When Pari Akbar started her blog, Millaad, to address women’s issues in Afghanistan, she had no idea it would lose her her job. But as the young Afghan blogger slowly built an audience for topics ranging from the fundamental (voting rights for women) to the academic (the linguistic repression of women through semantic structures in Dari) she began to draw the ire of her co-workers at her government job in Kabul. Though they had no formal authority to do so, many of them told her to stop blogging. When she wouldn’t, the physical threats began. Soon, Akbar didn’t feel safe at work anymore -- but she didn’t want to stop publishing. She left her secure government job and kept on writing.
Akbar was one of about a dozen bloggers we met on a recent tour of Afghanistan, sponsored by the Department of Defense, to examine the content landscape in the region and look for ways to develop and promote more local media in the country. Her story is emblematic of the country’s efforts to develop a media sector since the Taliban left power. A new class of journalists and media entrepreneurs are flooding the market, working to hold the Afghan government accountable and build Afghanistan’s Fourth Estate -- but formal and informal challenges remain.
While the Taliban is no longer hanging TVs from trees in an attempt to intimidate people from consuming media, journalistic freedom remains a challenge in Afghanistan. In 2009, the Karzai government passed a media law that forbids any coverage of events that “jeopardizes national security”, a vaguely-worded edict that allows the government to shut down any media coverage they don’t like; which they did, for example, in the wake of protests following the parliamentary elections last fall. Most journalists we met with in Kabul and Herat expressed frustration over the challenges they face in covering the Afghan government; there is simply not a culture of a free press in Afghanistan yet.
There is, however, a tremendous thirst for information. 90% of people listen to the radio every day, and even though only 30% of Afghans have electricity, 60% say they watch television daily (using generators or community viewing locations). The clear media leader on broadcast is ToloTV, a network run by an entrepreneurial Afghan named Saad Mohensi who has strong ties to American media and has built an impressive news network with 60% market share in just 5 years. “We see part of our job as facilitating social change,” says Mohensi. One of his most popular programs is “Afghan Star”, a local version of “American Idol” and has produced great local talent and grown a sizable audience.
The U.S. government has moved to support Afghan media enterprises with funding for programming from the State Department and USAID. In some cases, that means directly funding programs that promote values critical to building a strong Afghan society, such as the ToloTV drama, “Eagle Four”, a knock-off of the “24” that features corruption-fighting cops. In other cases, it means funding media efforts intended to build local news organizations from the ground up. Internews, a global nonprofit focused on media growth, has a 22 million dollar grant from USAID to develop a series of multimedia centers across Afghanistan in 2011, teaching Afghan journalists about the web and how to use it. Internews biggest success has been their radio network, Salam Watandar (“Hello, Countrymen”), which broadcasts from 43 local stations across the country. One of its most popular shows, “Seek and Search”, is essentially a Google call-in show: viewers call in with questions, which the hosts (who have broadband access) type into Google and then deliver the answer over the air.
Salam Watandar, or “Hello, Countrymen!”, a program of the U.S. nonprofit Internews
The greenfield for media development is the web. However, broadband access is both paltry and exorbitantly expensive: estimates put penetration at about 1%, and the cost is $2,000 per megabit, making the web prohibitively expensive for most Afghan families. A new fiber optic backbone is currently under construction that should alleviate that somewhat, so long as the telcos pass along the savings to consumers. Foreign investors are taking notice of the opportunities in the Afghan IT sector, pouring $1.6 billion into the marketplace, more than any other industry in the country.
After decades of war, Afghanistan is a splintered nation and Afghans have come to expect inconsistency. The Internet, and a strong media, has a unique opportunity to bring Afghans together around a shared identity and an understanding of the opportunities they have to engage the world and the global economy.