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

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Bruce Girard
[email protected] comunica.org
www.comunica.org 

Jo van der Spek
[email protected] radioreedflute.net

www.radioreedflute.net 


Introduction 

The past quarter of a century has been difficult for Afghan society. Invasions, civil wars, drought and famine, repressive governments, oppression of women and the systematic violation of human rights have had significant social and cultural consequences. The country is isolated, its communications infrastructures virtually non-existent, and its education system devastated. 

Afghan media have not been immune. Authoritarianism, censorship, intimidation and exclusion have been the norm. In recent years, the Taliban outlawed television and the Internet and banned music. However, while they took media suppression to new heights, the Taliban were merely building on the foundation of a quarter century of official intolerance. Traditions of independent media in Afghanistan are virtually non-existent. 

In the less than a year since the Taliban were forced out of government, the situation of the media has been constantly changing. Shortly after the interim government passed a law authorizing independent newspapers, they began to appear on the streets of Kabul, many of them started by Afghans with initial investments of no more than a few hundred dollars. 

In a country with 70 per cent illiteracy (85 per cent among women), a largely rural population and devastated transportation, communication and electrical infrastructures, radio has much more potential than print media. Since the fall of the Taliban, the international community has come to the assistance of Radio Afghanistan, providing equipment, technical assistance and training to help rebuild the Kabul-based national broadcaster and to begin the work of transforming it into a modern national public service broadcast network. 

Since February 2002, Afghan law has permitted independent radio stations and the government has invited applications for both commercial and community radio broadcast licences. During a meeting with UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura in January, Afghan President Karzai "not only gave his full support to the establishment of independent media, but also his commitment to the diversification of media outlets, including the development of community radio".[1] At the time of writing, no licensed independent stations have appeared on the country's airwaves, although one independent station is being permitted to broadcast even though it has not yet formalised its licence. 

Many Afghan and international NGOs and development agencies have expressed interest in supporting radio initiatives in Afghanistan. A few of these are already working on the ground, providing training, equipment, facilities and advice. Their interests and (potential) activities can be divided into two broad categories:[2] 

  1. Those that support 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 to a national public service broadcaster;

  2. Those that emphasise radio's potential as a support for reconstruction and development initiatives, with activities such as producing educational programmes and supporting development-oriented radio initiatives. 

To date most of the effort has gone into activities in the first category and activities have been led by organisations with particular interest and expertise in media. Our discussions with a wide range of people involved in development-focused activities, such as health, education, agriculture and rural development, indicate that there is considerable interest in radio as a support for development and grassroots empowerment. 

This study, sponsored by the Communication Assistance Fund (CAF/SCO), a Dutch NGO, examines the potential for community-based radio in Afghanistan, takes some tentative first steps at describing what it might be like, and offers some recommendations for future activities. These recommendations are directed at a variety of actors, including those with activities on the ground (government ministries, NGOs, UN agencies) and those considering undertaking or supporting such activities in the future, whether with funds or expertise. 

Given the broad mandate and brief timeframe of this study, it was not possible to travel to locations where stations might be established. Information on the interests and needs of the primary stakeholders, Afghans living in communities where stations might be established, is based on interviews with secondary sources with knowledge of the communities.

Structure of the report

This report first looks at what community radio is, identifying three over-arching characteristics that all community radio stations have in common: these are community-based, independent, and participatory. A number of examples of how community radio can support initiatives for community development are provided.

The next section provides some selected background to put community radio, and the present study, in context. We first look at the various groupings of actors involved in media development in Afghanistan and their broadly-defined interests. 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. 

This background section also looks at some of the difficulties the country faces, including low levels of skills and education among the population and poor communication and transportation infrastructure, all of which make media and communications projects both more essential and more difficult. Keeping these factors in mind will help with understanding both the present report and the role that community broadcasting might play in the country. 

Following that we look at the developing media landscape, including the legislative and regulatory context that is critical to the development of community broadcasting and has been marked by both positive developments and setbacks over the past year. This section also provides an inventory of existing Afghan media, with a particular focus on radio, showing a picture in which there are many positive initiatives at the national level and in major cities, but little attention paid to community-based media and rural areas. 

The final section analyses the data in the report, focusing on a number of key questions regarding the potential for community radio: Is community radio a viable option for Afghanistan? What would it sound like? How would it fit into the national public-service radio system? What type of governance structure could ensure a station was both responsive to its community and independent? Is it necessary to wait until the legal and regulatory framework is in place? This section also examines more closely some possible next steps for the development of community radio. 

The recommendations compiled at the end of the report are directed at a wide variety of actors, including those with activities on the ground (government ministries, NGOs, UN agencies) and those considering undertaking or supporting such activities in the future, whether with funds or expertise.

The report was authored by Bruce Girard and Jo van der Spek. It is available for download from the Internet at http://comunica.org/afghanistan/cr_afghan.pdf 

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Notes

[1] UNESCO Director-General's address to the International Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media in Afghanistan, September 3, 2002.  
[2] A few organisations, such as the BBC, have activities in both areas.


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