The Potential for Community Radio in Afghanistan
Report of a fact-finding mission -October 5 to 22, 2002

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Bruce Girard
bgirard @ 

Jo van der Spek
m2m @

Executive Summary

Is community radio a viable option for Afghanistan? What would it sound like? How would it fit into a national public-service radio system? What type of governance structures will ensure stations are both responsive to their communities and independent? Is it necessary to wait until the legal and regulatory framework is in place? 

This study, sponsored by the Communication Assistance Foundation (CAF/SCO), examines the potential for community-based radio in Afghanistan and identifies examples of how community radio can support initiatives for community development. The report and its recommendations are primarily intended as a resource for agencies and organizations considering supporting radio, media or communication activities in the country, whether with funds or expertise. 

Afghanistan has a 70 per cent illiteracy rate (85 percent among women), devastated infrastructures and a largely rural population – according to some estimates, 85 percent of the population lives in 37,000 villages. Barely four percent of households have electricity and even in major cities the telecommunications infrastructure is virtually non-existent. Only Herat has a modern functioning landline telephone network, complete with public call booths. Kabul’s GSM network offers irregular service and its capacity is insufficient for its 12,000 customers. The Internet, banned by the Taliban, is still unavailable, except to UN agencies, NGOs and a few ministries. The demand for education far exceeds the capacity to supply it. 

However, most Afghans do have access to radio receivers and are accustomed to using radio as a source of news, information, education and entertainment. Community radio, understood as radio which is community-based, independent and participatory, offers a low-cost and effective way of contributing to medium and long-term efforts for reconstruction, development, democracy and nation-building. 

The present media landscape is diverse, unregulated and rapidly changing, with a recent boom of media activity. More than one hundred periodicals have been registered, many with international funding. Radio Afghanistan's network is being rebuilt. Television is back in Kabul and in some other towns, although without satisfying a widespread demand for entertainment. There is no complete and accurate inventory of Afghan media (this report provides a partial one). According to Radio Afghanistan, seventeen provincial stations are active, but there is a less clear picture of what is being broadcast on them. Conventional means of network programme distribution are unavailable and programming is primarily local. 

The politics of media support and development in Afghanistan are a microcosm of the larger politics of reconstruction and development in the country. The developing media landscape, including the legislative and regulatory context, is critical to the development of community broadcasting and has been marked by both positive developments and setbacks over the past year. There are a variety of centres of influence in the current reconstruction and development context, including: the Afghan government, UN agencies and development organisations, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), regional political-military powers (often referred to as "warlords"), the US-led Coalition Forces, and emerging Afghan civil society organizations, including independent media. The picture that emerges illustrates the sensitive nature of media in Afghanistan and hints at the complexities of the policy-making process in the current environment. There are many positive initiatives at the national level and in major cities, but little attention is paid to community-based media and rural areas. 

Afghanistan’s new press law, while not without its critics, is generally seen as a positive step, paving the way for private and community broadcasting and an independent press. A subsequent policy statement, proposed, among other things, an Independent Broadcasting Authority to be responsible for granting broadcast licences and the transformation of Radio-Television Afghanistan into an independent public service broadcaster. In September 2002 an International Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media in Afghanistan confirmed and refined the policy statement and established schedules for completion of some of the activities. Full implementation of the policy proposals could take as long as two years, with the interim period marked by an ad hoc phase during which actors with strong military, political or financial backing can have an inordinate amount of influence. The importance of developing and implementing a new policy framework for the central government, including transparent policies for licensing and regulation of broadcasting that specifically recognize and stimulate community-based broadcasting, cannot be understated.

Many Afghan and international NGOs and development agencies have expressed interest in supporting radio initiatives in Afghanistan. To date most efforts have been directed toward supporting the professionalization of the medium, with activities such as training journalists, producing quality independent current affairs programmes for broadcast on existing stations, and supporting efforts to transform Radio-Television Afghanistan into a national public service broadcaster. 

A second grassroots approach focuses on stations based in grassroots civil society formations in smaller communities. In this approach stations would not be staffed with professional journalists or presenters, but with "communicators" from the community. They would adopt programming formats and contents that respond to development objectives and community service requirements as established by community members themselves. The emphasis is on communication as a two-way social process, on democratic ownership and control of local development efforts, and on enabling people to debate and define their own destinies. There is much interest in this approach among development organizations working on the ground. However, in contrast to the level of interest, many organizations have only a vague idea of what community radio is or how it might support them in their work. They are intuitively aware of the potential, but do not really know how to make use of it. 

For the population in general, radio has traditionally been the voice of authority. There is no tradition of radio as a democratic, participatory medium that can be used to satisfy the needs of local communities. While community-based radio has a tremendous potential to contribute to Afghanistan’s development, there is a need to create awareness and provide orientation on ways to use community-based media to support development, democracy and social participation among development agencies and Afghan people. A seminar series would help start this process.

The report's main conclusion is that community radio is not only a viable option for Afghanistan, it is also a low-cost and effective way of contributing to medium and long-term efforts for reconstruction, development, democracy and nation-building. Community radio can be the missing link in a three-tiered public-service radio system made up of national, regional and local radio stations. Recommendations deal with awareness of community radio, legal issues, governance, technology, and coordination of activities.

The report was authored by Bruce Girard and Jo van der Spek. It is available for download from the Internet at 

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