The Warlords New Weapon: Satellite TV in Afghanistan

By Ahmed Muwaffaq Zaidan

Afghans, hungry for television after long being deprived of it in any shape or form, are now watching again. Following the 2001 fall of the Taliban, who did away with the transmission and watching of television as well as any form of video media in the name of suppressing what they called "mediocre Indian films" (which have now returned to the market in large quantities), local satellite channels attached to Afghanistan's war lords have sprung up to reinforce the latter's outreach and their popularity with the Afghan street.

Sources close to the Uzbek militia led by General Abd al-Rashid Dostom claim that the latter last month launched an Uzbek-language satellite named Ayna ("Mirror"), with a signal that can be received in the three northern Afghan provinces where Uzbek is spoken, all of which neighbor the Republic of Uzbekistan.

It appears that the Afghan warlords, after finding themselves under attack at the local, regional, and international levels, have grasped that the best means to improve their image and reputation, which has suffered badly from the charge laid against them by a large portion of the Afghan people of responsibility for the damage, destruction, and anarchy that have afflicted the country, lies in having at their disposal the most important item in the hearts-and-minds trade, namely a satellite channel.

Previously, all Afghan provinces were under the sway of the terrestrial and satellite channels of neighboring countries. Northern Afghanistan, for example, was dominated by Uzbek and Tajik televisions, the southwestern provinces came under the influence of Iranian TV, and the Pashto-speaking provinces of the south-east under that of the Pakistani television stations. A number of sociologists and psychologists have warned of the negative influence of this state of affairs on the building of a united Afghanistan, believing that, given television's impact, it may lead to the creation of a multiplicity of Afghanistans.

The situation persists, however, given that in each Afghan province there is a local television or radio station whose policies and programs are planned without regard for the policies of the central government and, it may be, of the national interest. This signals dangerous implications for Afghanistan's future generations.

The launching of an Afghan Uzbek television station was accompanied by that of an FM radio in the same area, owned by a private company and funded with American money. Some believe that the wave of local satellite TV and radio stations may encourage other warlords to enter the field of media competition in the battle for hearts and minds, an area of concern to the warlords given the popular demand that they be put on trial or deprived of their weapons and authority.

Media observers believe that Afghanistan's widespread illiteracy will provide a fertile soil for the expansion of satellite channels as against print media. On the other hand, the absence of electricity in many cities and towns will form a fundamental barrier to the spread of satellite as well as terrestrial stations, leaving radio as the determining factor in the provision of news and the formation of Afghan public opinion, underlining the fact that the re-construction of Afghanistan is a complex process requiring prioritization.

Pakistani media officials have spoken recently of a plan to set up a local Pakistani company to launch a satellite channel in Pashto, the language spoken by the majority of Afghans and a large number of Pakistanis.

Some sociologists fear that the existence of such satellites will lead to the deepening of sectarian and ethnic divisions among the Afghan people, especially given that each satellite channel has resorted to using a different language an addressing itself to a different community or minority. The absence of a clear media policy on the part of the central government is an additional worrying feature when taken in combination with the continued reluctance of the regions to accept central authority.

The game being played with satellite and terrestrial television stations has regional implications too, and may have a role in the historical rivalry between Pakistan and India over Afghanistan, as Islamabad is concerned lest India interfere in the development of the satellites, especially given the historic domination of Afghan media by the Indians dating back to the days of the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah (ruled 1933 to 1973). This may lie behind the Pakistani-government inspired plan to have Pakistani businessmen launch a Pashto satellite to serve Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, thus strengthening Pakistan's influence and presence in Afghanistan following the decline of its military influence. It should also be remembered that most local Pashto-language newspapers are published in Pakistan and are distributed in parts of Afghanistan close to the borders. These newspapers also play a not insignificant role in the molding and shaping of Afghan public opinion. TBS

Ahmad Muwaffaq Zaidan is head of Al Jazeera's Pakistan bureau and holds a doctorate in Media and Future Studies. Among his publications (in Arabic) are "The Return of the Black Flags" and "Bin Ladin Without a Mask." The article was translated by Humphrey Davies.

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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