Mujahid Kakar, head of news and current affairs for Afghanistan’s Moby Media Group, was at the United Nations on Monday to give a speech on World Press Freedom Day. He stopped by CPJ’s office afterward, and we talked for more than an hour about journalism in Afghanistan. Kakar, left, whose oversight includes the influential Tolo TV, made a string of important points concerning lapses in professionalism, the importance of international support, and the challenges that front-line journalists face from all sides. I’ll bullet-point some of them, and then quote Kakar about what he felt was the most important part of his message:
- Amid rapid media growth in Afghanistan—more than 20 private TV channels, 220 radio stations, and 300 newspapers now operate—training and professionalism have not kept pace. Kakar said he wants UNESCO and others in the international community to help Afghan journalists get training outside of the country.
- The Taliban are more media savvy than the Afghan government. “Quite honestly, we have great access to the Taliban spokesman through the Internet because they have a very well updated Web site,” he said, noting that it’s better than the government’s online presence. The Taliban make great use of mobile phones and SMS, he said, and they return reporters’ calls. But Kakar noted that the Taliban see Afghan media as a propaganda tool. Journalists who report stories the Taliban don’t like become the targets of threats and retaliation.
- There are threats from the government, too. But even worse is the poor flow of information from the ministries. The main challenge that journalists face is that the government doesn’t want journalists to have full access to information. Even though every ministry has a spokesperson, they’re seldom available. “We don’t have access to the right person, so we speculate. Then people in the government accuse us, saying that our facts and figures are not accurate. Then we tell them that you did not provide us with the right information, so what do you want us to do?” Kakar said reporters are forced to rely too often on sources who do not want to be identified.
- Kakar has mixed reviews concerning the press policies of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Since U.S. General Stanley McChrystal became head of troops in Afghanistan, the situation in Kabul seems to have gotten better. “They established a good media team and they provide reporters with information. But working in Kabul is easy; the situation in remote areas is very difficult. If a roadside bomb explosion happens in a remote area it is very difficult to get information about who was responsible, how many people killed, how many were civilians, how many NATO troops, Afghan troops.” Camera crews are rarely allowed access to bombing scenes. Verification of facts is very difficult.
Facing obstacles from all sides, what do Afghan journalists need most? In our conversation, Kakar repeated what he said was the core of his message at the United Nations:
Quite honestly, what Afghan journalists need right now is moral support, because we know that we can survive if we have international moral support. Since the fall of the Taliban, media have been growing rapidly in Afghanistan. There are a lot of people who believe that they have a role in providing information, organizing civil society to prevent human rights abuses, women’s rights abuse. Moral support is very essential.
But what I feel we are witnessing in recent times, especially after Obama took office, is that his government has failed to address the support for the promotion of democracy. If you study the Obama strategy, there is no single point about the promotion of the human rights, promotion of the democracy, of media. A lot of Afghans think that the U.S. has taken a few steps back. There is no strong support for media, for democracy. The Bush administration was very clear on the issue of promotion of civil society, human rights, education, the media. But when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the fight was only against America’s enemies and not to promote democracy in Afghanistan, that was quite a disappointment for the Afghan press. That’s the message people feel they are getting from America.
Afghan journalists know that if we don’t have the strong support of international community we can’t survive. Because on one hand there are drug lords, the crooked elements of the government, and the Taliban—they’ll all use tools to pressure the free media so that it can’t survive. Our main pillar of support for free media is the support of the international community, the strong voice of the international community.