Why fighting Mullah Radio is not easy

As the days passed, I came to realize that Radio Khyber was established to give a voice to government activities.

Tayyeb Afridi March 12, 2012
It was on May 7, 2006 that our team started the transmission of Radio Khyber, located within Khyber Agency, one among the seven districts of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) in the north-western part of the country.

I started transmitting with a passion to empower local people and give them a voice- a voice which had been kept silent since 1901, the day the colonial empire of India promulgated the Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) in Fata. The FCR was designed by the British, who used the region’s own tribal traditions and social psyche to rule ruthlessly over the territory. All the sections of this law, which to this day are still intact in tribal areas, are authoritarian. One among them was a ban on freedom of expression.

It was ironic for me that even though the ban had never been repealed, the Pakistani government decided to establish four radio stations in Fata, and we journalists were hired - after years of reporting for the newspapers.

However as the days passed, I came to realize that Radio Khyber was established to give a voice to the government activities and developments – not to its people. There was no element of local empowerment, with the government more interested in using the airwaves to fight back against three mullah radios, which were at that time broadcasting in the Khyber Agency.

We tried to explain that without the local community buying in, there would be no audience for Radio Khyber, far less change a whole region’s mindset. We also argued that what was needed was a way to ensure the station’s credibility for the public – and that was not possible without news and opinion programming. The government was leery - news and views could bring about unrest, disturb law and order - and no local radio stations had been allowed to broadcast local news.

Once, a political agent of the Khyber Agency in Fata Secretariat (Fata Secretariat is a body which runs the affairs of tribal areas and appoints political agents to each district of Fata) criticized radio and questioned the outcome of this station, proposing to shut it down. If a top executive of the tribal district, who has the power of policing and prosecution, was not supporting legitimate airwaves and at the same time couldn’t stop illegal firebrand mullah radios, what could one expect other than its closure.

When the person responsible for the radio station tells you there is no room for local news, how are you supposed to meet your mission of promoting a positive image of the government?

It’s not enough to play music. Also, the hate radio stations had banned music, labeling music "Satan's work".  So if music, in their opinion, is Satan's work and those radio stations still have a large audience, then it doesn’t make sense to fight back by playing music. This is a very basic issue that needs to be addressed.

When the mullah radio stations reported to their followers that the government wanted to modernize tribal women and men on the finger tips of west by playing music, what happened? They started a campaign against government's radio.  For example, the chief of Lashkar-e-Islam, Mangal Bagh twice warned the people not to call radio stations because they were promoting vulgarity.

However, when we started local bulletins - brief news updates - with the approval of a high ranking officer, it went well enough that we had covered the whole military operation in Swat. The hate radios didn’t have to offer news bulletin and opinion programing to community and therefore, the public turned on to the government station because it was giving fresh news bulletin and news programing.  No one threatened us because we were seen as non-biased reporters. Impartiality is the only security guarantee for a journalist in Pakistan, but news bulletins were closed down in March 2010, for security reasons.

The people in Fata are very used to radio broadcasting and they prefer Pashto news bulletins from VOA Pashtu Service, BBC Pashtu, Radio Azadi Afghanistan Pashtu Service, and Radio Mashaal Pashtu. The literate people of Fata also listen to BBC Urdu Service, VOA Urdu Service, Voice of Germany Urdu Service, Radio Veritas Asia Urdu Service, Radio China Urdu Service, Radio Tehran Urdu Service and Delhi Radio Pashtu Service.

How could Radio Pakistan compete with that much news broadcasting? If you have a news service that only provides information about the government -- what the president said, what the prime minister said and what the information minister said – then you are just ignoring community problems.

You can’t compete in the tribal areas when there’s so much other, reputable news broadcasting. The government has lost an important potential audience to Radio Deewa and Radio Mashaal, which are funded by the US State Department.  When I asked Shandi Gul, an office boy who works at Radio Razmak, North Waziristan why he listened to Radio Mashaal, his reply was simple; he just wanted to know what was going on in his surroundings. This proves that days of centralized information dissemination have gone and people are now more concerned about local news.

The total estimated area of Fata is 27,220 sqare kilometres (10,509 sq mi). It has been covered by foreign radio broadcasters providing news and other programming in the Pashtu and Urdu languages. The expert staff hails from Pakhtun areas, which were earlier neglected by the mainstream media, but are suddenly in the headlines. Every journalist seems to be an expert on the "tribal bad lands".

The government is fighting a losing battle for the minds of the people in Fata with those four radio stations. One in Wana, South Waziristan, was closed down in 2009. None of them will ever be successful until and unless local media is allowed to hold accountable the local administration, education, health, agriculture, sericulture, and forestry, public works departments and development projects.

Just talking about patriotism isn’t enough.

That doesn’t solve the common man’s problems and if people’s wishes and hopes are not respected now in Fata than they were in the past, then those people will choose to change the dial – and listen to a radio broadcast that does.

This post originally appeared here
Tayyeb Afridi A radio journalist since 2005, Tayyeb is currently working as a radio development manager at a media development organization in Peshawar.
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