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Pakistan's new media offers more space for dialogue

22 April 2009

Jeanne Bourgault

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Khyber Radio, a local government supported station, has transformed the way information in Pakistan is disseminated. It has provided common people a platform to voice their concerns and counter the hate propaganda of fundamentalist forces.

As the Obama administration searches for a refocused strategy to help calm and stabilise the dangerous northern provinces of Pakistan, one cheap and effective tool should be pressed into service: the microphone of legal local media.

A woman at a Pakistani radio station
Image credits: Internews / A woman at a radio station in Pakistan

Giving people a voice and the ability to engage in public dialogue through public-interest media is desperately needed as an antidote to the hate speech now used by militants in Pakistan's northern territory. This firebrand rhetoric that has spread across the area threatens to further destabilise both Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan and needs to be addressed quickly.

I learned this firsthand a few weeks ago on a trip to Pakistan. Very often, my work for an international media development organisation takes me to places suffering from "information poverty" – places with little or no media to inform the public. But in parts of Pakistan, people are suffering from being force-fed too much of the same fare: hateful and ignorant messages intended to frighten citizens into submission.

Militants in Pakistan's restive border region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have exploited the power of radio for their benefit. There, some 100 illegal mobile radio stations broadcast across an area larger than the size of all Maine's coastal counties combined, from Kittery to Eastport.

These illegal daily broadcasts tell people that shaving beards is forbidden and that women are not to be educated. They provide grisly lists of people who have been or will be executed for a growing litany of "crimes." People scurry to tune in to daily broadcasts to make sure they are aware of the latest rules.

As one journalist in Pakistan told me: "It totally redefines the meaning of a 'captive audience.'"

Community radio

And yet, in this sea of angry messaging, there are beacons of hope that point the way forward for American, Pakistani and Afghan policymakers: supporting legal, local broadcasters that defy the risks to serve the information needs of their communities. One of these is Khyber Radio, a small, legally licensed and local government-supported station that provides news to people in FATA.

Khyber Radio is gutsy, producing independent, objective newscasts. In a region where women are rarely given the freedoms afforded to men, the station has both male and female reporters. Its news focuses on local issues that matter to local people.

It also entertains. It recently held "Khyber Idol" where people could vote for their favourite singers. In a place where music is considered dangerous, the station was flooded with text messages voting for some 80 contestants.

This station's broadcasts are so popular that a local militant recently called asking that the musical preamble to the news be taken off the air. He rationalised that while he wanted the news, he was forbidden from listening to the musical part.

Khyber Radio represents a locally grown antidote to the poison now filling the vacuum on the airwaves. Pakistan desperately needs numerous stations like Khyber Radio to help counteract the relentless, hateful messaging of militants.

Liberalising community radio

Such a wave of new broadcasters would build local community and open space for informed dialogue between citizens and the government of Pakistan. The government of Pakistan should be commended for liberalising the broadcast airwaves through much of the country; it now needs to extend legal licensing of independent, pubic-interest media in the FATA to allow such stations to multiply and thrive.

The US government should be commended for recognising the power of and providing support to local media in neighbouring Afghanistan; it now needs to make similar commitments across the border in Pakistan.
One recent survey in the area found that "many of the listeners who tune in to militant or mullah-run stations do so largely out of boredom and for want of a better alternative."

By training journalists and helping to set up new radio stations, America and Pakistan can offer this alternative. Supporting local, independent media is a cheap but effective weapon against instability and terror.

Source : Internews

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