SE broadcaster gets Afghans tuned in to radio

Posted: Monday, December 27, 2004

Radio news in Afghanistan under the Taliban instructed women how to dress to show no skin. It was news you'd better use.

Jon Newstrom, a former public radio reporter in Southeast Alaska, is helping to establish independent radio stations in Afghanistan. If the mail is anything to go by, it's a success so far.

Listeners in Afghanistan send the stations letters that are elaborate works of art.

"They'll draw pictures and paste them on. They'll write poetry," Newstrom said. "One said the bread is now so thin you can use it as a kite. It's just stirring to see someone create a work of art and send it to a radio station."

Newstrom is the Afghanistan director for Internews, a nonprofit organization that supports open media worldwide.

Using federal funds and grants, Internews trains journalists and station managers from scratch and produces television and radio programming and Internet content.

"We are attempting to enable those who have traditionally been ignored from media to have access to the only means of media they could, and talk about developments, democracy and accountability," said Sanjar Qiam, coordinator of Internews' radio network in Afghanistan, in an e-mail comment from Kabul.

Newstrom held a similar position in Croatia from 1998 to 2002 for another nonprofit. In the early 1980s, he reported from Petersburg, Kodiak and Sitka; assisted former Speaker of the House Ben Grussendorf in the mid-1980s; and in the mid-to-late 1990s helped organize a consortium of Southeast Alaska radio stations that became CoastAlaska.

He still considers Juneau his home.

"Alaskans are very well suited for this kind of work because we're more adventurous than the average person and we're used to being at the end of the supply train," Newstrom said by phone from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Since 2003, Internews has set up at least 25 independent radio stations in Afghanistan, and is working on more as part of a network, the organization said. It's similar to Alaska public radio in some ways.

The plan is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has spent $20 million to develop media in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in October 2001, the agency said.

"The first problem is finding partners and selecting who we want to work with in the community," Newstrom said.

Internews wants to be sure it isn't working with people connected to warlords, poppy growers (the opium trade) or the government, he said. Eventually, the community partners, which may be individuals or nongovernmental organizations, will own the stations.

"The second challenge, which is a bit of a nightmare, is how you construct it. Sometimes you have to build the building, literally. ... Then you have to get the equipment there and teach people how to use it," Newstrom said.

There are some similarities between working in radio in Alaska and in countries such as Albania, Bosnia, Croatia and Afghanistan, said Rich McClear. He helped Newstrom get a job at the public radio station in Petersburg in 1979 and later recruited him to a Sitka station.

Eventually, McClear attracted Newstrom to the Balkans in the 1990s to set up stations through the nonprofit International Research and Exchanges Board.

When McClear opened stations in Alaska in the 1980s, he said, "We were at the end of the supply line. We had to improvise a lot."

If a station couldn't afford to de-ice its antenna, it would wrap it in Teflon tape so the ice would slide off.

"That's something no textbook will teach you but you learn in Alaska," said McClear. He co-owns two radio stations in Anchorage and is a senior media adviser for the International Research and Exchanges Board.

In Afghanistan, where only a third of adults can read and there isn't much to read anyway, the radio is valued.

"In Afghanistan, radio is the most important means of mass communication since 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas where there is little access to newspapers or other sources of information," said Mark S. Ward, deputy assistant administrator in the Asia and Near East Bureau for the U.S. Agency for International Development, in an e-mail from Washington, D.C.

"The goal ultimately is to have an Afghan-controlled radio system," Newstrom said. " ... That's much more effective in terms of democracy than the Voice of America or a radio network that is perceived as controlled by the American government."

Internews has had to train journalists from scratch in a country where the ruling Taliban had nearly destroyed education. Internews teaches reporters math, English, the use of computers and radio production techniques.

McClear, thinking of his experience in the Balkans, said the biggest challenge in that situation is to translate Western ideas of good reporting to another culture, where there may be a lot of deference to authority.

McClear said he would tell Balkan reporters: "News is something that someone somewhere doesn't want you to know about. Press conferences are marketing."

It can be dangerous to be a reporter in Afghanistan, where the government vies with warlords and opium dealers for power, and traces of the Taliban remain. Some reporters have been beaten.

"I think that self-censorship abounds," Newstrom said. "There are many stations that are afraid to say anything about the warlords or the commanders in the area."

It's illegal to speak against Islam, but Newstrom said that hasn't had a chilling effect on reporting, although it's not always clear what constitutes blasphemy.

It's not easy for reporters to get access to information.

"The government is just learning how to be a government," Newstrom said. "In asking information of the government, they feel threatened at times. ... With a little guidance, it seems to be working OK."

Many of the reporters trained by Internews are women. This in a country that doesn't have much of a public role for women. But in some ways the women reporters get better access to sources, Newstrom said. They may be invited into a home in a situation in which a man wouldn't be - unless a man is at home, he said.

Still, Internews has to be sensitive to the local culture. There are places in Afghanistan where putting a woman reporter on the air would be tantamount to a mortal sin, said George Papagiannis, director of media development for Internews, from Washington, D.C. It will be up to station managers to decide when residents are ready for that.

"You've got allow things to happen at their own pace," he said.

Meanwhile, the population is getting used to being consumers of news. Traditionally, in an Afghanistan village, people get their information from the mosque. Now they're turning to the radio for confirmation.

An Internews radio station might consist of a control panel, two microphones, two compact disc players and a computer, which holds the music to be played. Much of the programming is music, which also was banned by the Taliban.

In Kabul, a staff of about 30 Afghans mentored by Westerners produces three hours of news a day in a program called "Salaam Watandar" - "Hello, Citizen." Each station also produces local news, with varying success. Some new reporters are shy about putting a microphone in someone's face, Newstrom said.

It's hard to say how the stations will perpetuate themselves once the help from Internews goes away. There isn't much of an economy now to draw advertising from, although Internews trains staff in sales. Nonprofits operating in Afghanistan, such as health organizations, may pay for public service announcements. And it's understood that some of the stations will fail, Newstrom said.

The Internews stations reach 37 percent of the country's population of 28.5 million, Newstrom said. They compete in some markets with a government-owned network. There also are some AM and shortwave stations.

Internews has a good relationship with the newly elected government of Hamid Karzai, who has spoken in favor of independent media, Papagiannis said. Internews hopes to set up an Afghan-run organization to carry on its work, perhaps within a year.

But, Papagiannis said, "Jon is the right guy at the right time for what we have going on in Afghanistan."

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