Afghanistan media has a history of 147 years. In 1873 the first ever paper, Shamsunahar, was established. The first radio transmitter was installed in 1920. The first TV broadcast happened in Kabul in 1978. The Internet was linked and used in Afghanistan during the Taliban period after 1996, although it was not public and was used only by Taliban leaders. According to Nai Supporting Open Media, the leading Media Advocacy NGO in Afghanistan, there are 464 operational media in the country, which has the best media law in the region and one of the tops “Access to Information” bills in the world. But, since 2001, almost 120 journalists and media workers have been killed; more than 1550 violence cases against media have been registered and, except for a few of them, no prosecution processes have been launched for the cases.
In practice access to information, despite having a good law, is one of the biggest challenges regarding freedom of expression, along with security and financial sustainability. The Taliban pose a great threat to media. Out of 120 journalists and media staff that have been killed since 2001, over 55 have been killed by the Taliban. On the other side, the Government of Afghanistan is yet to start addressing the violence cases against journalists allegedly perpetrated by governmental staff, particularly security forces. The government is not as supportive as it is stated to be by law and poses pressures which are among the challenges to freedom of expression. It has been known to set barriers to a free flow of information and to find various ways to prevent broadcasting stories about its failures. Financial challenges caused almost 240 media outlets to stop their activities in the country since 2014. Tens of radio stations and almost 6 TV stations are among the media outlets that have stopped their activities mainly because of financial problems. Although there are no specific studies that analyse public trust in media, the article “Media and government in the era of democracy” published on The Daily Afghanistan magazine shows the existence of a strong public trust in the media. When people are disappointed or have their rights infringed by a governmental entity, they turn to various media to make the problem known. That explains the popularity of media programmes that review cases and court hearings.
The country is still characterised by an immature market when it comes to media, whose development is unrelated to the current state of the Afghanistan market. Media outlets have bloomed thanks to the injection of international funds after 2001. Almost all media established since that time depend on international funds, either directly or indirectly. When international funds to Afghanistan have been cut, the media market has started to fail. Since 2014, almost 240 media outlets stopped their operations mainly because of lack of funding or market for their products.
In urban areas of the country TV has the biggest share of the market, while radio dominates the rural areas. Print has the lowest share. Social media are growing and covering almost all the younger generations. According to the Ministry of Communication and IT Technology, out of a population of 34 million people, more than 9 million, almost 28 percent of Afghanistan citizens have direct access to Internet, mainly but not only in urban areas. Radio covers 73 percent of the population and TV covers almost 40 percent.
With less than half a million readers of newspapers, print media audiences are almost 1 percent of the Afghanistan population. The literacy rate is low (the actual percentage is between 39 percent claimed by the government and 36 percent according to 2017 data by UNESCO) and print outlets are not accessible outside of cities. This paves the ground for reduced access to print media. Furthermore, 4 decades of war in the country brought forward a culture of not reading, despite the increasing literacy rates which the World Bank had registered at 18 percent in 1979 versus the current figure. Thus, print media receives the smallest share of the media market.
The independence of media is still a big issue in Afghanistan, as there are political parties and politicians that own media outlets and call their media independent. But media offer nonetheless a view of the reality of political parties and political elites and give people the opportunity to have options when they are going to cast their votes, for example.
A new media movement started in Afghanistan in 2001, but an alignment between political and media organisations still exists. This new movement made it its mission to improve the public’s awareness and systematically helps people to become aware of a variety of subjects such as their rights, their empowerment and their role in a democratic society.
These media reveal the faces of the elites, of the political elites and narrate the stories of the specific engagements of each political elite. People are informed of how much elites are wealthy and how influential their wealth is.
Overall media deliver a picture of political divisions of the society to the public. Today, if people are going to cast their votes, although ethnicity, language and geography are important, so too are eventual links of individuals to the parties. This means that overall media give an account of each vision and its values, allowing the public to move towards the preferred values.
The media outlets that are purely independent have succeeded in highlighting the differences between a political party and an armed group that calls itself a party and in enlightening the public opinion on the reality of the country by explaining the nature and number of social players. A very obvious example is the marginalisation of armed groups from national political processes, as demonstrated by the result of Ramadan Bashar, who notoriously doesn’t carry a gun and who outvoted several armed warlords at the last parliamentary elections in 2017.
Independent professional journalism is growing fast, although it is still very young in Afghanistan. There are different opportunities for journalists to grow their professionalism. Public universities and journalism schools are present in most of the 34 provinces. Private educational institutes are available at least in the 5 main cities. Short term courses are being provided to journalists almost everywhere. But this doesn’t mean there is no need for professional development. People are changing their careers as soon as there is a new opportunity to do it. This is experienced in the media sector very often, due to different elements including economic challenges. The turnout of newcomers to the sector is great, thus there is an ongoing need for professional development.
After 19 years of existence the media sector is entering a mature phase. By looking at the media performance during different rounds of elections since 2004, one can obviously see how the approach has changed toward election reporting. This means that the Afghan media sector has progressed for almost 2 decades, but more needs to be done.
As much as media are professional, they are still being targeted and constrained, especially by the government which is instead supposed to protect them. The Afghanistan government, supposedly one of the most corrupt governments in the world, will not tolerate professional media that reveal their actions and how much they are corrupt. For example, it is common practice to recruit people for governmental work through Facebook accounts, which also allows finding out who is criticizing the government the most. Although according to Afghanistan’s laws, there is no way for the government to bring limitations or to interfere with the media sector, in reality this happens very often, such as when the government makes barriers on access to information to pressurize the media.
Undefined relationships with media news rooms, media managers and media owners, give an opportunity to the government to interfere on media programmes, especially in news rooms. Providing governmental advertisements and funds to media is another way to interfere in the media sector. Furthermore, through its power, the government interferes with the media sector by force, especially in rural areas. Through recruiting from media elites, the government can influence the media by those former elite members that now are government staff.