While Afghanistan may remain a troubled land as the US-led intervention force prepares for military withdrawal in 2014, the rise of its media industry has been a success story acknowledged at home and abroad.
Before 2001, the media landscape was bleak, with the population depending on international broadcasters for national news. But the Afghan government has issued media licences almost on demand and, as a result, by September 2010 there were more than 75 terrestrial TV and 175 FM stations. Despite the inherent risks, journalism is now a popular and respected profession.
Today, Afghans are showing an appetite for programming unimaginable under Taliban rule. As well as news and public interest shows, Western-style talent competitions and Indian soap operas have appeared and women’s radio stations accross the country focusing on health, education and social issues including forced marriage.
But all this content is almost completely dependent on international donors. Hundreds of millions of dollars of donor money has been lavished on the development of this large and vibrant sector leaving it open to accusations of market distortion amid claims that donor countries are advancing their own agenda.
The licensing regime, which has opened up public space for debate and greatly enriched cultural and political life, has also allowed politicians and religious leaders to establish their own channels. The so-called warlord channels, some backed by Iran, have been accused of provoking violent outbreaks and exacerbating ethnic divisions in Afghan politics. Official efforts to regulate the broadcasting of dangerous rhetoric and vicious, unfounded character assassinations have been limited.
The Taliban, notorious when in power for outlawing music, film and television, are now more media savvy. They control a regularly updated website that makes use of video footage of bombed convoys and assassinated commanders to generate support for their cause. ‘The speed at which these clips appear is extraordinary,’ said one Afghan journalist, who has been travelling widely in the north of the country. ‘All young people have at least one [of these videos] on their mobile phones.’
Partisan media outlets have become proficient at disguising their true identity and pose as ‘independent’ voices.
While Afghans have embraced commercial media, the sector’s annual advertising market is said to be little more than $20 million. There is fear that when donor support ebbs away – as it is certain to do when withdrawal is complete and international attention turns elsewhere – much of the media will wither and what remains fall prey to factional, religious or extreme forces.
Private, semi-commercial channels continue to command the largest audiences, but the partisan media is gaining ground. Their small penetration – no more than 2 per cent of the national audience – has, nonetheless, provided an opportunity to employ religion and populist sectarian rhetoric to win and manipulate audiences. As established sources of funding dry up, non-partisan channels may be more likely to lose their independence to domestic power brokers.
Unless this trend is checked by establishing a mechanism for sustained funding and oversight by a stronger regulatory system, partisan media could come to dominate the future, destroying the arenas for national dialogue and freedom of expression that opened up from 2002. With its infrastructure and state funding, Radio Television Afghanistan currently serves as a mouth-piece of the government in Kabul, but still maintains a surprising level of public support. Even if it proves difficult to transform it into a full-fledged independent public service broadcaster, as envisaged by the Media Law passed in 2009, it might still be possible for it to become a public corporation with enough autonomy to become an effective institution.
The big challenge remains to ensure that future generations of Afghans have access to reliable and non-partisan media. As the process of ‘transition’ to full Afghan security control gains momentum, the independent media seem caught between ideologically motivated domestic and neighbouring influences, and distracted and war-weary international donors. If it is to survive, Afghans and their international partners must not give up the struggle to preserve the media’s independence.