The international community, deep in donor fatigue, withdraws media funding. By Bob Dietz

(AFP/Oliver Lang)

Once Thriving, Afghan Media Now Endangered

By Bob Dietz

In post-Taliban Afghanistan, Afghans and international donors both point with pride to the country’s burgeoning news media. Under the austere, techno-phobic Taliban, only one state broadcaster was in operation, with a few underpowered radio stations strewn across the country. Now, estimates from the BBC and others say there are more than 400 media outlets, with newspapers and weeklies in all of the country’s several languages, as well as about 150 radio stations and more than 30 television broadcasters. Though Internet penetration is incredibly low, enhanced third-generation mobile phone service is widely available, especially in the denser population centers. Literate young Afghans are embracing smartphone-based social media platforms to share information about everything from Afghanistan’s chances in international cricket matches to real-time reports from the scenes of terrorist attacks.

Foreign military presence in Afghanistan has reduced as troops are pulling out of the country. (AFP/Oliver Lang)

But 2014 and the completion of the drawdown of NATO troops will be a significant milestone for Afghanistan and its press. International funding launched many of those media and then kept them alive, some for more than a decade. As the foreign military presence is vastly reduced, the international community–deep in donor fatigue and trying to cope with its own economic distress–will also withdraw much of that funding. The World Bank says international aid makes up more than 95 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, but the rate of growth–which has hovered around 9 percent since 2002–is already shrinking. Although global donors meeting in Tokyo in July 2012 pledged $16 billion in continuing aid, media assistance was not at the forefront of their concerns, said Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan representative, who attended the meeting. The financial viability of the country’s media outlets is under threat.

“It is clear there is a direct link between the health of the Afghan economy and Afghan media,” Lotfullah Najafizada, who heads the current affairs department at Tolo TV, a commercial station belonging to Moby Group, told CPJ.

But this is more than a story about the looming failure of a well-intentioned international aid effort. In addition to likely economic collapse, the political landscape will be shaky as the Karzai government hands over–or possibly does not hand over–power after the 2014 presidential elections, which might come earlier than scheduled. The ability of Afghan publishers and broadcasters to survive in even the near term looks increasingly doubtful; many might not be around to cover parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015. Meanwhile, foreign players like Iran and Pakistan–countries with less than ideal commitments to media integrity and independence–are already stepping in to fill the emerging media vacuum.

Several countries have made a point of investing heavily in Afghan media over the years, but the United States has made the largest contribution. “We’re working with the most viable media organizations, trying to help them become self-sustaining,” Masha Hamilton, director of communications and public diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, told CPJ.

Hamilton said the United States supports about 10 media organizations in one fashion or another, but the money, which comes from a wide number of sources, is rapidly disappearing. “The rebirth of Afghan media is a success story,” she said. “But we know the funding that supported that growth is in a drawdown stage. The media in Afghanistan are on a glide path, and they must find a way to become sustainable.”

Sustainability has become the byword for the Afghans running those news organizations as well as the funders who have thrown hundreds of millions of dollars into them over the past decade. A scramble is on to replace the rapidly evaporating international donor support with a viable commercial model relying on advertisers and, where appropriate, subscribers. But in an already shrinking economy, that pool of advertisers, never large to begin with, will not be enough to keep all the media houses alive. I consumed Afghan media for two weeks in Kabul in September 2012, and it was clear that only a handful of banks, mobile phone companies, airlines, and international aid organizations were major sources of ad revenue.

One success story had been the Pajhwok Afghan News network, a well-respected wire service launched in 2004. Danish Karokhel, the agency’s director and editor-in-chief and a CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner in 2008, readily admits that staying alive will be difficult. By the time I visited Pajhwok in September, the agency had fallen on hard times, its staff was hollowed out, many of its reporters across the country unpaid for several months. Shortly before my visit, Pajhwok had received a one-year bridge loan–Karokhel said it was enough to keep the doors open, but not enough to rebuild the outlet–from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The rationale was to keep Pajhwok alive during the campaign period before the presidential elections.

Beyond that, Karokhel is struggling to find a way to keep the news agency going. A plan to invest in an office building to house other media agencies does not sit well with donors–they want to fund a news organization, not a real estate company. Even with discounting, subscriptions to Pajhwok’s wire service haven’t been enough to keep the agency alive, and efforts to start a news photo agency have not panned out. Banner advertising on its website is nonexistent; with Internet penetration low, advertisers do not see the value.

Karokhel is frank about his problems, and says the same issues are faced by almost all the other media: “The cost of living, especially in major cities, continues to rise and places enormous pressure on labor costs. And to make matters worse, the cost of reporting news has skyrocketed. Operational costs like rents, utilities, transportation, and communication have far outstripped most outlets’ abilities to pay,” he told a meeting of donor agencies.

Perhaps the most successful broadcaster in Afghanistan is the Moby Group, which runs several television channels and has branched out to broadcast regionally in Farsi. Moby is concluding an agreement with Rupert Murdoch for a Middle East channel, based in Dubai. Its commercial station in Afghanistan, Tolo TV, has been around since 2004 with stations in 14 cities, and its satellite footprint covers much of central and South Asia.

But even Moby’s Afghan news operations–a 24-hour news channel and two hours of news broadcasts in Dari and Pashto on their own channels–have had to lay off staff. “A large part of our news and current affairs shows are self-sufficient, but the money available from all sources is much less than a few years ago,” said Najafizada of Tolo’s current affairs department. With Moby regionalizing its operations, the company’s senior leadership is spending less time in Kabul, he noted, focusing on its broader, more lucrative operations across the region. Moby’s founders were three brothers who had spent their exile in Australia, and the group remains committed to Afghanistan, Najafizada said. But the company is being realistic in looking outside the country to thrive.

Afghan media are surprisingly complex. The journalists with whom I spoke see a four-tiered system. There are a few truly independent media houses, largely launched by returning Afghans, usually appearing in Dari or Pashto. The government broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan is still struggling to define itself as either a public service broadcaster or as the official voice of the government. Either way, it has not invested heavily in upgrading its broadcast facilities. A few NGO broadcasters and publications see themselves as public service entities, promoting broad human rights issues like universal education or women’s rights. But the vast and growing majority of outlets are politically tied media, with a wide range of backers. The U.S. and other donor nations generally do not hide their role in supporting media outlets, but they are not the only players willing to fund media houses.

Many broadcasters and some radio stations are blatantly partisan in their news presentation. Disparagingly but widely called “Warlord TV,” they reflect the views of the country’s regional political leaders and power brokers, segmented along the lines of the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Many owners are government ministers or other high-ranking officials with deep regional and ethnic power bases. Their commitment is to cementing political influence, not to promoting open journalism.

And, increasingly, foreign players like Iran and Pakistan are gaining a media foothold in the country, with resource-starved outlets openly being recruited in an effort to form public opinion. As Tolo’s Najafizada put it: “You can smell the foreign influence. It is very noticeable. And with the economic vacuum created by donors’ pulling away, others are quickly moving in to fill the space.”

In August, for example, Iran announced a new Afghan-centered news agency, and several TV and radio stations signed up for the service. “If no one knew who was backing those broadcasters before, their relationship to Iran was revealed,” said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of NAI, an Afghan-based media training and support group.

“To a lesser extent, Pakistan is trying the same thing,” Mujeeb said. He estimates that of the 30 or so television broadcasters, four are controlled by Iran. “Iran and Pakistan are emulating the Western tactics of influencing the media–they have both seen how successful that can be.” In September, the government, increasingly resentful of what it sees as Islamabad’s interference in its internal affairs, barred Pakistani newspapers from being imported into the country.

“Add to that the warlords and the Taliban and you will have trouble in the vacuum that will develop as the Western community withdraws support from Afghan media,” Mujeeb said.

Afghan media won’t be able to turn to their impoverished government for help. “The government’s attitude toward media has been mixed and inconsistent,” said human rights activist Ahmad Nader Nadery, now at the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. “Its response seems to be driven more by individuals than by a broad or coherent policy. There has been no systematic attempt to restrict media, but individuals within the government working on their own group’s political agendas have made attempts,” he told CPJ in his office in central Kabul.

Several of those attempts came in 2012, when the government tried to revise the Mass Media Law. Journalists like Najafizada, Tolo’s head of current affairs, worry that the proposed revisions would restrict the ability of media to debate or report on areas such as national security and religion; the rules are vague and the government could hand down punishment for any report or talk show it might not like, using national security as an excuse. Other media watchers wondered why the law needs revising at all when media has thus far thrived. “Why not leave well enough alone?” was an attitude I heard frequently in Kabul.

What has helped Afghan media stand up to pressure from all sides has been their professional identification and solidarity. “They have responded collectively–even while they remain competitors, they have stood firm together. But that unity needs to be strengthened as their revenue pool shrinks,” said human rights activist Nadery. “The danger is that they will start fighting each other for the shrinking resources available to them.”

The problem is not lost on the people heading Afghan media outlets. NAI’s Mujeeb has put forward a practical plan to help independent media stay alive in the coming drawdown. First, start to rationalize the media landscape. Small operations should combine with others of a similar size to form larger, more viable organizations. After that, stabilize the labor pool: Several sources put forward a figure of about 700 journalists without jobs around mid-2012. Independent media owners believe these journalists form a talent pool ripe for recruiting by the new, well-funded foreign employers emerging as players in the media market. Managers said that lowering reporters’ wages by half, from approximately $400 per month, to bring them in line with government workers’ salaries, might keep more journalists employed. Reporters said they were not thrilled with the prospect.

In some ways, journalists’ organizations have been the victims of the same largesse of the international aid community that established so many of the news organizations they work for. As many as six organizations vie for aid to fund a nationwide professional journalist group. With their eyes on the pool of funding rather than the well-being of their profession, Afghan journalists have been unable to come together to form a coherent national representation. But they do self-identify as a professional group. At the local level, particularly in the larger cities, reporters and field crews have been more successful at unifying themselves and taking group action to protest abuse, be it from the government, anti-government forces, international forces, or even their own employers. And local groups demonstrate in support when colleagues in other cities come under attack.

Journalists in Kandahar, where violence is highest, have proven to be notably well organized. “We have been going through such an ordeal,” Taimoor Shah, the New York Times reporter in Kandahar, told CPJ. “We have problems with government, NATO, and the Taliban. Coverage for news outlets is tremendously limited due to the existing dangerous situation. We cannot travel to the outskirts of town for news coverage.”

Shah added, “Everywhere journalists go, they are facing big threats of IEDs [improvised explosive devices], kidnapping, and personal intimidations in their day-to-day lives.”

In one bid for solidarity and continued independence, three news organizations–the Killid Group, Pajhwok Afghan News, Saba TV and the Radio Nawa network, owned by the Saba Media Organization–founded the Afghan Independent Media Consortium in March 2012. At their opening news conference, the group said it was time for Afghan media to take control of their own destiny, and not to allow the public debate to be defined “by the insurgency on one side and the U.S./NATO/Afghan government on the other side,” all filtered through the focus of the Western media. It’s a valid and admirable goal, but the nascent group will be hard-pressed to prevail in the coming economic downturn.

The future looks fraught for Afghan reporters and their traditional news organizations, but there might be some cause for hope. Internet penetration is very low: The International Telecommunications Union put it at 5 percent as of 2011. But, rather than a threat to independent media, Mujeeb sees great potential in social media platforms. Empowering citizen journalism and street journalism through social media–not only on enhanced 3-G platforms but also simple texting on basic cellphones–might be the route to keeping independent media alive. There are some 15 million Afghans with mobile phones and 85 percent of them live within range of a cellphone tower. Just as cellphone technology leapfrogged traditional telephone landlines in many developing countries, smartphone distribution could bypass traditional media, even those reliant on Internet cabling, to ensure a free flow of information. Though the future may not bode well for the mainstream press, emerging technologies may be able to ensure that independently supplied news reaches a wide segment of Afghans, as it has been doing for more than 10 years.

Bob Dietz, coordinator of CPJ’s Asia program, has reported across the continent for news outlets such as CNN and Asiaweek. He has led numerous CPJ missions, including ones to Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

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