The Pulse

The Evolution of the Media in Afghanistan

The country’s media has experienced some profound changes.

The Evolution of the Media in Afghanistan
Credit: United States Air Force

In the late 19th century, 62 percent of the Hazaras of Afghanistan were massacred, enslaved or sold, or forced to leave their native lands by a man whom the British were calling the Iron Amir, Abdul Rahman. This ruthless leader, willing to trade sovereignty with British India in exchange for domestic power, subjugated the un-ruled and feudalistic ethnics of present-day Afghanistan. His slaughter of the Shia Hazaras is one of the most underreported genocides of modern history.

Kazem Yazdani, an indigenous historian, writes that a survivor reached Ayatollah Shirazi in Najaf, Iraq—the religious center of the Shia sect of Islam. The Ayatolulah wrote to Nasiruddin Shah Qajar, the Shia Iranian king, who had proclaimed himself the guardian of the Shia Muslims. The Iranian king sent a letter to the Afghan Amir through his contacts in the British India. The Amir, however, rejected claims that any massacre of the Hazaras was taking place, writing back that it was merely a rumor created by his enemies. Nothing was done, and little more was heard of it.

Tragic incidents like these are a blemish on the broadcasting industry in Afghanistan, and its record for fair and equal reporting. Without question, social developments have been selectively reported. That said, there have been three revolutionary changes in the Afghan media in recent decades, which together offer hope for the future.

State Control

From the introduction of radio to Afghanistan during the third decade of the twentieth century until 2001, broadcasting was controlled by the state. The kings and their governments determined what people should listen to and what they should not hear. It is true that at various times print media was owned by social activists, intellectuals, and government opponents, but the low literacy rate degraded the salience of print.

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There have been three assaults on this media monopoly. The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets in 1980s prompted Western transnational radio broadcasters to offer programming in the Persian and Pashtu languages, in what was the first attack on the state monopoly on media in Afghanistan. The pro-Soviet government responded by prohibiting people from listening to BBC and Voice of America (VOA). At that time, radio stations owned by the Afghan state were siding with the Soviets, while transnational radio in the West was supporting the mujahedeen factions who were fighting the Russians. Both sides were creating their own narratives of the Afghanistan social transformation for their audiences. But when it came to interethnic disputes, the transnational radios struggled to remain impartial. Afghans would repeatedly complain about Radio Azadi stationed in Prague and VOA Dari stationed in Washington D.C., claiming that besides their poor Persian language skills they did not remain impartial.

In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 came the second assault on the media monopoly with the privatization of the mass media. Western transitional radio broadcasters such as BBC Persian, BBC Pashtu or VOA – despite maintaining large audiences in Afghanistan – are no longer able to leave their listeners with just a single picture of Afghanistan. The private television stations, radio stations and newspapers owned by ethnic leaders, businessmen, private publishing houses and nongovernmental organizations have commercialized the nature of news production. The profit-based approach to media politics has de-politicized the news agencies, which in return helps give voice to hitherto unheard segments of society.

Finally, the most recent – and most powerful – attack on the new monopoly has come from social media and citizen journalism. This last assault has had two constructive effects for the Afghan media tradition: It has allowed for a diversification of voices and it has facilitated communication in situations where ordinary means are not effective. Literate Afghans are active on social media, and so receive news along with different interpretations of it from their friends on Facebook or Twitter. They can the share their own analyses with people in their circles. Afghan social media – although occasionally exacerbating inter-ethnic hate speech – has created an active and vibrant virtual community where different issues are raised, discussed and heard. 

In recent uprisings and protests, activists have used social media to get their message across. In late July, protests in the capital Kabul – demanding justice for the central region of Afghanistan in the country’s energy master plan – saw hundreds of thousands of people mobilized mostly through the use of social media. The activists do not own any influential radio or TV stations; they are simply publishing their statements on their Facebook pages to communicate with the public and declare their plans for their gatherings.

Afghan officials use social media to communicate with the president, mainly because of the lack of proper channels for communication between higher ranking officials and lower ranking employees. The deputy to the Helmand province last year wrote on his Facebook page “Mr. President, it’s not appropriate to raise this issue via social media, but it’s my only means. Helmand is going to fall into the hands of the Taliban, the situation is shaky here. I cannot reach you through proper channels, do not listen to those who deceive you and lie to you. Do something for the province.”

Even soldiers on the ground use Facebook to ask supplies and help while they are fighting the Taliban. Abdur Rahman Rahmani – a member of Afghan Air Force, wrote on his Facebook page on May 18, “thirty five local police are surrounded by the Taliban in the northern province of Baghlan and they are in bad shape; they do not have enough food, water or weapons. Help them; weeping after their deaths will help nothing.”

All of these changes and transformations in the circulation of news in Afghanistan and spread of information technologies have enabled the media to increase the pressure on the government, to an extent that the Afghan state can no longer ignore. Accepting this fact, the Afghan state has commissioned a scheme under the name operational finance which pays influential private news agencies and social media users to tackle counter-narratives against the government in the popular media. Meanwhile, Afghan officials, including the president, the CEO and their deputies, have their own social media accounts, which they update regularly.

Social media in Afghanistan has already changed the tradition of mass communication and it is having a significant impact on Afghan society. This influence will only grow with the increase in the number of social media users and the rising literacy rate. For analysts, social media will help them to track the social transformation in Afghanistan. More important, it will create multiple, diverse narratives of Afghanistan.

Rustam Ali Seerat is a Ph.D. candidate at the International Relations Department of South Asian University, New Delhi.