Media - broadcasting

Media - broadcasting
RTA TV studio monitors (photo courtesy RTA)
While Radio Afghanistan was formally established in 1928 by Amir Amanullah Khan (reigned 1919-1929), it only began broadcasting on a regular basis in 1941 through Radio Kabul, and its was not until the 1960s that radio became more widespread. By 1966, two short wave (10 and 50 kilowatts) and one medium wave (20 kilowatts) transmitters were in operation, and Germany donated two powerful transmitters of 100 kilowatts each, one for short wave and the other for medium wave. In the same year, Radio Afghanistan acquired equipment to enable the broadcast of pre-recorded programmes.
According to government statistics, by 1966 there was approximately one radio per 50 persons in a population then estimated at 15 million. Both the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan and the Press Law promulgated in the following year made some limited provision for freedom of the press.
However, as in most other countries at that time, radio broadcasts were the prerogative of the state, whose interests they tended to protect. By the mid 1970s, more Afghans were able to listen to short wave broadcasts from Voice of America, BBC, Soviet Central Asia, China, Pakistan, India, and Iran.
Television broadcasts began in Afghanistan in 1978 and took on added importance after the Soviet invasion in the following year. Thereafter broadcast media became a component in the armed struggle, as the government enhanced the transmission capacity from Kabul and introduced local TV and radio transmitters in provinces, while launching Watan Ghag (military) radio and Kabul Radio on FM. These initiatives were controlled by Radio-Television Afghanistan (RTA), which for a while became a separate government directorate, the State Committee of Radio and Television. This initiative was in turn countered by radio broadcasts from outside the country, such as the US-funded ‘Radio Liberty’, which operated through the 1980s and was re-launched in 2002 as ‘Radio Free Afghanistan/Radio Azadi’. As they became more established, some of the mujahideen factions also broadcast from areas outside of government control or from Pakistan or Iran.
When these factions took control of Kabul in 1992, after fall of the Najibullah regime, tight restrictions were imposed on broadcast and print media, and these controls were further tightened during the Taliban administration after 1996, when TV broadcasts from Kabul were halted. Occasional TV programmes were broadcast from Badakhshan, which remained outside of Taliban control. Despite the prohibition, a significant number of Afghans continued to surreptitiously watch satellite TV channels.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001, broadcast media has seen a significant growth and diversification, with much of the development outside of state control. Years of crisis and fighting have transformed Afghans into keen and sophisticated media consumers. Surveys undertaken in 2008 suggest that, while nearly 90 per cent of urban households have a TV, only 26 per cent of rural household have access to television.
Radio remains the most widespread source of information in Afghanistan, and there are estimated now to be more than 100 FM radio stations, the bulk of which broadcast to urban areas. In Kabul and four other provinces, the private Arman FM 98.1 is popular among the young, and has reportedly become the first station to be fully commercially-funded. The new competitive market has compelled international broadcasters to increase programming and introduce more Afghan-focused schedules, and Radio Azadi and Voice of America (VOA), along with BBC World Service Radio and Radio France Internationale, now broadcast on FM in both Dari and Pashtu.
Both independent and government radio stations have benefited since 2002 from external investments in equipment, studios, programming and training. Media development organisations such as Internews Network were instrumental in creating effective local FM stations which are supported by newly-formed distribution systems for national content to dozens of local stations now established across the country.
The principal government broadcaster, Radio-Television Afghanistan (RTA) - previously known as Radio Sharia - was re-launched in November 2001 and TV broadcasts resumed from Kabul in 2002. There are now some 40 private TV stations broadcasting in Afghanistan, with Tolo TV and Ariana Radio and Television reportedly the most widely-watched. While the resulting diversity of content is a positive step, the quality of both ‘news’ and entertainment is variable, and much of the content lacks depth and professionalism. Moreover, a significant proportion of TV content is imported in the form of soaps dramas and cartoons. Having depended initially on funding from external donors for their establishment, private TV stations are increasingly able to rely on private domestic investment or advertising revenue to meet operating costs, even though their market remains rather limited in size.
Despite the growth of broadcast media in Afghanistan, there remain significant obstacles to the development of a robust and independent media. Not only does deteriorating security across the country limit effective coverage, but widespread intimidation of journalists also results in a degree of self-censorship. Both broadcast and print media have provided platforms for powerful individuals, including those linked to previous factions, to promote specific ethnic, political and/or religious interests, while acting as de facto censors, in the absence of a proper regulatory system for the broadcast media. Without effective media regulation, there is also a risk that media development becomes confined to urban centres. At present, only the largest outlets, including the government-owned system, are able to achieve national coverage. While the state-run RTA may have provincial relay stations, these are often operated in a fragmented manner, with certain local powerbrokers using them to promote their own agendas, almost as independent stations.
The Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) for 2007/8-2012/3 aims to 'develop media - including national public information services - that are independent, pluralistic and accessible to Afghan women and men throughout the country'. Similarly, Article 34 of the constitution of Afghanistan allows for freedom of the press and of expression, although provisions in the 2005 Press Law preclude content that is not 'contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and sects'.
While Article 34 of the Afghan Constitution states that ‘freedom of expression shall be inviolable’, the controversy surrounding the Media Law demonstrates the sensitivity of the issue. After the government changed its position in 2006 on the draft Media Law that was first tabled in 2004, it took more than three years of intense debate in parliament before the Law was finally gazetted in September 2009. Despite the subsequent objections of the President, the Law was then passed by two-third majority in the Wolesi Jirga. If properly enforced, the Law could result in the creation of a mechanism for independent media regulation and the transformation of the state-run RTA into a national public service that should be governed by and independent commission.
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