As Afghanistan’s “loya jirga,” or grand council, gives the U.S.-backed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai a strong mandate to lead, officials 10,000 miles away, in a nondescript office building in Washington D.C., consider their work. The “loya jirga” seems like the first step toward uniting the country, and at the Voice of America (VOA), just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Afghanistan is looking like a success story.
The Voice of America is a radio network that was born during the Cold War, when countries were pro-United States, pro-Soviet Union, or a place to wage war for the hearts and minds of the nonaligned. The VOA was the goodwill ambassador for the United States – offering local and world news, in the local language, with a dollop of U.S. policy included. But as the Cold War faded, so did the VOA. Congress was reluctant to dish out millions of dollars to what seemed like a relic. Whole groups – the reporters broadcasting to Poland, for example – were let go. Who needed a pro-U.S. radio broadcast in Poland when Poland’s leaders wanted to join NATO?
But just as America has entered a new era, so has the VOA.
The VOA is remaking itself from a weapon in the Cold War to a weapon in the war on terrorism. And Afghanistan, and the VOA’s two main Afghan language services, Dari and Pashto, are part of that transformation.
Officials at the VOA have high hopes for the Dari and Pashto newscasts. They are seen as a way to unite this fractured country, a way to bolster an emerging democracy, and a tool for the Bush administration’s nation-building in an unstable and strategically important part of the world.
The VOA, the thinking goes, can help Afghanistan emerge from years of war, massive poverty and the enormous reconstruction needed after the Soviets, the Taliban and U.S. forces swept through the country. And the stakes are high. “The issue here,” said Robert Reilly, VOA’s director, “is to win the war of ideas in Afghanistan; whoever wins that wins the country, and it’s important because what’s at stake is the moral legitimacy of the existence of the United States that has been brought into question by Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
The VOA, the BBC and Germany’s Deustchewelle are the three international organizations with newscasts designed for Afghanistan. Literacy rates are low, and radio is the major source of news for most of the population. “Historically, we get big numbers (of listeners) in Afghanistan,” said Ken Donow, who does research for the VOA, “We do, and the BBC does as well.”
Afghans can tune into the locally produced radio newscasts of Radio Afghanistan (under the Taliban, the station was known as Radio Shari’a). But many seem to prefer the distance provided by foreign news sources.
“People there believe in freedom of expression,” said Rauf Mehrpore, one of the VOA’s Dari reporters. On the VOA’s talk shows, “people pick up the phone and bad-mouth the U.S. and we don’t cut them off. This is something new to them, especially after 23 years of war.”
Just as important as free expression is the reliability that comes with international news organizations.
“The international newscasts give people a touchstone on the facts – this is an area where rumor often transcends fact. If you live in Kandahar and you hear that there’s been a massacre of people in your ethnic group someplace else, and then you hear from a guy who’s been listening to the BBC that it’s not true – that’s very important,” said John Blackton, the former director of The United States Agency for International Development in Afghanistan.
Ali Jalali, who runs VOA’s Pashto broadcasts, agreed. Reliable news, he said, “is important to all crisis areas – in a crisis situation, thanks to the VOA, people have access to local information when they need it most.”
Pashto speakers are the largest minority in Afghanistan – 38 percent of Afghans are native Pashto speakers. The others speak Dari and other languages, so a newscast in a local language that originates on another continent is perceived as removed from the jumble of local politics and local alliances. “We can help remove the misunderstandings that create tensions between groups,” said Jalali.
VOA touts its talk shows, which provide a forum by letting listeners call in and ask questions – very “Larry King Live,” only the topics tend to be heavier. Mehrpore came back from Kabul four months ago, and he said the people there “were asking us to give them the basics of democracy, and have shows on the democratic system and how it works.” But even Mehrpore admits that the international broadcasts tend to have more impact on the citified elites, who tune in more consistently – though he argues that those are the very people who will have the most say in creating a new Afghanistan.
And the VOA does have extensive access to those elites. “I can pick up the phone and call Karzai and he would talk to me,” Mehrpore said. Some of that access comes because, to a large extent, the international radio broadcasts are the best way for Karzai to reach regular Afghans; the radio networks are the only national infrastructure left in the country, reaching from the big cities to the most isolated rural village. Some of the access comes, of course, because Karzai is anxious to cooperate with the United States.
The VOA runs editorials written by the U.S. State Department after its newscasts. Reilly argues that those editorials are an important part of the VOA’s message, but others contend that it dilutes the impact of the broadcasts.
“People in Afghanistan tend to see the VOA as 50 percent independent journalism and 50 percent U.S. propaganda, while the BBC is more 90 percent and 10 percent the British point of view,” said Blackton. For that reason, he says, the BBC is usually considered a more credible news source.
The line between Reilly’s “public diplomacy” and the VOA’s commitment to straight journalism took a hit last fall. Over State Department objections, the VOA ran part of an interview with Mullah Mohammed Omar, then the leader of the Taliban and wartime enemy of the United States. The VOA originally held the story after members of the Bush administration complained about the Omar interview. The piece ran several days later, but only after damaging the VOA’s credibility as an unbiased news source. The final story included comments by President Bush and an Afghan opposition leader.
Despite that, all three of the international news organizations are considered more reliable than the local broadcasts on Radio Afghanistan. But that could change. If the international broadcasts do provide a forum for open debate and unbiased news, then their success may well, over time, diminish their importance. The straight talk in the VOA and BBC’s broadcasts will be less captivating once it is commonplace on street corners and cafes.
In Afghanistan’s recent troubled past, the international news organizations were the country’s only link to rest of the world. But if Afghanistan continues to evolve, the local radio broadcasts may mark the flowering of a new, more open, society.
Alison Schafer is a professor of journalism at American University.