Media Faces Uphill Struggle

With 140 publications circulating in the city and more launching daily, Kabul residents are spoiled for choice. But the standard of journalism is so poor that most literate Afghans rarely read them.

Kabul bookseller Ismail has bundles of unsold newspapers piling up outside his shop. “These publications are not a success as they do not reflect the needs and worries of the people,” he told IWPR. “Their focus is too vague and their political analysis is very weak.”

Nearly a hundred newspapers and magazines have hit the capital’s streets since the collapse of the Taleban regime late last year. A number are sponsored by the authorities, some are party mouthpieces and others are supported by international non-government organisations, NGOs.

This is all very laudable but the truth is that many people simply aren’t interested in reading them. Illiteracy aside – two thirds of Afghanistan’s population cannot read and write – many claim that they have no time for newspapers or cannot afford to buy them.

Aziz Fanoos, director of Kabul University’s journalism department, believes that many of the articles on offer just aren’t interesting enough. “Most of the stories are theoretical and intellectual, so readers lose interest very quickly,” he said.

“The distance between the people and the press is becoming wider and wider day by day. Afghan journalists are sitting in an ivory tower, seemingly believing themselves to be separate from the ordinary population. Most people think the newspapers are full of untruths.”

Other problems, such as a lack of editorial direction and understanding of the principles of journalism, have also been recognised and the interim administration is now keen to encourage an independent media.

An international conference on the development of a non-partisan press, which was held in Kabul last week, drew media representatives from around the world. Delegates heard that an Independent Broadcasting Commission was to be established to work with broadcasters and representatives of the civil society movement.

Representatives of civil societies and unions, women’s groups and the media were told how Afghanistan could benefit from adopting some more modern approaches to issues such as censorship and press law.

Moderates such as Abdul Hameed Mubaraz, deputy minister of information and culture, advocate step-by-step media reforms that would be in tune with the social, economic, political, and military changes in the country. However, many Afghan journalists were unimpressed, complaining that the much foreign support for the media is uncoordinated and unfocused. Habibullah Rafee, editor of the influential magazine Kelid, said, “NGOs have helped to establish 95 publications in Kabul. Most of these are printing similar articles, and with only between 500 and 1,000 copies in circulation, they cannot reach the provinces where they are needed.

“They need to cooperate with each other, decrease the number of publications to 20 or 30 and increase the print run and excellence of each one. During the conference, they mostly talked about quantity not quality.”

Mohammad Naseem Sabah, editor of the economic magazine Iqtesad, pinpoints a number of problems. “A lack of expertise, too few experienced editors and journalists and too many publications have caused difficulties for the Afghan media,” he said.

However, even if Afghanistan’s newspapers raise their standards, there will still be a long way to go before the general public embraces the publications on sale in the capital.

Ahmad Zia Syamak, editor of government-backed weekly newspaper Anees, said, “People are not interested at the moment, and this is partly because of weak journalism. If we want to expand the press, we have to pay serious attention to the principles of journalism.

“The other problem is that during the last two decades of war, people have simply fallen out of the habit of reading newspapers.”

Qadam Ali Nekpai and Ahmad Shifaee are freelance journalists in Kabul. This article originally appeared in Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,