Afghans flock to Western radio


Broadcasts: Defying Taliban prohibitions, residents tune in to British programming and the Voice of America.

October 07, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The Taliban, Afghanistan's ruling clique of Muslim clerics, have become famous for trying to stamp out every trace of Western culture, banning music, the Internet and foreign publications. The average Afghan has no access to television, and universities have been shut down.

Still, determined Afghans are able to find news. They get it from a source that represents everything the Taliban hate most: the Voice of America.

An astonishing 60 percent of Afghan men say they listen to the U.S. news agency every day.

The VOA, along with the British Broadcasting Corp., provides Afghans a subversive diet - news, cultural discourse and music that are not filtered through the unyielding Islamic doctrine of the Taliban.

While the Taliban beat up women who dare to show an ankle, some Afghans are listening to Madonna. On Friday, the BBC honored a request from an Afghan for a song by the singer who came to fame as a material girl. And the VOA periodically plays Top 40 hits.

"It's not allowed now to listen to the radio," says Abdul Khaleq Lalzad, a former Kabul University professor who lives in London. "But they listen anyway in their homes."

Little known within the United States, the government-sponsored Voice of America broadcasts news reports in 53 languages over short-wave radio, satellite television and the Internet. It is said to reach more than 90 million people every week in countries spanning much of the globe.

In Afghanistan, short-wave radio has taken on an unrivaled role in providing news and diversions for a population starved for such fare. Every day, if surveys are to be believed, the strong signals beamed by the VOA and the BBC draw the attention of most Afghans.

"These are the only sources that people trust there," says Lalzad, an engineering professor who was expelled from the country in 1998.

Rupert Coleville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who is in the Pakistani border city of Quetta, says entire villages sometimes share a single radio set.

"The two radio stations probably have got more influence in Afghanistan than any foreign media has in any other country," he says.

The VOA broadcasts 105 minutes of news reports weekly in each of the country's two primary languages, Dari and Pashto.

Most people in Afghanistan, fluent in more than one language, listen to both kinds of broadcasts. In addition, the service airs some traditional Afghan music, brief segments on modern U.S. rock and pop music, cultural shows that include poetry readings and discussions of literature, answers to listeners' questions and the pleas of Afghans seeking information about missing relatives.

According to a survey conducted for VOA by Afghans trained in U.S. marketing techniques, listeners are most hungry for news at home. In most countries, people listen to learn about the outside world.

"International radio is just about the only game in town, if people want to know what's happening," says Bill Bell, director of research at the International Broadcasting Bureau, the parent organization of the VOA.

The survey, conducted in 1999, involved questioning more than 2,000 Afghan males; it was thought the researchers would cause problems for any women they sought to question. However, a focus group of Afghan women was convened in Pakistan as well.

People who have traveled in Afghanistan say there is sentiment among some Afghans that the Pashto service leans toward the Taliban [who are mostly Pashto speakers], and among others that the Dari language service favors the Northern Alliance - Dari being the dominant language of the rival military coalition that controls a corner of the country.

"The broadcasters have ethnic, linguistic and national association with one side of the conflict and therefore they reflect their partisanship to one side of the conflict during broadcasting," says one woman, age 40, who was interviewed by VOA's researchers.

But that view doesn't appear to inhibit people from listening. Eighty percent of Afghan men interviewed say they listen to Voice of America programs at least once a week. More than 60 percent say they listen daily.

Conservative estimates, drawing on the listening habits of Pakistan, suggest 44 percent of all Afghans listen weekly. Other countries with high audiences, such as Nigeria and Rwanda, register a little over 25 percent, Bell says.

The VOA was created during World War II to offer outside accounts of news events in countries where governments censored media outlets.

By law, its reports must be "accurate, objective and comprehensive" and they must "represent America, not any single segment of American society."

Its employees are fiercely proud of that mandate. They say it has enabled them to keep the trust of listeners even though clearly labeled editorials project the views of the U.S. government.

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