The revolution of Afghan media

by Ali Ahmad

© Roska Vrgova

Ali Ahmad is an independent researcher with a Masters degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. His research interests include non-state security actors, peace talks, nonviolent strategies, and peace journalism. He has published extensively in international media and is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Vienna and is specializing in de-radicalization processes adopted in conflict-affected societies.

Reporters Without Border ranked Afghanistan 122 out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index; a strong move upward from last year’s ranking at 128.  This is a positive shift in the status of free speech in the country. After the invasion by U.S.-led coalition forces in 2001 to oust the Taliban regime from power, Afghanistan has faced many challenges. However, one clear beneficiary of the war was the media sector.

© Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee

The development of the media sector in Afghanistan has been one of the most significant success stories for Afghanistan and its international partners in a post-Taliban situation. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government along with the rest of the international community involved in Afghanistan poured hundreds of millions of dollars in the media sector to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Afghan people and rally on-ground as well as to gain international support for the war. There was another reason at work – media could be an effective means of promoting democracy in a country that had been affected by years of violent conflict. Thus it could be an agent of change.
This space has developed from near non-existence to finding expression in hundreds of media outlets in just over a decade. Under the Taliban regime, “Radio Shari’at” was the only radio channel that broadcasted only specific and targeted programs. There was not even a single television channel. Today there are 65 televisions, 174 radio stations and nearly one thousand publications in operation. This increase has also spun off diversity in viewpoints. Besides all this, the rapid rise of social media, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the most commonly accessed modes of communication and have, in short period of time, fostered not only more active communication between families and friends but also public debate at the local, regional and the national level on a range of civic and governance issues including corruption and democratic principles. The social media has become a platform where its users express mass support for the Afghan Security forces even as NATO combat troops ended their mission at the end of 2014. Social media has also broken down social taboos. This puts the media in a very powerful position that can effect social change, despite the fragile political environment in Afghanistan.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right and media is one of the foremost upholders of this right since it encourages and enables public discussion and open dialogue. Even the Afghan Constitution has guaranteed the freedom of expression, noting, “Freedom of expression is inviolable”. By law, the media has the freedom to print and broadcast without any prior censorship, however, in practice, social censorship is practiced when it comes to anything deemed to be anti-Islamic, offensive to other religions or issues such as military information that may endanger national security.  
The U.S. and NATO forces officially ended their combat mission in Afghanistan and handed over domestic security back to the Afghan troops end of last year. Their role now, termed as “Resolute Support”, which began 1 January 2015 and is limited to training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces. Meanwhile, domestically the country is plagued with an ongoing insurgency that challenges many aspects of Afghan life including the media sector. This withdrawal of funding will have a direct as well as an indirect impact on media. As the pullout of U.S. and other members of international community troops began, the financial support offered by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to media also petered off posing serious financial threats to the sustainability of the sector. Besides, a weak domestic economy and the lack of private business sector means low marketing opportunities for the media, particularly the print media and as such financial sustainability will persist.
Medium to long-term challenges include those to freedom of speech in Afghanistan presented by the religious heads, warlords and Taliban. There is no difference in viewpoints of Taliban and government-paid religious leaders when it comes to media. They both share similar concerns, which are centered on ‘immoral’ and ‘un-Islamic’ programs. “Some of the broadcasting of the current media in Afghanistan are far more dangerous than suicide bombings. If suicide bombing kills humans, some of the media take away our people’s faith and beliefs,” said Mir Farooq Hussaini, the spokesman of the Social and Religious Society of Western Herat City in a Friday congregation, Radio Azadi reported. Separately, the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, also said that the current media would incite ethnic conflict and would carry on “cold war for the invading forces”. However, the exact distinction between Islamic and un-Islamic remains arbitrary.

© Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee

Afghan journalists face enormous pressure and are routinely threatened by all parties in the conflict – the insurgents, warlords, the government as well as non-state security actors. The biggest concern to the Afghan media would be the government and non-state security actors because they will try to exert pressure on media personnel to broadcast their agenda. Afghan journalists also, on many occasions, self-censor due to personal security threats and this trend will probably become exacerbated. Additionally, Afghanistan is a dangerous place for journalists to work in. Afghanistan Journalist Safety Committee, a media watchdog, has reported 35 incidents of violence and threats against journalists just in the second half of 2013, of which the Afghan government officials were responsible for 63%, and the armed groups including the Taliban for the remaining.
Afghanistan is on the path to consolidating democratic values and institutions and will continue to do so in the years to come. Free, independent and vibrant media is vital for the democratization in Afghanistan but the sector remains vulnerable to the agendas of different actors including the government officials, non-state security actors, religious networks and the insurgents. The Afghan government and its international partners need to continue supporting the diversity of media if they want Afghanistan to emerge truly victorious from the chaos of the past (19th March 2015).