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Sept. 27, 2021, 10:13 a.m.
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A new report published by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy says that Afghanistan’s vibrant news media landscape is one of the country’s biggest achievements in the last two decades, making the threats against it under the Taliban’s rule all the more dire and the need for financial support more necessary.

The report, titled “The Pen vs the AK-47: the Future of Afghan Media Under the Taliban,” was written by Samiullah Mahdi, an Afghan journalist and a spring 2021 Shorenstein Fellow. Mahdi’s work examines the challenges that the Afghan media faces and the strategies the industry can implement to survive and thrive in this new political climate.

“I think when we say media is one of our most important achievements,” Mahdi explained during a virtual discussion last week, “We see our former president Ashraf Ghani fled, our national army collapsed, our national police collapsed, our security and intelligence [agencies] collapsed, our government collapsed, our parliament collapsed, but the only thing which remained was media. Media is still standing tall, even after being tortured by the Taliban.”

Afghanistan’s press is made up of more than 70 TV news channels, hundreds of local newspapers and magazines, and over 170 FM radio stations, the report says. They publish or broadcast in the country’s two main languages, Farsi and Pashto, among others. The news media has a 67% approval rating in the country, making it the second most trusted institution after religious leaders.

In the report, Mahdi divides the industry into six sectors:

  • Independent media, such as privately owned TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and online outlets
  • International media outlets based in Afghanistan, like Radio Free Europe, Radio BBC Dari and Pashto, Voice of America, and Al-Jazeera English
  • “Strongmen” media, which Mahdi described as news outlets founded to serve different ethnic groups that fought against the Taliban and launched after it fell
  • State-owned media, which includes radio stations, TV channels, and newspapers that typically have small audiences and aren’t very popular
  • Citizen journalists, who often break stories about security incidents well before traditional media outlets, given their prominence online. About 22% of Afghanistan’s population has access to internet (8.64 million) and 4.4 million are active social media users.
  • Taliban media, a lot of which is propaganda to justify its settlement, that often “consider the media, civil society and NGOs part of the hated ‘cultural invasion’ by foreigners, and have filled their supporters with a steadily-growing animosity toward all non-Taliban journalists and media workers—with predictable consequences.”

Mahdi said Afghanistan’s media landscape is one of the most successful in the region largely due to international financial support in the last 20 years. The United States alone has contributed $150 million to media development since 2001, and news outlets have counted on grants and support for individual projects from the United States, U.S. allies, and western NGOs.

It’s uncertain to what degree the landscape will change with the recent takeover by the Taliban, especially since its history with the media is “colored with blood,” Mahdi said. The Taliban views the press as its enemy, Mahdi said, and more than 65 journalists have been killed in the country since 2001, with at least a dozen murdered since November 2020. As the Taliban continues to strip women of their rights in the country, being a woman journalist is particularly dangerous.

The number one challenge, then, is safety and security for journalists, and fear for this safety — combined with a diminished flow of information — has meant less reporting on the Taliban and the overall happenings in the country.

“Since the Taliban took over Kabul, we see that media is not critically reporting on the Taliban,” Mahdi said. “For example, if an explosion happens, in the past, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health would give out numbers and data about those who were killed or wounded. Now, the Taliban does not give out numbers. They do not give out information. But at the same time, because we have many experienced and skilled reporters on the ground, they know how to find their way to get access to information.”

The other challenge is financial. The foreign investment that Afghan media has traditionally relied on has been cut back since the United States initially announced its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2012, and has been further cut in the last year. In the case of one daily newspaper, Etelaate Roz, “only 20% of their revenue now comes from advertisers and readers in their print edition and related social media platforms,” meaning that the remaining 80% of revenue came from project grants through foreign funders.

The remaining challenges are legal and political. The Taliban can now impose harsher limits on what types of content are permissible and that means less factual information for consumers.

In the report, Mahdi writes:

Most media executives I spoke to already anticipate that tough new limits will be placed on entertainment programing—and say they are ready to compromise at least on this. For instance, Shafiq Gawhari [the country director of Afghanistan’s largest media company Moby Group] told me that “if stopping The Afghan Star”—the Afghan version of “American Idol”— “will help to bring peace and stop the bleeding, we are ready to do that.” But, he continued, “while we don’t have redlines on entertainment shows—and we could make concessions there—we cannot make concessions on the news. If necessary, we may even consider stopping [TV news channel] Tolonews or stop broadcasting any kind of news at all on our channels, because it is better to be silent than lying.”

As more and more Afghan journalists are leaving the country and seeking refuge, Mahdi said he knows many of his colleagues see an opportunity to launch and invest in new digital media platforms and startup outlets to continue coverage of Afghanistan and the growing Afghan diaspora. International aid organizations should consider funding these outlets, he said.

The report emphasizes that it’s important to preserve and continue to grow Afghanistan’s media ecosystem because it would be better for the country as a whole. Preserving a free press would ensure “people’s continued involvement in the peace process, give voice to victims of war, represent the values of the new generation, and ensure sustainability of a peace settlement.”

Here’s what international allies can do to help with the preservation of Afghan media, according to the report:

  1. Halting assassinations, intimidations, and criminalizing of journalists, media workers, and civil society activists;
  2. Making sure that freedom of the press is explicitly addressed in the peace agreement between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban;
  3. Continuing international financial support for independent media;
  4. Assuring the independence of the press based on the current Mass Media and Access to Information laws;
  5. Ensuring the presence of women in news, current affairs, and educational and entertainment programming;
  6. Guaranteeing that any claims against media of libel, slander, distortion of facts, or so-called “fake news” will be dealt with based on the current Mass Media law;
  7. Ensuring internet and social media are not censored by government.

And what international NGOs can do:

  1. Maintain their presence and support for Afghan media;
  2. Carefully and frequently report on the situation in Afghanistan to their respective home countries. press, and governments–and advocate for the support of Afghan media freedom;
  3. Stand ready to extend support to Afghan media if the domestic space for a free press is curtailed and they have to operate from abroad.

Find the full report here.

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