their national publications. Afghanistan was not like other parts of the world where war had increased the number of print publication, as ‘an expanded mass market for reading had been uncovered during the war years, and there was an increased viability for cheap edition of popular novels and other stuff for reading.’
With the Soviets out of the country in 1989, the civil war continued. This era is considered as the starting point of the decomposition of the state-run media in Afghanistan. A fierce civil war started in and around Kabul between rival Mujahideen factions in order to take the control of Kabul.
Thousands of people were killed in Kabul city during the five years of a fierce war between these two Mujahideen leaders. Media was controlled by warring factions, Professor Rabbani (the self proclaimed president) had control over state run media and Hekmatyar (his main opponent) and some major warlords had their own ‘mobile’ T.V. Transmitters, radios and weekly newspapers. Media inside Afghanistan was nothing but war propaganda rather than a means of providing true and neutral information to the public.
It was in this period that ‘the media was fractionalized and that this period overall was a significant setback for the continued growth of the media in Afghanistan.’
Most people were relying on radios that were broadcasting from outside Afghanistan in Afghan languages i.e. BBC, VOA, Radio Tehran and some other regional radios. ‘The Taliban movement in 1994 came as a turning point in the Afghan civil war. Emerging as a popular reaction to prevailing chaos in a broken state, the puritanical Sunni militia found extensive support among the masses that had been victimized by continued infighting and lawlessness’. Taliban were finally able to capture the capital Kabul in 1996 and establish their rule in much of the country. Their strict views of Islam were also reflected in the media, with women removed from journalism and broadcasting into private life, non-religious music replaced by religious chants and television banned altogether.
The purpose of this essay is then to trace the establishment of media in Afghanistan, the role of media during the civil war, how media was badly affected by the war and what could be done to re-establish the war-ravaged media in the post civil war Afghanistan.
The Evolution of Media in Afghanistan
There were four main periods in recent history which have had a major impact on the shape of the media establishment in Afghanistan today. Although the media during the early nineteenth century also has a lot of impact on the life of Afghans, since it is getting far a way from the topic and objective of this essay, I do not go in to much depth about that era and shortly start from the monarchy in mid nineteenth century.
Media during Monarchy
Throughout its history the media in Afghanistan has been largely state-run and state-sponsored model. Although print media was introduced in Afghanistan in the late eighteenth century, an overwhelming majority of the people of Afghanistan still do not have access to newspapers or print media because of this main reason that an overwhelming majority of the people are illiterate and can not read and write.
Illiteracy and ‘the lack of education provisions for the overwhelming majority of the younger generation (men and women) has left a huge gap in the general capacity of the nation to resume control of its affairs.’ Due to illiteracy people were not able to read and to be aware of the ongoing situation. Print media was limited to the educated people, who could read and write and the common people in the rural areas did not know anything about print media, so it did not have any positive or negative impact on their lives as well. Government and the Royal family sponsored and strictly controlled print media. Writers and journalists were supposed to write whatever was in the interest of the Royal family and the government and no one could write anti government articles. This trend of State control of media continued until the decay of the monarchy and the emergence of leftist communists in mid 60s.
From 1958 -68 there was a relative freedom of expression for journalists and that helped a great number of non state newspapers and publications emerged. But the state control over media, both print and electronic, was reinforced during both the Soviet and the Taliban eras. In fact, ‘as a case example of how state controlled media has long been the norm in Afghanistan that even the 1964 constitution contained no provisions protecting the freedom of the press or political expression in general’.
The Soviets and the Media
While the state-run media model was perhaps at its height during the Soviet era, it also was an important and positive time for the growth of the media in Afghanistan. Most notably, this period saw a large influx of equipment and infrastructure development including the construction of radio and television broadcasting facilities throughout Afghanistan. The Soviets, realizing the importance of media and its impact, generously invested in improving the hardware of existing Afghan radio and Television stations and to a great extent modernized or newly installed sophisticated equipments to improve the coverage of Afghan Radio and T.V. Radio Kabul could be heard all over Afghanistan and even some areas of the bordering countries.
Besides the main radio and T.V. stations in the capital city Kabul, some provincial radios and television stations started limited broadcasting in major provinces of Kandahar, Ningarhar, Mazar and Heart. This period introduced a new generation of Afghans to careers in journalism through Soviet training programs. The number of regional and provincial newspapers increased and almost every province had its own newspaper and more than half of the 25 provinces had radio and T.V. stations.
Media during the Civil War 1992 to 2001
The civil war era 1992 -2001 is believed to be the most devastating era for media industry in Afghanistan. This era, not only fully stopped the slow pace of the development of media in Afghanistan, but it badly damaged the existing technical and logistical assets that Afghanistan had.
After the collapse of the communist regime in 1989 the international community, especially the Unite States of America ignored Afghanistan and left the rival Mujahideen factions to compete for the control of Kabul. United State, a great supporter of the anti Communist Mujahideen during the 80s stopped its aid and did not take an active part in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The neighboring countries started to intervene in Afghanistan by backing their favoured factions. Media was badly marginalized and was controlled by various warring factions. Neighbouring countries had Radio broadcasts in local languages, which were based on their interests and were not more than propaganda channels. The war still continued and ‘despite this lack of interest and awareness, the situation on the field kept evolving, the war mechanisms and Kalashnikov culture were installed and the conflict continued to contaminate neighbouring countries.’
During this period, the rest of the country was carved up among the various factions, with many Mujahideen commanders establishing themselves as local warlords. Humanitarian agencies frequently found their offices stripped, their vehicles hijacked, and their staff threatened. It was against this background that the Taliban emerged. Former Mujahideen, disillusioned with the chaos that had followed their victory. The main and well equipped central printing press of Afghanistan was either destroyed or its machines were looted by warring factions in Kabul. Journalists working for international media were warned by warring factions if they had published a story that was a bit critical about them, telling truth was not less than risking ones life. A well known Afghan journalist, Mirwais Jalil, working for BBC radio during the civil war, was killed by an armed faction near Kabul just for reporting a story of their atrocities against civilians. Nick Gowing, a long time war correspondent explains this situation as he writes that ‘because of the impact of our real-time capability to bear witness immediately, we are being actively targeted by warriors, warlords’ and factional fighters.
The Taliban and the Media
Lawlessness, atrocities of warlords and regional commanders, continuity of an unending civil war between rival factions in the capital and in other parts of the country or in brief the anarchy in Afghanistan, paved the way for the emergence of the ultra orthodox religious seminary students the ‘Taliban’.
The group, many of whom were madrasa (religious seminary) students, called themselves Taliban, meaning "students". Their stated aims were to restore stability and enforce their strict interpretation of Islamic law. In September 1996, the Taliban took control of Kabul after Massoud was forced to retreat to the north. After taking over Kabul from the Northern Alliance, the Taliban literally had the control over all state run media, which were mostly based in Kabul. Half a dozen state-run newspapers, National Radio and T.V. and some remaining printing presses in Kabul came under the Taliban.
In 1997, the Taliban renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; and also renamed the state run radio as the Shariat Ghag Radio (Radio Voice of Sharia) Taliban introduced strict policies like prohibiting women from working outside their home in activities other than health care, and requiring corporal punishment for those convicted of certain crimes. Cinema Halls and a few existing theatre halls were closed. They not only destroyed much of the equipment and infrastructure built up during the Soviet era (particularly radio and television production and broadcasting facilities) but Afghans also became largely dependent on foreign media for news and information during this period. Use of internet was banned and all net cafes in Kabul and some other provinces were closed down.
It was only in the North that women remained present in the resistance media, radio and television also played a limited role in entertainment. The Afghan music culture was preserved by musicians in exile and available to parts of the exile community by internet radios. The Taliban banned T.V. broadcasting and announced that printing pictures of living things as against the teachings of Islam.
Post Taliban Media
After the tragic incident of 9/11 for which al-Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden is being held responsible, Afghanistan once again become the focus point of the international community and especially the US. One month after the 9/11 incident, the international coalition attacked the Taliban and al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and in a couple of months the Taliban were beaten and forced out of Afghanistan. The US-led military operation against Afghanistan started on 7 October 2001. As expected, one of the first targets was the Taliban’s radio station, the Voice of Shari’a. Within the first hour, journalists in Afghanistan reported that the station had gone off the air.
During the war on terror in Afghanistan, Afghans were mainly relying on international Radio Broadcasts. As a journalist describes it ‘Afghanistan is still steeped in a radio culture as the majority of the population, particularly in the remote rural regions, depends on radio for news and information. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and many other international stations broadcasting in Afghan languages provided the only reliable sources of news and information during the country’s 25 year conflict.’ During the war on terror these radios dramatically expanded their programming, providing quality broadcasts around the clock.
After the fall of the Taliban, the number of publication is increasing day by day. Most of the newly established publications are independent and run neutral stories, contrary to the past. ‘Today, close to 300 publications are registered with the ministry of culture. With a large chunk operating from Kabul, most Afghan cities and towns have their own modest publications often in the form of magazines. Catering to a wide variety of tastes, these publications include dailies, weeklies, bi-weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies.’
Apart from the efforts of private firms, the new Afghan government has not made enough efforts to improve the situation of media. Four new private television channels have been established and have attracted a big number of viewers. The state run television and radio is on decay, although the international community and donor agencies helped the Afghan Ministry of Information with big grants to rehabilitate radio and television but no significant improvement in the quality of broadcasting or substance of materials being broadcasted has happened.
Because only a small number of people have access to print media and TV, radio is the only source of external information. With 96 percent of the households in Afghanistan having no access to electricity, people have to rely on battery driven sets. Nonetheless radio has its place in the daily routines even in remote areas. There are 47 radio stations broadcasting on AM and FM bands from and within Afghanistan. An overwhelming majority of the people of Afghanistan listen to international radios and watches the newly established private television channels. The slow pace of progress of the state run T.V. and radio has badly damaging the influence of the Afghan government and the reach of its message to the rural areas and to the public and that causes that ‘the new regime will be unable to solidify its position in the country if the people perceive it to be an impotent bystander in the reconstruction effort. A peace dividend must be provided to gain the confidence of the populace.’ The United States Institute for Peace in its 2002 report about the media in Afghanistan states that:
‘The efforts of the United States and the West to get their message to the general Afghani people during the fight against the Taliban were largely ineffective. Around 90 percent of Afghans using the BBC and VOA as their primary news source, so U.S. communication efforts were a tremendous missed opportunity to reach out to average Afghans. A more effective communications strategy by the West could have been used to mobilize more popular resistance to the Taliban during the campaign’
Proposals for improving media in post-war Afghanistan
In order to build a free and independent media in Afghanistan, the Afghan government and international donor community should coordinate and cooperate with each other. The new constitution of Afghanistan, which was approved in 2003, and the Afghan governments’ stated commitment to both the freedom of the press and of expression, are great hopes for improving and building an independent media in Afghanistan. However, to facilitate the growth of a healthy, free and independent press in Afghanistan there are several areas where the Afghan government and the West must concentrate their efforts.
- Since most Afghan journalists come from a background of working in state-run media, the concept of independent media was foreign to many Afghani journalists. Finding Afghans willing to set up and run independent newspapers and radio stations was proving to be very challenging. Professional training facilities for Afghan journalists should be provided.
- Due attention should be give to equal progress and development of media in the capital and in the rural areas, since ‘one of the striking features of the press in developing countries is the tremendous disparity between newspapers in the urban and the rural areas.’
- Efforts should be made to take media out of the control of local warlords. By discussing the current struggle for control of radio and TV both local warlords and ethnic political factions, the United States must assist President Karzai’s government in taking media establishments out of the hands of these ethnic factions. Citing the example of how local warlords were using local radio facilities and other press as personal propaganda tools the danger of a fractionalized press dominated by local warlords and ethnic political factions. It is very important for the press to be able to freely and accurately report the work of the interim government in Afghanistan and the importance of facilitating a healthy debate and discussion on political and social issues within a common framework among all Afghans.
- Increase investment in modern media infrastructure. One of the most daunting challenges facing the establishment of a vibrant press in Afghanistan is the lack of infrastructure and resources. This is largely due to the fact that much of infrastructure built during the Soviet era has been decimated by years of civil war and the repressive policies of the Taliban.
Keeping in mind the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and the fact that media has an important role in the establishment of a vibrant free and independent press which will have an active role in battling tribalism and strengthening national unity and that all democratization efforts from elections to reconstruction need the media to succeed.
Therefore, a lot of attention should be paid to the post-war media re-establishment in Afghanistan. It will not only help Afghans become aware of the facts and realities, it will increase the confidence of public on the government and will strongly decrease the influence of the negative propaganda of the Taliban and other armed groups, and finally Free and independent media could help to check that whether future Afghan governments spend the billions of dollars expected in foreign aid in a responsible and transparent way.
Bibliography:. Ahmad Rashid, Afghanistan Prospects for Free and Independent Media, US Institute of Peace: http://www.usip.org/events/2002/es20021004.html . Ali A. Jalali, ‘Afghanistan: The Anatomy of an Ongoing Conflict’ in Parameter, US Army War College quarterly –” Spring 2001, vol. 9: 23 . Barakat Sultan and Chard Margaret, ‘Theories, rhetoric and practice: recovering the capacities of war-torn societies’ in Sultan Barakat (Ed) Reconstructing War Torn Societies Afghanistan, (Hampshire, Pal grave Macmillan, 2004) . Gowing Nick, ‘Journalists and War’ in Daya Krishna Thusu and Des Freedman (Eds) War and the Media, (London, Sage Publications, 2003 . Lloyd E. Sommerlad, The Press in Developing Countries, (Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1966) . Mark Sedra, ‘Afghanistan Between war and Reconstruction’ in Foreign Policy in Focus, March 2003: http://www.fpif.org/papers/03afghan/index.html
. News line, 1 January 2005,