In Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, once a major center of opium poppy production and still a hotbed of insurgent activity women
traditionally don’t have a say in matters political or otherwise. But Mina Safi and Zarmina Safi wanted some answers. They wanted to know why the Taliban burnt down schools. Noting that Islam opposes such actions, they asked the Afghan Education Ministry to take steps to keep schools safe. They sent an SMS to RFE/RL’s Afghanistan Service, Radio Azadi, hoping the ministry would notice.
Working with local mobile provider Etisalat, Radio Azadi started its SMS service in October 2010 to connect the station more directly with its audience, especially villagers in remote, inaccessible regions who are often cut off from news and information. During its first year of operation, the service has garnered nearly 400,000 regular subscribers of all ages, genders and walks of life.
"The exciting thing is that it's not just Radio Azadi sending news to subscribers," says RFE Associate Director of Broadcasting Akbar Ayazi. "It's also about our subscribers sending news back to us - this 'citizen journalism' is unique in Afghanistan."
The content of the SMS messages sent to Radio Azadi range from political topics (Anonymous: “Iran stopping oil shipments to Afghanistan and killing Afghans within Iran is unjustifiable. Why is the Afghan government not paying attention to this? We ask his Excellency Hamid Karzai to defend Afghan rights in Iran”) to issues like local teacher's training institute lacking a building or political parties extracting money from locals by blocking roads and making violent threat. Because the service is anonymous and discreet, women are also able to correspond actively with Radio Azadi.
Radio Azadi, which was first aired in Afghanistan from 1985-93 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has been on the air in its current incarnation since January 2002. Its radio programs, which are broadcast 12 hours a day, Azadi's website, and SMS news service, are offered in both Dari and Pashto languages. Broadcasts include news, talk shows, special programs for youth and women, political satires and music and literary programs. The SMS service delivers news headlines twice a day and breaking news alerts to users of the Etisalat mobile phone network, who can subscribe to receive SMS alerts free of charge.
Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan has an estimated 57 per cent penetration rate for mobile phone use - 17 million subscribers out of a population of 29 million. In addition to the free SMS headline service, Radio Azadi and Etisalat recently incorporated a fee-based IVR (Intelligent Voice Response) technology into the mobile service, allowing on-demand audio streams of broadcasts including breaking news, sports broadcasts and political satire. Both services reinforce traditional radio delivery, which is still the main media platform.
The SMS responses from listeners offer Azadi’s reporters a true picture of public sentiment and is a key pointer of issues listeners want addressed that is hard to match through typical third-party reporting. “We receive more than 150 SMS text responses daily. They range from current affairs to the problems villagers face in their daily life,” say Radio Azadi reporters.
Often these SMSs also provide crucial news tips. In one case the service received an SMS from Kunduz province, stating that a local pro-government militia had killed a civilian. A Radio Azadi reporter followed up on the lead and reported on the death, generating significant local media coverage and forcing the government to promise to increase pressure on militia groups.
For the listeners this service enables them to have a voice in the political and social processes of the country and share concerns with people across regions and provinces without intermediaries. In early 2011, Salam from Kabul wrote to ask, “My question is why even after the activation of the fiber optic the ministry of communications failed to reduce internet costs? The hourly cost of internet with Afghan telecom is 60 Afghani, which is very expensive, and a student cannot afford to use the internet.”
The common man in Afghanistan might not be a regular Twitter but this SMS service does provide a way to instantly air views. As one farmer sent in anonymously: “In Poli Charkhi region of Kabul, some powerful people are stopping cars and taking 5,000 to 10,000 Afghani from each. Right now we are stopped by them in very cold weather and they are asking for 10,000 Afghani. My car is fully loaded with potatoes that I have to ship to Jalalabad and I’m standing in the cold.”
SMS is not the only way listeners interact with Radio Azadi. They also call to leave voice mail messages – and story leads. Last weeks a truck driver left a voicemail message with Radio Azadi, complaining about how grossly overweight cargo trucks were helping destroy Afghanistan’s new network of modern highways. Officials, whose immediate concern is keeping the roads secure from Taliban sabotage, can’t always be blamed. The service responded by devoting a weekly current affairs show to a discussion of the question with experts and government officials and posted a story on its website that was followed up with reports from all over Afghanistan. Within a week, in response to Radio Azadi’s coverage of the issue, the Afghan Ministry of Public Affairs announced new measures to prevent the destruction of highways by overloaded trucks.
It’s hard to plan too far ahead into the future in Afghanistan but for now Radio Azadi plans to continue offering SMS alerts and IVR service as long as listeners and the market in Afghanistan ask for it.