From Shar'ia to Shakira
Photo by Margaretta Soehendro

From Shar'ia to Shakira

Nushin Arbabzadah talks about Afghan media, past and present

By William Hong
Deputy Editor

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The history of Afghanistan's media has been a roller coaster of ups and downs.

"There's always this rapid progress followed by backlash, and then we fall back for another 60 years, and then the next person dares to challenge," said Nushin Arbabzadah, a former chief sub-editor for BBC Monitoring and a contributing writer for AsiaMedia.

Growing up in Afghanistan during the Soviet Union's occupation from 1979-1989, she witnessed the curtailing of freedom of expression in Afghanistan, but she has since seen the return of it.

Arbabzadah said improved local Afghan reporting has increasingly become more competitive with established news organizations like the BBC. Despite setbacks, including a failed bid to change Radio Afghanistan -- a government mouthpiece -- into a media organization similar to the BBC, Afghans are now beginning to feel more comfortable speaking out.

"Afghanistan is the only country in the region, perhaps in all the Muslim world, where there is freedom of expression," Arbabzadah said.

Although the image of Shakira's body was pixilated on Tolo TV's broadcast of the singer's concert last year, Arbabzadah said the broadcast was a turning point for a country that banned television for half a decade during the Taliban's reign in the late 1990s.

The creation of Tolo TV in 2004 gave women more presence on television, and the network addressed previously unspoken issues like forced marriages and feminist rights. It has been a challenge to achieve a balance of incorporating a free and contemporary media within the Muslim framework, Arbabzadah said. Tolo TV is no stranger to criticism, pressure and threats from conservative clerics. In 2005, the 24-year-old former female host of an MTV-style music show on Tolo TV, Shaima Rezaye, was murdered at her home in Kabul. Two years later, the Shakira broadcast generated heated reaction again.

"Even though it was heavily pixilated, it led to backlash from conservatives that nearly closed down Tolo TV," Arbabzadah said.

Fostering change in a traditionally conservative Muslim country has not been easy.

Mahmud Tarzi, considered the father of Afghan journalism, returned from Turkish exile in the late 19th century and founded the country's first national paper, a biweekly called Seraj-al-Akhbar. The newspaper was a vehicle for Tarzi to push for modernization at a time when Afghanistan was isolated from the rest of the world. But the progress he and his family made in education and women's rights reforms were erased when his son-in-law King Amanullah Khan was overthrown in 1929 by conservatives incensed by the king's rapid modernization.

Future leaders adopted a conservative stance in fear of similar uprisings. The country isolated itself again and entered a "period of stagnation" until the 1978 communist coup. Then in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed Babrak Karmal as president. The Soviet regime continued the state-run-only media model already in place, through which it pushed its propaganda. But it also provided journalism training, decreed financial help and housing improvements for journalists, and increased the number of publications. When the mujahideen defeated the Soviet occupation and the Taliban rose to power, freedom of expression took another step back as the Taliban imposed a ban on television, movies and music.

Only Radio Shar'ia remained solely as the Taliban's mouthpiece. Arbabzadah said that because Afghans only heard and never saw their political leaders, the leaders "created myths about themselves, of heroism and great intelligence," and the people imagined them as powerful, strong and charismatic -- until the United States invaded Afghanistan.

"The most significant change that took place after the [American] invasion in 2001 was for the first time we had freedom of press... This was a revolution for the media scene in Afghanistan," Arbabzadah said.

With the rise of media, political leaders began appearing on television to give interviews and answer questions.

"Of course, the results were disastrous," Arbabzadah said.

Only Kabul has benefited from the freer media environment, with a plethora of new publications and television and radio stations having sprung up. Not all the new media outlets have survived, though, and journalists, media personnel, and TV personalities have been killed by the Taliban and individuals that considered their work culturally subversive. But the liberated Afghan media persists.

"The last six years there has been a great deal of progress in Afghanistan. We have private media who have dared to challenge traditional Afghan values, redefine the place of women in society, and demystified political power," Arbabzadah said.

Arbabazadah's overview of the history of Afghan media took place on April 9, 2008, at an event co-sponsored by the Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars and the UCLA Asia Institute.