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Media developments in Afghanistan
Particularly online and social media in Afghanistan
By: Ms. Masuma Ibrahimi
Citizen Journalist and Blog Writer

The first newspaper, Siraj-ul-Akhbar (Lamp of the News), was initially published on January 11, 1906 with Abd al-Rauf as the editor. After this first and only issue in Dari (Persian), its publication was stopped. In 1919, under King Amanullah Khan, Aman-i-Afghan (Afghan Peace) replaced Siraj al-Akhbar, serving as governmental body, while several smaller private journals appeared under different ministries. Radio Kabul began broadcasting in 1925 which inaugurated a new era of mass media in the country. The 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan and the Press Law of 1965 provided freedom for the press with conditions and boundaries of appropriate behavior. The press was editorially independent from government but was instructed to safeguard the interests of the state and constitutional monarchy, Islam, and public order. Afghan journalism progressed and developed from 1950’s through 1970’s, though it remained limited.
When King Zahir Shah's government was overthrown in 1973 coup by his cousin Daoud Khan, approximately 19 newspapers were shut down and media came under severe restrictions and was and end to a period of relative freedom. The first color television broadcasting appeared in 1978. The media fell into the control of Soviet influences during the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) from 1979 to 1992.
After the ouster of the Taliban from power in November 2001, the media scene in Afghanistan exploded. Under the Taliban, only one government radio station was allowed to operate, and there were no independent media. Ten years later, Afghan media scene is a lively place with more than 175 FM radio stations, 75 TV channels, four news agencies, and hundreds of publications including at least seven daily newspapers. Afghanistan’s main cities are close to media saturation; in Kabul 30 TV channels and 42 radio stations, and in smaller cities 10 to 25 TV channels and approximately 20 radio stations are running. Even the provincial capitals have local TV and radio stations. Foreign broadcasters such as VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, BBC, Deutsche Welle, and others augment indigenous media. Most of Afghans live in villages which don’t have access to newspapers, TV’s and radios.
Most of the Medias are not independent and sustainable. Large number of media in Afghanistan established using international resources and support and naturally sometimes they influenced reports and news. Estimates of the number, type, and frequency of print publications vary substantially. Roughly 800 publications are registered with the government, though only about 300 of them including seven daily newspapers are publishing. Meanwhile, few of them are commercially successful or can last very long.
There are different challenges that media is facing. Reportes sans frontiere, reporters without Borders, ranked Afghanistan 147 out of 178 countries in terms of press freedom in 2010. However, Afghanistan has more press freedom compared to six neighboring nations including Pakistan. But the 2010 ranking was lower than comparing to those of previous years. Afghanistan also is recognized as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. This contrast is driven from the fact that official laws protect freedom of speech but there are other forms of restrictions in Afghan society system which is more powerful than laws. So, these restrictions limit and threat freedom of speech in the country. The government, religious leaders, warlords are the major causes of threats to journalists in Afghanistan.
Since 2001, 22 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan though overall violence against journalists seems to be diminishing. A study released in 2011 reported that there were 67 “incidents of violence” against journalists including beatings, arrests, injuries, and deaths in 2009 while the number was 26 in 2010. Threats come not only from the insurgency, warlords, and criminals but also from government security forces.
Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution guarantees press freedom with some limitations such as any content that is contrary to the state religion of Islam is prohibited. Four media laws have been passed since 2002 and a committee which includes some journalists was working on a new media law. The latest version was published recently but it bares so many criticisms. Journalists believe that this law will limit freedom of media in Afghanistan; changes are not too many and significant and not proper support is provided for journalists. There are many cases in which laws are not clear. So, in areas where the rule of law is mostly undeveloped, any journalist doing a story that challenges any powerful figure or any other vested interest is potentially at risk.
Another challenge for media is sustainability. While most of media in Afghanistan run based on donations and resources provided by political parties, foreign nations and the government they cannot claim independency and ensure sustainability. The Western effort to create independent media in Afghanistan is not without its critics. Some Afghan media managers and NGO media developers lament the lack of a long-term media development plan and the sporadic annual funding by donors. Others complain that the money and support pumped into fledgling media has created unreasonable expectations of commercial viability.
Thus the new, vibrant, and expanding Afghan media faces significant risks. One is the business risk that many radios, TV’s, and print operations will not be able to exist if direct and indirect donor support dries up. The second is the national government’s continuing restrictions on the free press. The third one is the physical danger journalists face everyday. And the final criticism is that once U.S. forces draw out, the Taliban may gain considerable power and may eliminate or severely restrict press operations.
Besides all, most of Journalists who work in Afghan media do not have any journalism education background. Most of them learned through experience or participated in short courses which some organization offer. Other small group of journalists who graduated from universities also has their own problems because public and private universities that offer journalism are not standard and their curriculum is very old and needs renewal. In 2011 a standardized institution of media was founded with the help of Internews (an international NGO that works in the filed of media worldwide). It is believed to be a good start to turn Afghanistan’s professional journalism into an internationally standard one. Nai Media Institute (NMI) is a vocational institute recognized by Afghanistan media industry as a provider of high quality, professional, and standard media and journalism studies. Since media in Afghanistan has grown rapidly it needs more standard educational programs in journalism to support them. The present education system it is not enough quality and quantity wise the need for standard media schools is felt more than ever.
Besides traditional media, new media such as online and social media started to have an important role in Afghanistan’s media. It can be claimed that the speed of growth for social and online media is more than other mediums. Not more than 4 percent of Afghanistan populations have access to internet but Internet cafes can be found in major cities. 61 percent of Afghans have cell phones which some use to listen to radio. Cell phone use has expanded rapidly also. The Ministry of Telecommunication and Information Technology says that there are more than 3900 communication towers in the country and more than 14 million Afghans, or about half of the nation’s 29 million people, use cell phones. According to one survey, more than half of the subscribers use their cell phones to listen to the radio and 10 percent use them to get news and information.
The population with access to the Internet, however, is tiny and is mainly located in urban areas but it is growing. One study reported 20,000 Afghan bloggers in 2008 and it is increasing rapidly. Online media is the creative convergence of digital arts, science, technology and business for human expression, communication, social interaction and education and it is quite new. Despite of other mediums of media, online media in Afghanistan did not improve and remained in its primitive format of an offline website. Newspapers, Radios, TV’s usually have websites that just work as weak reflection of their reports and programs. The most important innovation in online media is the passing from one signal way to two ways between media and Audiences. This part of online media in Afghanistan is not recognized. Lake of technology knowledge and lake of access to internet are the two major problems that prevented online media improvement in Afghanistan. Most of online media in Afghanistan just copy and paste the news that brought to the newspapers. Only in social media some effort is being seen to show facilities of multimedia.
Another format of online media which received well recognition in Afghanistan is blog writing. Blog writing is a known way for individuals to have their own media and audiences. Today, thousands of Afghans have their own blogs and they cover a variety of subjects from politics to sports and ordinary life issues. They use text, photos, audio and video files to communicate more effectively. In absence of local blog service providers which could support local languages, developing a blog for an Afghan is more difficult compared to the people around the world. Afghan blog writers present another picture of Afghanistan that is quite different from the picture that official media offers. The blogs publish more than just war, crime, and suicide bombing. They write about daily life, arts, social activities and support local interests and ideas.
The most famous format of communication in online world like other part of the world is social networks. Among all social networks Facebook is the most popular among Afghans. Even governmental organizations and companies start to communicate with people through social media and specially Facebook. Social and online media upon arrival gave every person a voice to express themselves. For the first time people are not just audiences but can report on their favorite subjects freely. The best example of this happened in April, 15 2009 when hundreds of angry Afghan women gathered outside of a mosque in Kabul run by a hardline Shia cleric to protest against a law that human rights organizations claim that legalizes marital rape. About 200 women chanted slogans and carried banners outside the imposing Khatam-Al Nabiin mosque and seminary run by Mohammad Asif Mohseni, the cleric who has strongly promoted a law that also bans women from leaving their homes without the permission of their husbands.
How this group of women coordinated and organized such gathering? Women with variety of educational and occupational backgrounds, housewife or parliament member, gathered all together to protest against such law. Neither political parties nor civil society organizations organized the demonstration. A group of Shia women started to write through email, text messaging, and phone calls to their friends that if you do not rise against this law it will happen to other ethnicities and sects as well. A large number of women from other ethnicities and Islamic sects joined them. Before this protest neither national nor international media covered the story. They convinced that Afghan women do not have any problem with such law but after this protest, “Shia family law” was the headline of the news all over the world.
The law, which only affects Afghanistan's Shia minority, had been quietly passed by President Hamid Karzai, prompted international fury when the Guardian revealed details of legislation that the US president, Barack Obama, described as "abhorrent". Guardians wrote: today's demonstration shows at least some Afghan women are as angered by the law as leading international critics, which also included Gordon Brown, Hillary Clinton and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary general. Eventually, as a result of this protest, President Karzai was forced to send the law back to Parliament for revision.
The “39 campaign” that happened recently in Facebook is another good example of social changes that young generation want to see. A traditional view in Afghanistan says 39 is a bad number. Ordinary people do not use phones, cars, houses that have the number 39 in them. It starts when media report that in traditional Jirga in Kabul, members of Jirga refused to be a member of the 39 committee and the board forced to omit the 39 committee. Also some media reported that there is thousands of car plates which contain the number 39 and people refuse to receive them. Some Facebook users wrote that 39 is just a number and this kind of tradition should not be accepted and respected by official member of government and also people. One of them changed his profile picture with a photo showing the number 39 in the middle. Most of young Afghan Facebook users also changed their profile photos to the same picture. Shortly, many famous figures including politicians, one parliament member joined this campaign.
In some cases the media and the reporters use social media like twitter as a medium and resource. For example, in April 15, 2012 when rockets fired at parliament building and embassies in apparently co-ordinated assault on government and diplomatic areas, the government asked people to remain in their places. People did not know what is going on in the city. They started to twit, post on Facebook and texted each others. People who had access to internet and cell phones were aware of the incident a lot sooner than the official media in the country.
But all of this is quite new and there exist problems that prevent online and social media to be more effective in Afghanistan. The major problem that media is facing in Afghanistan is illiteracy. Literacy is one of the important factors in online and social media development in Afghanistan. Every year the number of people who have access to education is increasing and the literacy rate is growing rapidly in Afghanistan. But nonetheless, in order to be able to use online media, some basic knowledge of technology is essential.
Another challenge that the media is facing in Afghanistan is limited access to internet and electricity among people. Afghanistan is in the bottom 10 percent of the world in electricity consumption per capita and as mentioned only 4 percent of Afghan people have access to internet. It’s because a large number of population in Afghanistan live in villages in which access to internet as well as electricity is pretty low.
In Conclusion, with all challenges and problems in media and online media in Afghanistan, media regardless of mediums is getting more accessible, popular and reliable every day. People, especially the young generation, by participating in social networks and staying online are playing an important role in development of their society. Professional media in Afghanistan needs to be supported. Freedom of speech and security needs to become less and less fragile. It seems that similar to other parts of the world, Afghanistan can have a shortcut for reaching the free speech: “Social media and online media”. Meanwhile, the foundation of this kind of media needs to be empowered. Education, electricity, and access to internet are essential parts of social media and online media anywhere in the world.

References:

1.      An Explosion of News: The State of Media in Afghanistan, A Report to the Center for International Media Assistance by Peter Cary, February 23, 2012
  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/15/afghan-women-protest
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2012/apr/15/kabul-attacks-live-updates
  3. http://www.nmi.edu.af/
  4. Afghanistan Media Survey -Report Prepared for BBC Trust





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