BROOKE GLADSTONE: Under the Taliban, Afghanistan had no media to speak of. It was a regime that forbade free expression, be it through music, literature or-- shaving! So when the Taliban finally fell, there was a veritable explosion of magazines, newspapers, even broadcast outlets. Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid saw the need for a sustained program of support for the burgeoning Afghan media, and used a quarter of the profits of his best-selling book, Taliban, to kick start an organization called the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan. So far, the OMFA has funded 14 publications, both in Kabul and the outlying provinces. There's a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 17,000 -- the highest in the country -- and a woman's magazine, and there's even an Afghan version of the British satirical journal Private Eye. Waheed Warasta manages the day to day operations of the OMFA in Kabul. Mr. Warasta, welcome to On the Media.
WAHEED WARASTA: Thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me an example of a report that one of your publications printed that seemed to have made a difference.
WAHEED WARASTA: Yeah. One of our publications in the City of Khost which was one of the Al Qaeda areas, Mazal (ph) Weekly was established in that province with our financial support, was the first independent and free publication in the province. In its first and second issues it directly started criticizing the governor in that province and some other authorities. It came under pressure by--directly by the governor, and it was reported to me. I went to the minister of information and culture, and he wrote an open letter addressed to the governor of that province asking him not to bother and harass the journalists there. So it helped other journalists so much that even after our publication, another publication started in that province, and the editor of that publication was again under pressure, and at that time, the editor of our funded publication went and negotiated with the authorities there and solved the problem there. So now the problems are reducing in that province.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's a great story.
WAHEED WARASTA: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:What I'm curious about is the satirical publication that you fund. Are you feeling any pressure from the government when you take them on, when you lampoon ministers?
WAHEED WARASTA: Yeah. Our very successful publication, Zambay Lahram (ph) which is the satirical publication sometimes has come under pressure from some of the party authorities, but at the moment the Karzai government seems to be open to criticism, as it has expressed commitment to support freedom of expression. But most of our publications are receiving sometimes anonymous threat letters, including the satirical publication, and sometimes are directly threatened by an authority. The biggest problem in Afghanistan is that no one can write against religion. You can criticize politicians, you can criticize leaders, you can write about politics or any--anything else -- that doesn't mean that you won't be threatened. You will be threatened, but it won't be as dangerous as writing against religion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are the consequences of writing against religion?
WAHEED WARASTA:Based on the Islam religion, anyone speaking against Islam should be sentenced to death. And have those sentences been carried out, or is there just a fear that they could be?
WAHEED WARASTA: No, haven't been carried out but, just the fear, but in the history of Afghanistan, self-censorship is the main problem that starts by journalists themselves. I mean if 50 percent the authorities are threatening, 50 percent the journalists themselves are also to blame for not using their courage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How easy is it to ask people, though, to find the courage if the consequences of being courageous could possibly be death?
WAHEED WARASTA:If they don't take risks, it will be very difficult to go ahead. It's a fight. We should continue this fight. We may sometimes sacrifice our lives, but no problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can I ask you a personal question?
WAHEED WARASTA: Yes, please.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You seem to be a very young man. Can I ask how old you are?
WAHEED WARASTA: Yeah. 26.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've never had any direct experience of a free press, have you, in your own country?
WAHEED WARASTA:In fact, I come from a cultural family, where my brother, Dr. Abdul Sami Ahmed is one of the very famous poets and journalists in Afghanistan who has always been very courageous in expressing what he wants to express, and he has received physical threats and tortures. During the Communist regime, I remember him being arrested and tortured by the intelligence of the Communist regime. But he again resisted, and resisted. I have been born so courageous because of my brother. He has been the teacher of my courage. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
WAHEED WARASTA: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Waheed Warasta manages the day to day operations of the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, Congress stares down the FCC, sort of...and when sex in the media was new and educational...sort of.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Remember you can get free transcripts of the show and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org. This is On the Media, from NPR.