Media Innovation Takes Charge in Afghanistan

Last week President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan during which he signed a long-term security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that allows for the United States to potentially keep military forces in the country in a support role until 2024.  All U.S. combat troops are expected to leave Afghanistan by 2014.  Many analysts have wondered if Afghanistan will fall back into the Taliban’s hands and any progress made in the country will be reversed once the U.S. leaves.  However, there seem to be many efforts to use the media as a catalyst for good governance in Afghanistan for years to come.

Afghan radio network Salam Watandar (“Hello Countrymen”) was officially inaugurated April 8 as an independent, non-governmental Afghan organization.  It was originally established in 2003 by media advocacy group Internews and funded by United States Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives.

From Internews:

…Beginning as a small radio production service that provided content to a handful of independent provincial radio stations established by Internews, the network has grown to 47 radio stations that broadcast in 29 Afghan provinces with the capacity to reach over 10 million listeners. Through these partner stations, Salam Watandar broadcasts high-quality programs on current affairs, culture, social issues and sport, and has served as a strategic hub for mentoring and training its partner radio stations…

One of the key elements of Salam Watandar’s success is its ability to communicate with listeners not only through traditional phone calls, but also through text messaging.  There is a strong interest in using tech innovation to advance Afghan civil society.

…Nationwide, radio has the highest penetration among Afghans, with 73% reporting they own a radio.  Access differs dramatically between provinces, between rural and urban areas, and between men and women. In Herat, for example, 86% of Afghans own a television, while only 22% own radios. Internet access, however, remains low nationwide, with only 1% reporting access to Internet in their homes.

There is a push to give technical training to all Afghan citizens, but especially for women. Afghan women used the opportunity of International Women’s Day recently to participate in women-only technology training courses.  Participants learned how to use both new and traditional media tools to express themselves and enhance their advocacy efforts against gender discrimination.

“New media is not just for journalists,” said a participant named Parwana from Women Activities & Social Services Association (WASSA). She continued, passionately exclaiming, “As an Afghan woman who works directly in society and in close contact with different people, this [new media] will allow us to transfer our voices and pain.”

There are also efforts to reach out to Afghanistan’s tech start up community.   Internews and the Afghan Ministry for Communications and IT hosted the Kabul Innovation Lab last February to look at ways to use technology for improving the country.

“There was no functional infrastructure after 2002 unfortunately, and we had to basically start from scratch,” said Javed Hamdard, an Afghan ICT coordinator who served as a project judge, speaking to the BBC about the event. “As we are speaking, there are more than 17.96 million mobile subscribers. If we measure it from that short period of ten years then the growth and achievements and progress in the ICT sector in general, and the telecommunications in particular, it has been tremendous.”

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