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IWPR, August 18, 2007

Afghan Media Wars

Ethnic and regional rivalries are rife in Afghanistan's fledgling press, threatening the country's fragile unity.

By Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul

At least on the surface, media is one of the more successful areas of development in Afghanistan.

According to figures from the Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs, more than 500 print publications have opened since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, as well as 70 radio and 18 television stations, both government-owned and private.

But a closer look reveals a pattern of ethnic, linguistic and regional rivalries that are threatening all the gains the press has made. Some observers believe the squabbling has reached such a pitch that the country's very unity is at stake.

Omid Yakmanish... was attacked and threatened with death. It began when he filmed a parliamentary brawl and an attempted attack on a female MP last month.

First he was confronted and slapped by an MP who had once been a senior Taliban official. A day later came the death threat. "Slaughtering a sheep is difficult for me, but killing you would be easy," the MP told him.
Globe and Mail, June 13, 2006

Much of the media is seen as highly biased, or at least weighted towards one side or another of the political and ethnic divide.

Tolo TV, the popular station launched in 2004 by the Mohseni brothers, Afghan-Australians who have built a media empire in the country, is commonly perceived to be anti-Pashtun.

Shamshad, a new TV station, is by contrast all Pashtun, while Aina TV is backed by the Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum and is seen as defending his interests.

Newspapers are similarly engaged - Kabul Weekly, an attractive full-colour publication in English and Dari, is regarded as representing the Panjshiris, while Arman-e-Milli is seen as the mouthpiece of Jamiat-e-Islami, the political party associated with the Northern Alliance.

There are almost no publications that are held up as fair and balanced by all sides.

Fahim Dashty, the editor of Kabul Weekly [RAWA: this weekly belongs to Jamait-e-Islami], is worried that the widening gaps between various media organisations will damage the authority of the press in the eyes of the public.

"I really don't think we can speak of an independent media," he told IWPR. "Most of the media are funded by the government, by foreign associations or by private individuals. So journalists are divided into groups, and the funders have very specific demands. For those who want to fan the flames of ethnic disunity, this is very good."

Journalists cannot even agree on professional associations, he added. "Look at Kabul's butchers. They have one professional association. Journalists have six," he said.

But Dashty remains upbeat despite all the problems. "The media have grown a lot over the past five years," he said. "If things continue, our media will be very strong in the region."

Political analyst Habibullah Rafi traces Afghanistan's ethnic divisions back centuries. The seeds of discord were sown by the British in the 19th century, he said, cultivated by the Russians in the 20th, and are now being brought to fruition by the Iranians.

"After the communist coup d'etat of 1978, when people sought refuge in Iran, the Iranians taught them bad things about the history, ethnic situation and languages of Afghanistan. They have trained them to be anti-Afghan," said Rafi.

Now that the diaspora is returning, he complained, these sentiments are finding their way into the mainstream, "Afghans trained in Iran are now the heads of media organisations. They preach against national unity and sometimes use curse words against the ethnic groups and languages of Afghanistan. And they call that a free press."

Marie Nabard, the editor of Seerat, a women's newspaper, is worried about the wider damage that divisions in the media might do.

Reports of official intimidation and harassment of reporters have risen over the last year. Journalists say that local authorities and political bosses, unaccustomed to public scrutiny and criticism, are lashing out and even resorting to thuggery to protest or prevent unflattering coverage.
Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2007

"We should not take this problem lightly," she said. The media is drowning in baseless discrimination and conflict. It is the enemies of Afghanistan who win in this situation. People tell me that if the country heads for disaster, journalists will be to blame. History will judge us harshly."

Najibullah Manalai, general advisor to the Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs, disagrees with such negative views of the media.

"The level of bias is very low in the media," he said. "Those who are fanning the flames of ethnic discord are quite a small minority, and while there are some sick and fascistic media, they are no real danger to society."

Manalai agrees that the Russians bear some of the blame for ethnic problems in the country.

"When the Russians conquered Central Asia, they divided its countries along ethnic lines. They did this in Afghanistan as well, and the division spread even into the trenches of the jihad. But it is not the job of the government to deal with this - we leave that to journalists and intellectuals."

Sayed Aka Hossein Fazel Sancharaki, the head of the National Association of Afghan Journalists and a former deputy minister of information and culture, cites the low level of education and literacy in the country as an added factor.

"People have not reached cultural maturity in this society," he said. "They have not yet learned to place human, national, and supra-national values above ethnicity, language and regionalism."

Politicians, he added, have become adept at using ethnicity as a weapon. "We can see this particularly among the jihadi leaders. It was especially apparent during the presidential and parliamentary elections," said Sancharaki.

Within the government, he added, hiring and firing were based largely on ethnic considerations.

A recent very public dispute between the Ministry of Culture nd Youth Affairs and Radio and Television Afghanistan, RTA, which resulted in the resignation of RTA head Najib Roshan, is a case in point.

Karim Khoram, the minister, is Pashtun; Roshan is Tajik. Each had his own staff members in the media organisation. When Khoram insisted on installing Abdul Ghani Modaqeq as deputy head of RTA, Roshan stormed out, accusing Khoram of pursuing "an ethnic game".

According to Sancharaki, "If the government does not find a way out of this, this fighting in the media will not only destroy the media and freedom of speech, it will throw the whole country into the abyss."

A journalist from a prominent media organisation in Kabul, who did not want to give his name, confirmed that ethnic backbiting was rife in the media.

"The place where I work is dominated almost entirely by one ethnic group. Only myself and three others are from a different ethnicity," he said. "I hear my ethnicity and national heroes being insulted every day. But I have to close my ears. If I say anything I will be kicked out, and I have to make a living for my family."

A newspaper editor who did not want to be named insisted things were gradually getting better.

"Once we stop fighting with guns and start fighting with our pens, this is a good development," he said, adding that just as the time for guns has passed, the phase of media warfare will also come to an end.

"Afghanistan's media is still immature. We should be patient and wait for it to grow up."

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