BOB GARFIELD: The Bush administration is touting the upcoming election in Afghanistan as proof that it has defeated the Taliban and put the nation on the course to democracy. But warlords control much of the country, and violence still reigns. In the midst of all the uncertainty, how stands the keystone of democracy -- a free and unfettered press? For decades, the vast majority of Afghan citizens have relied on radio for their news. OTM's Miranda Kennedy went to Kabul to look into what kind of news they're listening to. [SOUND OF IWPR NEWSROOM]
MIRANDA KENNEDY: In the newsroom of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, dozens of Afghan journalists are working to meet their day's deadlines. IWPR is one of several media organizations giving training to local journalists in Afghanistan, and they've just set up Afghanistan's first independent news agency. Right now, the IWPR material is being distributed in true Afghan style. In some places, stories are photocopied and transported to newsrooms by motorbike. But the biggest challenge has been giving Afghans basic skills and trying to purge them of the culture of censorship. Lisa Schnellinger is the Institute's coordinator in Afghanistan.
LISA SCHNELLINGER: The organization was used to working in countries where people at least had a basic education, I mean a decent basic education. When we came here, reporters not only needed basic reporting skills; they didn't have good general knowledge even about their own country. They didn't have good language skills. All of this is, obviously, the result of disrupted education, disrupted lives.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: These cultural difficulties are amplified for Afghan women, but despite that, half of IWPR's trainees are women now. Similar advances can be seen at Radio Arman, Kabul's most popular commercial radio station. [SOUND: RADIO ARMAN - DJ MASOOD, MUSIC UNDER] Radio Arman was established as a completely apolitical commercial venture, say the three Afghan-Australian brothers who founded it a year ago. But even simple things become political acts in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and Radio Arman often breaks new ground. One Arman call-in talk show gives love advice to Kabul's teenagers. Kabul's conservative clerics are outraged with that program, but it's just one in a long line of controversies, says Zaid Mohseni, one of Radio Arman's founders.
ZAID MOHSENI: When we first started, we had some substantial criticism from certain conservative quarters about the fact that one, we had women on the air. When people sort of got used to that idea, then there was criticism about the fact that women were interacting with the men on the show -- like they weren't just coming on, reading the news and disappearing. They were actually having a conversation with a man. And then when they overcame that, there was complaints about the fact that women were laughing on the air. At one point, a newspaper had a cartoon of two people in bed, and underneath it had: "Arman FM DJs." [SOUND: RADIO ARMAN MALE, FEMALE DJs ON AIR] [LAUGHTER]
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Radio Arman is probably Afghanistan's biggest media success story. It's taken the Western top 40 format and molded it to Afghan tastes. [RADIO ARMAN TRAILER & AFGHAN MUSIC & UNDER] Arman plays its own unique mix of Afghan, Bollywood and Western music. Its weekly top 40 charts often feature J Lo and Ricky Martin, along with the Afghan and Indian artists. Radio Arman has clearly struck a chord with Kabul residents. For a promotional contest to make its first anniversary, Arman received a colossal 30,000 entries in 36 hours, which may be a world record. But that's not a surprise to Masood Sanjer, Radio Arman's hottest DJ.
MASOOD SANJER: That's because for five years people had nothing. There was no music. There was nothing. It's like if you give a thirsty person a glass of water, and it looks like that to me. It is a revolution.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Masood should know about revolution. He was a news reader for the Taliban's official radio service until they were swept from power in December 2001.
MASOOD SANJER: You can't compare two years ago with now. It's totally different. Now you have a voice, you can say. For example, under the Taliban, the radio was too strict. Now I am doing the 6-9 Breakfast Show in Arman FM-- I am chatting, I'm joking, I'm laughing, with no restriction of the words.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: It seems that even conservative Kabulites have recognized by now that Radio Arman is here to stay. But as Arman begins to expand nationwide, they expect to encounter fresh problems in other cities. There's no doubt in anyone's mind that press freedoms have dramatically improved since the fall of the Taliban. Afghanistan now has a law protecting independent media for the first time. But a recent report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists found that Afghanistan's fledgling democracy still presents many obstacles to a free media. Local journalists continue to be pressured by Islamic conservatives and threatened by government officials, warlords and armed militias. Many editors and publishers rely on funds from political parties or warlords, and that clearly takes a toll on their ability to be impartial. Out in Afghanistan's remote and lawless provinces, journalists who aren't on the payroll of a warlord or who criticize his regime often feel all kinds of pressures.
WAHEED WARASTA: Sometimes these pressures are in the form of letters of threat to close down their offices. Sometimes unknown men in the military uniform come to their offices and threaten them to close down.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: Waheed Warasta heads the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan which was founded shortly after the fall of the Taliban to support independent publications. Warasta cites several examples of journalists being intimidated and run out of town for criticizing a local leader. In one recent case, a reporter for Radio Free Europe, which is funded by the U.S. government, was forced to leave the western city of Herat by the powerful local warlord, Ismail Khan.
WAHEED WARASTA: He was first humiliated verbally by Ismail Khan when he asked some clever questions in front of others, and then was physically beaten, then warned to evacuate Herat. Ismail Khan was describing these free journalists as the "slaves of the West."
MIRANDA KENNEDY: But Waheed believes that it's the duty of Afghan journalists to struggle against such forces.
WAHEED WARASTA: Journalists have to sacrifice, in my opinion. They have to be brave. They have to go forward. They might even lose their life, but they should open the way for others --otherwise, being coward and being cautious will not solve the problem. This is a life fight, I should say, that we should carry.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: With Afghanistan's first ever full-fledged democratic elections fast approaching, that fight couldn't be more essential. For On the Media, I'm Miranda Kennedy, in Kabul. [MUSIC]