by Anisha Suterwala
The media in Afghanistan may, to Western eyes, appear nonexistent. Afghanistan seems a place of censorship and oppression, with people lacking basic amenities, let alone freedom of speech. According to Nushin Arbabzadah, visiting scholar at UCLA and writer for The Guardian, however, the media is the biggest source of political and social change that is taking place in Muslim countries.
On Tuesday, November 2, Arbabzadah spoke at Yale about the growing media influence in Afghanistan.
“In 2001, before the Taliban’s collapse, we only had one TV station in Afghanistan and that was it. There was no media,” Arbabzadah explained. “Now, 10 years later, we have 75 TV stations, 135 radio stations and 300 newspapers. The media has become an economic force in Afghanistan.”
Arbabzadah suggested several ways in which Afghanistan differs from other Muslim-majority countries and stressed that the effect these differences have had on the development of the media there.
According to Arbabzadah, because of the extremely disjointed modernization of Afghanistan as a result of military interventions (first by the Soviet Union and then by the United States) and the lack of unification in the Afghan population (78% live in rural areas), forms of media are often unique to the area in which they are broadcast.
“The TV stations in cities work towards nation-building, but the TV stations in the provinces work towards ethno-religious identity making,” Arbabzadah said. “But it’s also a little quirky, because in rural areas people listen to BBC, which they can receive because it broadcasts on AM waves. Aghan radios broadcast in FM which cannot be received in rural areas.”
Arbabzadah also discussed the issue of free speech in Afghan media. The military intervention of 2001 brought free speech to Afghanistan — the issue now, she said, is defining the limits to free speech. Usually, fear of an overbearing culture leads the religious authorities to block television programming. This is especially the case with the Indian soap operas that are hugely popular in Afghanistan. India, nearly a neighbor to Afghanistan, provides the dominant cultural force in Afghanistan, but the two countries’ different religions lead to problems.
Despite the combination of advances and setbacks in media development in Afghanistan, Arbabzadah cautioned the audience.
“Getting solid, reliable information from Afghanistan is one of the hardest things to do,” she conceded. “Everything people say you have to take with a pinch of salt.”
Anisha Suterwala ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at email@example.com.