Community radio struggling in hostile environment

Surrounded by a group of noisy young people, Zakia Zaki, a 40-year-old headmistress, tries to host a children’s programme on Radio Solh (Peace) - a community radio initiative in Jabulsaraj in the central Afghan province of Parvan. The province was on the front line between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance (NA) for more than five years, which left shattered lives everywhere.

“Solh studio is like a communal home for the people here. This is the only place they dare to speak out,” Zaki, the director of Radio Solh, told IRIN. The station was established directly after the collapse of the hardline Taliban in late 2000 and is the first of its kind in the country.

Despite serious funding shortages - most are dependent on foreign donors - Solh is now one of 12 independent local radio stations in the country trying to promote freedom of expression and providing a voice to rural Afghans. Given the high percentage of illiteracy among women, radio offers one of the most powerful ways to reach and educate women.

Solh broadcasts in a radius of about 70 km, with three hours of morning and three hours of afternoon programming consisting of news, humanitarian information and educational content with an emphasis on women's issues. There's also plenty of music on the station. "People want entertainment and the latest songs as well as other things," one female volunteer told IRIN as she rushed from the makeshift studio to collect children.

"We need training as well as funding. There are many humanitarian stories around, but we need more professional expertise to deliver them,” Mohammad Aman Sharif, Solh’s news editor, explained.

Establishing Solh - which has given local people a platform to air their views as well as gain information - was not easy, given Afghan traditions and the power of local warlords. “We got night letters (leaflets) from a local warlord threatening me with death, just after we opened,” Zaki said, noting that as a woman, it had been tremendously difficult to run an independent radio station in a conservative male-dominated society. But she persevered. “The local community and elders warned the warlord on many occasions to leave us alone, so he realised my army [community support] was greater and stronger than his."

Whether radio stations like Solh can ever be financially sustainable remains an open question in Afghanistan's fledgling broadcast sector. “Sustainability is a big issue at all the radio stations [in Afghanistan]. The vast majority of these stations are quite new and are facing vast challenges linked to national reconstruction, economic uncertainty, poverty and the like,” Jane McElhone of the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS), a Canadian NGO working on strengthening civil society and democracy, told IRIN in Kabul.

Although community support is strong for stations like Solh, enthusiastic volunteers are not enough to keep its six hours of daily programming on the air. The station, which was initially funded by a French NGO, is now finding it difficult to keep good staff as community support only stretches as far as operating costs. “The community is very poor, but they still get fuel for the generator while we need to pay our volunteers at least some incentives," she said, noting that four professional staff had already left when they did not get paid for months last year.

Foreign NGOs that have been supporting media initiatives in Afghanistan like IMPACs, say stations like Sohl cannot survive on their own. “We feel it will be important to continue to support these stations in a variety of ways, whether that be financially or in terms of training,” McElhone stressed.

IMPACS said they were planning to establish a network of female radio journalists, radio stations and radio production and training units around the country. “This will give Afghan women a voice and the skills and self-confidence they need to participate more fully in their society,” she ascertained.