Radio in FATA: A foreign voice for local problems
During my job at a radio station, I got one of my listeners to come in for some questions. In came 60-year-old Haji Noor Zaman, who is from the Khyber Agency and was internally displaced due to the operation against militants.
My first question to him was,
Do you still listen to radio?
He replied saying,
Yes, I do, but only to the news bulletin of Radio Deewa.
Radio Deewa is a US government sponsored radio station.
Curious, I asked:
So, what’s new up there?
America has diverted its cannon towards Balochistan and has built up a human rights case against Pakistan.
He was hinting at the assertion made by US Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, regarding Balochistan.
Haji Noor Zaman is not the only one. He is among almost six million tribal people who depend on US-sponsored media broadcasting in the tribal regions of Pakistan.
Surprised by the comment, stated so calmly, and coming from an illiterate person who once owned a hashish store at the Khyber Agency, I was eager to learn more. I pressed further, asking,
Well, if they are making a human rights case against our country, why do you bother listening to it?
He answered in a matter-of-fact tone:
No local radio provides this sort of critical news . I do not change the dial as long as they provide relevant local news.
Understanding his point of view and the mindset which I assumed most tribal people have, I drew the conclusion that he was interested in listening to local news and not just entertainment news on the only medium available - radio broadcasting.
The readers of newspapers and viewers of television are luckier than radio listeners in Pakistan because they have the news readily available to them. People belonging to tribal areas like FATA and the Khyber Agency don’t have access to mainstream media. Using the internet for information is wishful thinking as most of the region has no electricity or telephone connections.
The problem that one faces when doing a private news business in the tribal areas of Pakistan is that of certain laws prohibiting independent local broadcasting. That is the reason locals don’t know much about what is going around in their own surroundings and hence are not even aware of most rights, like the right to good education, the right to good health, the right to freedom of expression, the right to the freedom of assembly, legal counselling and so on.
In the absence of local broadcasting, people rely on US monitored radios who offer local and regional information in the Pashtu language. The entire FATA region could tell you what happens to Muslims in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan because they have access to global information through radio networks but they wouldn’t be able to tell you what is happening around them because their own local media doesn’t exist.
A local reporter, working for an English newspaper, got a phone call from a person who was a native of the Khyber Agency telling him that his daughter’s polio case has been confirmed. After taking necessary details, the reporter asked the man,
Why do you want to tell people this story?
The caller’s response was quite interesting. He stated that he wanted to tell the public so that they agree to a polio drive otherwise they too would lose their daughters.
To me, his selection of medium looks inappropriate because he was about to convey his message to English readers, who already understand its importance. Ideally, this story should be told to people through radio broadcasts; a popular medium in the border region, for those who would be affected by news like this more than the literate class able to read English.
Unfortunately, that father didn’t call the local government radio station because, it seemed, he had no faith in that radio station. Most of the victims of various operations bring their chronicles to newspaper reporters in order to document their narratives because they don’t have any other reliable option.
The stakeholders, including local government executives who earn profitable shares from the border region, seem to have an unspoken interest in keeping the masses away from having a community voice against injustices done to them.
Secondly, the executives were allowed by the government to control instead of serve the people; a principle left to them by the British Raj that has continued ever since. At one point, Mullah Radio had grabbed the attention of many, as they were critical of the injustices done by the system and offered solutions in the form of Islamic Sharia. This, however, was a medium that was taken advantage of by the mullahs and we see how political advantage for them has flourished in Swat and FATA.
The local government in FATA and Swat didn’t see the importance of the radio reaching the public as the mullahs did and even today, local government officials don’t use the radio, preferring newspapers over radio broadcasts because it is easier to quantify a newspapers success to an individual sitting in Islamabad or Peshawar than actually reach out to the people. The irony, however, is that the local government has yet to establish radio in Swat, which was devastated by the Mullah Radio. The radio, which is regarded as cheap medium for the masses is a preconceived notion that people in the bigger cities have; what they don’t realise is that it is not just a cheap medium, it is the only one.
The local media can win back the audience that has diverted itself to foreign radio if they are allowed to play the role that foreign channels are now playing. If they would take foreign media as a form of competition they would increase their own ratings and win the minds of the locals as well. They would, however, need to incorporate more relevant topics of importance such as militancy, security, politics and good governance into the agenda. Today our local radios lack all these, even in other areas of Pakistan.
Good local radio journalism cannot, however, be established in the region unless the government ensures freedom, protection and provisions for a less costly license. The federal government needs to understand that the people have a right to express their opinions whether that entails criticising policies that are preventing their benefit.
The 18th Amendment has abolished the “concurrent list” and gives much more provincial autonomy than is now available to the provinces. If the provinces still have technical problems in having powers to establish local radios, they should demand this from federal government to inform marginalized communities across the country.
Theoretically, everyone agrees that the radio can play a vital role in governance and in alleviating the feeling of hopelessness that some of these people have due to system injustices. But in practice, they don’t want to allow the voices of these impoverished communities to be heard.
If we don’t establish and empower local radios stations, then listeners like Haji Noor Zaman will also refuse to change the dial to listen to the local radio; them siding with American sentiments will not be a question of preference anymore, but rather a question of belligerence and a lack of choices.
This post originally appeared here.
Read more by Tayyeb here.