Afghan journalists fight to get the news out

Victoria Wells

Victoria WellsWhen Ahmad Zia went back to Afghanistan to work as a journalist for the newspaper Kabul Weekly, he knew he wanted to help rebuild the country. And journalism seemed the perfect vehicle to do just that.

The country needs journalists to speak up about injustice. Knowing this, Zia, newly graduated from Seneca College’s journalism program, left his family behind in Toronto, hoping to give the people of his home country a voice.

“It was about my dreams,” Zia said. “My dreams for the country, for the people’s well-being, changing people’s lives and increasing the people’s understanding of what is happening.”

The Afghan-Canadian reporter spoke recently about the emerging role of journalism in Afghanistan at the East York campus of Centennial College. Zia volunteers as an English translator for Kabul Weekly, which has a circulation of 10,000 and publishes in English, Dari and Pashto. It reaches more people than any other newspaper in Afghanistan.

But the literacy rate in the country is low, with only 20 per cent of the population able to read. Radio has become the most effective way of getting information out to the people. Zia translates articles from Kabul Weekly and reads them on a local radio station to ensure the stories are heard. The newspaper also runs a website written in English and Dari.

Ahmad ZiaThough information is getting out, Zia said the country is having difficulty with the idea of free speech, especially because the government virtually ignores journalists.

“The freedom of speech that works well in Canada doesn’t in Afghanistan because the president doesn’t read the newspaper and even if he does, he doesn’t care,” Zia told the Toronto audience. “Government top officials are untouchable.”

Still, journalists put their lives on the line every day to report in Afghanistan. Zia said they do it because they understand how important it is to question the government – even if it feels as if their efforts go unnoticed.

“We journalists take freedom of speech as a way to ease our own hearts,” he said. “But if you’re talking about the effectiveness of it, it will take time. It will take a long time before politicians will get used to listening to the media.”

That is a problem Afghan journalists are doggedly fighting against. Faced with opposition from the government, reporters often find it difficult to pin down sources. Many times, officials simply won’t talk out of fear of losing their jobs.

“They build a wall around themselves to prevent interference,” said Zia.

To get around the problem of finding officials who will speak with them, journalists must go to other lengths to get information.

“Cross-checking, double checking, looking at the story from a different angle, talking with the people who are being impacted,” he said, are some ways they go about securing stories.

In the past three years, he noted, the Afghanistan attorney general’s office has tried to get Kabul Weekly to reveal sources on five different occasions. Though no law has yet been passed that guarantees the media the right to protect their sources, one has been introduced. And the reporters at the newspaper work as if the law has been approved. Zia says they refuse to expose those who provide them with information.

The fight to get the news out – and read – has left the newspaper struggling financially. Criticism of government policies resulted in the loss of advertising revenue to the paper. The lack of funds forced Kabul Weekly to shut down for six months in 2007. Thanks to the support of Reporters without Borders, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Open Society Institute, the paper resumed operations in May 2007.

Zia said the newspaper was offered financial support sooner, but with strings attached.  

“The United States Embassy offered $1 million and technical assistance, with one condition: that articles be reviewed by embassy staff before going to print,” he said. “We are proud that we refused.”

Kabul Weekly is still struggling to run under financial strain. To ensure their eight full-time reporters are paid, Zia goes without salary, as does the editor of the paper, his brother Faheem Dashti. (Zia has also worked as a communications advisor to various Karzai government ministries, and for several western NGOs in order to pay the bills. He has worked with foreign correspondents from Canadian outlets reporting from Afghanistan, including CTV News’s Steve Chao, and the National Post‘s Tom Blackwell.)

But journalism faces other problems in Afghanistan. It can be a dangerous job, with the threat of violence or suicide bombings always present.

“You cannot predict where it can happen,” Zia said. “You have to trust your gut and just continue.”

That’s one of the reasons why reporters are hard to find in Afghanistan. But mostly, it’s because the country suffers from a lack of credible journalism schools. Those that do exist face severe shortages of textbooks and equipment, as well as government interference. Because of this, media organizations often train staff in-house and staffers must learn effective teaching techniques as they go.

However, in spite of the hardships, Zia remains confident that journalism will find a foothold in Afghanistan. Already he sees the work of media like Kabul Weekly making a difference in how the country is run.

“One of our friends told us that President Karzai sometimes reads Kabul Weekly,” he said. “Freedom of speech created monitoring of government activities. Government officials don’t feel as free as they did. They think twice before taking an action.”

Victoria Wells is a senior student studying in the three-year print journalism program at Centennial College in Toronto. She is co-managing editor of the college’s new first-year journalism magazine, Freshly Pressed.