Montag, 12. Dezember 2011

Afghan Media & Bonn 2: Between Friday prayers and Warlords

As usual for an international conference on Afghanistan, everybody was looking for a success story at the Bonn summit. Not surprisingly more than one of the speeches held emphasized on the 50 TV programmes, 148 radio stations and hundreds of regularly printed outlets for a population largely deemed illiterate. But what really lies behind these figures?

Independent Afghan media tastes like a bitter-sweet spiced hot soup. With good ingredients, but with a temperature making it impossible to swallow instantly what is on the spoon. Cooling down the temperature, and getting the political framework right consequently was one of the points Afghan media makers were concerned about.
„With the increase of the military conflict from 2006 onwards, media is targeted as a tool of war“, the final statement of the Afghan-German journalist seminar says, that Venro, Journalists.Network and myself organized in the run-up of Bonn 2.
Shahir Zahine, president of the Killid Media Group, acknowledged that the story of independent Afghan media in the past ten years was a major success all things considered, but he also noted that „the biggest medium in Afghanistan still is the Friday prayer of the mullahs at the mosques“.
The evident point German journalists in the seminar wanted to understand was of course how their Afghan pairs manage to convey accurate information in the context of the armed conflict. „Taliban sources want to misuse us“, Danish Karokhel, director and editor-in-chief of Pajhwok Afghan News pointed out, „If one person has been killed, they claim it is ten. ISAF sources in contrast are often too slow for our needs. They react only after four or five hours, often trying to intimidate us. And from the Afghan governmental side, only one in five interview requests is answered“. His medium, Pajhwok, is the most influential independent national news agency created after 2001, with a staff of 200 in the 34 provinces and running „to 70 percent with the money of its subscribers“. Four of Pajhwok's reporters were killed in the last ten years. The most recent and prominent case being that of Omid Khpalwak from Uruzgan, who was also working with the BBC from his province. Khpalwak died from a bullet of the international military forces, as ISAF conceided more than fourty days after being forced into an investigation by Afghan an international media.
„Our journalists are under pressure from three to four different sides at the same time“, Karokhel says, „sometimes Taliban claim to be at the origin of an attack as well as rivaling Hezb-i-Islami, while government and NATO try to make us believe a third thing“. Counter-checking with international news agencies and papers has became a daily routine as well with the knowledge that the letter too often do not have the whole picture and a limited use of sources either. „If there is not enough evidence, we don't run the story“, Karokhel argues.
One may add that this is probably the case very often, as major incidents often tend to happen in remote areas far out in the districts or at night, with civilian casualaties and no independent observers present on the location and with a local population often unaware of the few mechanisms that would allow them to get an investigation started.
NATO's withdrawal in 2014 is a thing Afghan indepedent media are worried about. In the case of Pajhwok it risks deleting 12 of their 93 subscribes, all of them ISAF radio stations, with Pajhwok loosing a good part of its income, Karokhel argues.
On a larger scale, the international community has never had it seems a real strategy for the independent media. The major committment of the donor community and of the European commission ended in 2006, one of the Afghan participants recalls.
The Killed Media group, holding a network of 65 radio stations throughout the country, two national magazines (Killid and Mursal) and the Nai network for media distribution, today depends less on international aid than on revenues and advertising campaigns from Afghanistans main telecommunications stakeholders. With foreign donors leaving, Killid's Prsident Shahir Zahine also sees the need to redefine the existing Afghan media law, „including a definition of the public media sector in order to safeguard and strengthen those independent media that have proven essential over the past decade“.
The current media law in fact basically defines private media, while at the sidelines of the law, internatinal donors and the Afghan government have tried to change state owned RTA (Radio & Televion of Afghanistan) and its more than 3.000 employess into a public framework over the past years. But this attempt has largely failed, as Afghan participants of the seminar argued.
With a concept of creating a more credible idea of public media for existing non-profit media like Killid or Pajhwok, the concept is now to suggest and establish a trust fund, shared by an independent body, in order to stabilize revenues. „What we want are criteria to register and support those media that are not driven by private benefit making but by educational and standards of information instead, and have them financially stabilized with money from the state budget while the money should be administrated by an independent trust fund“, Zahine argues.
German participants in the seminar brought up the existing western model that works on tax-payers money and their shares financing public media, but for this the Afghan state seems much too inconsistent and corrupt and would hardly have the infrastructural capacities.
The usefullness, Afghan participants argeed, to establish some nucleus for a public media sector in Afganistan lies in the growing threat posed by media owned by doubtful powerbrokers and warlords exercise on journalists and public life. „A person like Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq alone is running several TVs and print media like Raw-e-Farda and others, Sayyaf owns Dawat TV, Noor TV belonged to Burhanuddin Rabbani, Dostum created Aina TV and Ayatollah Mohseni Tamadon TV“, an Afghan particpant lists up, „but the international community still is supporting the warlords. There is no difference between Taliban and the warlords.“
Not only warlords and local commanders are an obstacle to full freedom of speech but also the access to jails, hospitals, schools and public builings for reporters. The existing media law – even if acclaimed by many as relatively liberal – was an ill-born baby in this context, with many red lines for journalists as to ethnical or religious reporting or just factual summarizing of security incidents in the conflict.
For the last three years now in fact, Afghan media and journalists unions are working towards an „Access to information act“ that would enable them to investigate on security related issues or misuse of public money inbetween others, without the fear of being jailed, beaten up or untimidated. But „the responsible ministries have their hand on the parliament“ and seem very much „at the hearing of the mullahs“, so that the document is likey not to be voted any time soon, an Kabul based journalist says.
Looking on improving capacity and quality of Afghan media, it also calls for the establishment of an Afghan managed Institute of journalism to replace short term trainings offered by many media NGOs by an academic curriculum of at least two years. Different initatives on this are currently in discussion, but the creation of a true School of Journalism would make a considerable investment necessary, to which neither the Afghan government nor the donor community has declared to want to contribute as of now.
(see here for the final paper)

Another paper from Afghan media was circulated in Bonn as a collective demand of 15 Afgan female reporters (without names given) through the Negah-e-Zan organization. It can be found here and especially points out to women reporters who have been killed in the course of the last ten years, stressing that „the outcome of their cases have never been determined“. The Negah-e-Zan News Network also recalls the lack of a judiciary and court system and demands that „the right of the Shuras to make decisions about legal cases should be eliminated“. The reference to the role of international donors is less evident in this second paper (possibly because it was drafted „following meetings held at Internews offices in Kabul“, as the paper states, Internews being the biggest US-funded internatinal Media-NGO in Afghansitan). It nevertheless points out to the National Action Plan for Women (NAPWA) and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) in order to improve in the medium and long run the economical conditions for independent media in Afghanistan.
The situation of women in the media is still facing the same problems from than in previous years, with some contradicting realities. „We have ten female journalists working in Kandahar“, Ghousuddin Frotan from Hindara Media said during the Bonn seminar, „but they are confined to indoor interviews in the city“. Humaira Habib, director and editor-in-chief of Radio Sahar, a women radio created in 2003, notes that she has a male reporter in the staff who regularly goes out to do interviews for the females in the Bazaar, and this in a city that already had its 'transition' to Afghan security. One wonders if and how this male reporter inherits of a female perspective to do his interviews or not, from the time spent among a female editorial team. Acting out of pragmatism under these conditions, Pajhwok news agency in Kabul has recently hired mostly women for its monitoring staff, who assess media content from all over the country in daily telephone conversations. But in media as elsewhere a clear city-to-province gap seems to exist. When recently teaching myself journalists from Uruzgan this summer, it was clear that a difficult time is still ahead for women in the media in the provinces. „We didn't have a female reporter in Uruzgan in ten years“, a male collegue said, „and we won't probably have one in the next 10 years.“

Freitag, 9. Dezember 2011

Bonn 2: Summit of the two Media Realities

The Bonn 2 Afghanistan Conference was not only revealing in what was said in the non-binding final statement of the meeting (together with all speaches and statements of the civil society, but also on how differently journalists worked and observed the event for much of the day. I had co-organized an international seminar with independent Afghan journalists in Bonn together with Venro and Journalists.Network in the run-up to the conference of which there will be more in the next post. Here are some observations on how national and international media covered the evetn:

In the complex relationship between politicians and journalists, both usually look to be close to each other, contributing to the negative image both professions have in the western public opinion by creating what many see as a too close relationship undermining journalists’ impartiality. Major summits, like the Bonn 2 conference, are usually no exceptions from the rule.

But the ever-growing zeal for the security of politicians – a result of the 'war on terror' – more and more often culminates in a separation of this symbiosis. In Bonn, the foreign ministers, joined by German chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Afghan President Hamed Karzai and his entourage, met in the tightly protected former auditorium of the German parliament. (The Bundestag is in Berlin now.) All journalists, on the contrary, were basically confined to a huge hotel hall transformed into a press centre for the day, roughly two kilometers away. There, all speeches of the conference were broadcasted live on a big screen, making the conference a somehow virtual event. Before that started, we were served a kind of silent TV morning show, featuring the ministers descending from their limousines and walking up the stairs over the rolled-out red carpet. Six smaller TV screens each to the left and right of the big one displayed major news channels from around the world – from CNN to al-Jazeera, mixing the Bonn speeches and features about the situation in Afghanistan with reports about circumcised African women or the lives of pygmees.

Afghanistan is still on the world news. But for how long? TV cameras tend to react to the rhythm of interventions, especially when they are supported by the military. Two years ago, the major news channels of the world switched off most of their satellite dishes from Iraq, while the conflict there is ongoing. The same, it is to fear, will happen to Afghanistan, reality on the ground and in the media then becoming two separate things.

Interestingly, a big number of non-Afghan journalists preferred this TV show to reality. It were in fact mostly the reporters from Afghan media - and international photo reporters - who queued up at 6 a.m. in order to catch one of the few seats on the galleries of the old parliament that gave a direct view at the ministerial conference. This enabled them, for example, to watch how three German protesters in the conference hall – MPs of ‘the Left’ party who demanded the immediate withdrawal of all German forces from Afghanistan – interrupted German Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s introductory speech, a small but remarkable side event. While this was picked up by the Pajhwok news agency, that interviewed the German anti-summit protesters on site. The general – overwhelmingly negative - mood of the western public opinion against the military engagement in Afghanistan probably is familiar to a lot of Afghan journalists, but to see those who embody the protest against it in reality seems to have been a discovery for some of them.

A few hours later, as the conference broke for lunch, the same load of Afghan reporters came to the media centre. Here, probably rather unusual to some, they found themselves to be almost in the majority, very apparently making some of the German reporters wonder whether that would not be a good occasion to get an interview from them. Possibly they sensed that the speeches they had just heard were far more distant from Afghan reality than what some of their Afghan colleagues would have to say. It also were mainly the Afghan journalists who obtained interviews from Afghan politicians visiting the media centre, from deputy foreign minister Jawed Ludin to opposition politician Mahmud Saiqal or AIHRC chairwomen Sima Samar.

German Deutschlandfunk, a quality public radio station, for example came up with a radio package on this, including an interview with a young Afghan reporter from Mazar-e Sharif. Interestingly, it does not mention the fact that he is also a stringer for German magazine Der Spiegel and often reports on the German military presence in the Afghan north, criticising their direct or indirect support of the different warlords there. In contrast, interview and report focus on the presence of Taleban. One wonders why – after so many open hints by speakers of the civil society assembled in Bonn – western media surprisingly still sometimes turn a blind eye on those who are in close cahoots with the international military.

Present in the press hall were also some Pakistani journalists who were pretty much in demand on that day, as they served as a kind of substitute for the governmental delegation from boycotting Pakistan. Geo TV's Hamid Mir argued that an excuse from the USA on the recent border incident which saw 25 Pakistani soldiers killed by an airstrike would have been a pre-condition for his foreign minister to participate in Bonn, otherwise ‘this would have caused a public uproar in Pakistan like on the Tahrir square’.

Later in the afternoon, as Guido Westerwelle and Zalmai Rassul, the German and the Afghan foreign minister, held their final press conference in the media centre, only separated by a corridor from the big press hall, most non-Afghan journalists again remained seated in front of the big screen. This should be unthinkable for journalists supposed to cover the event. Or, paraphrasing famous war-photographer Robert Capa: their reports might not be good enough because they were not close enough.

Leaving the scene in the evening with a journalist from Kandahar and walking along a corridor of about a hundred meters, stuffed with trays of fruit, steaming soups and stir-fried meat (all free-of-charge), he asked: ‘How much did this conference cost? The recent jirga in Kabul was said to have cost six million US-dollars. Eight million dollars would be my guess for this one in Bonn’, he speculated. ‘I hope it was the last of this kind of conferences.’ But it won’t: the follow-up for Bonn 2, a donor conference in Tokyo, will be held in July 2012.

see this entry also at AAN