Warlords as media moguls | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

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Warlords as media moguls

Farooq Sulehria

Shrouded in an overwhelming dust, Kabul hasn’t changed much since 2008 when I last visited the town. An aggressive construction spree goes on while the streets, save some artery roads, remain unpaved. These unpaved streets contribute to the dust but it is the massacre of trees during the 90s that is responsible for the stifling cloud of dust that emerges every summer.

Arriving from Pakistan, one is indeed pleasantly surprised not to be tormented by power outages. Three years ago, electricity was a three-hour-a-day affair in most parts of Kabul. However, electrification outside of Kabul remains a distant dream. Electrification has touched hardly 10 percent of the country, mostly big towns. It, therefore, is curiously interesting to note the media explosion in Afghanistan ever since the Taliban’s exit.

There are at least 25 TV channels, including the state-owned RTA, wandering the country’s airwaves and vying for an audience. Since penetration of the television is indeed limited, radio remains the major source of mediatisation. There has been a phenomenal growth in the number of privately-owned radio stations. There are at least 110 radio stations, most of them are accessible on FM and target a certain city or region. With the advent of local radio stations, even the BBC’s Persian and Pashto services are losing their audiences.

Similarly, the print medium has been revived. Counting on a global focus on Afghanistan, at least two English-language dailies have been launched from Kabul. A host of Persian-language and Pashto-language publications have also appeared. Social media is also offering opportunities that were not available under the Taliban’s anti-development tyranny. Like television, the internet was also banned. Only Mullah Omar and a handful of other Taliban leaders had access to the internet.

It was, ironically, a website run by women rights’ group, Rawa that documented and exposed the Taliban’s atrocities. The Rawa website remains a great window of alternative information on Afghanistan. Similarly, Kabulpress has made a mark through its expose of governmental corruption scandals. There are 70,000 Facebook users while thousands of bloggers try to create a space for themselves. Bosa, for instance, is a Persian-Pashto blog by a left activist attracting hundreds of daily visits. However, like elsewhere in the present world, urbanised Afghans remain glued to TV screens especially when TV remains the only source of entertainment. Besides business-as-usual talk shows, prime time TV is consumed by soap operas.

Last time I came to Kabul, Indian soap operas were dominating the screens. These days, Turkish soap operas command total control. A couple of Pakistani plays have also been aired. These days Kausar TV is airing an Iranian soap opera, Piamber Yusuf (Prophet Joseph) that indeed is a novelty in the Muslim world. Then there is TV 7 that endlessly shows Bollywood productions. Ariya, launched by woman politician Shukriya Barakzai, is a children’s channel. There are three religious channels (Kausar, Dawat, and Tamadun). There isn’t any sports channel and only one channel, Tolo News, is fully dedicated to news. Owing to the popularity of these channels, BBC Persian is considering collaborating with a local TV channel while Euronews is already collaborating with TV 1.

But how do these channels sustain themselves economically? Well, ill-gotten money ruthlessly minted by Afghanistan’s brutal warlords, is the engine for the Afghan media’s political economy.

Even if TV channels and newspapers dare not speak the truth, dissident voices manage to convey subversive ideas through alternative means of communications. Social media outlets have become a menace. Hence, it was important for the warlords to have a machine of their own to put their own spin on the truth.

Therefore, we find Rashid Dostum running Aiena (Mirror) TV. It is broadcast in Afghanistan and through a Turkish satellite, across the region. Sheikh Asif Mohseni, a warlord backed by Iran, has launched Tamadun (Civilisation) TV. Haji Mohaqiq, yet another Iran-backed warlord, is running Farda (Tomorrow). Haji Arif, a notorious warlord from the Northern Alliance, owns Noorin (Lights) while Burhanudin Rabbani controls Noor (Light). Karim Khalili, also an Iranian boot, lords over Negah TV. The Sepaher TV is Amanullah Guzar’s brainchild. He is another ruthless crook from the Northern Alliance. Arzo TV is owned by Tajik warlord Atta Muhammad Noor. Dawat is the most interesting case; it is run by Abdulrab Rasol Sayyaf. A Wahabi fundamentalist, Sayyaf was a darling of the ISI and Saudi intelligence back in the 80s. Many Taliban leaders arose out of Sayyaf’s Ittehad-e-Islami. In a changed world, he not merely embraced Uncle Sam the infidel but also gave up his anti-TV ideology. He regularly lectures on Dawat!

Some of these media moguls have a record of serious human rights abuses. The Human Rights Watch, for instance, has named Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, Haji Muhammad Mohaqiq, and Burhanudin Rabbani as war criminals.

True, not all the TV channels are run by warlords. Tolo network (consisting of Tolo, Tolo News, Lemar), TV 1, TV 7, Ariya, Shamshad, Zhwandoon etc are purely commercial ventures initiated by adventurous businessmen. However, in an atmosphere of fear and terror, truth often proves costly. Ever since Hamid Karzai has been imposed on Kabul, over 20 Afghan journalists have been murdered while over 200 violent physical attacks against journalists have been reported. Many have fled Afghanistan after receiving threats. One young journalist, Kambaksh, was sentenced to death though the sentence was commuted under international pressure. Several remain in jail after being arrested for their work. Radio and television stations, print media, and internet services have been attacked.

Meanwhile, women journalists have been systematically target-killed by the misogynistic Taliban as well as their counterparts in Karzai’s team. These misogynists consider women’s very appearance on screen an obscenity.

Zakia Zaki, for instance, was killed in 2007. Nilofar Habibi, working with Heart TV, was stabbed. She had been warned against appearing on TV. A presenter on Tolo TV, Shaima Razayee was warned by fundamentalists about her ‘unIslamic’ programmes. One day she was found shot dead in her apartment. She was only 24. On June 1, 2007 a newscaster for Shamshad TV was killed in Kabul.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: mfsulehria@hotmail.com
Source: The News