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Why is Critical Media Important for Pakistan's Tribal Region?

pershawar.heston55.jpg
Photo courtesy flickr.com/heston55
A bustling street in Pershawar.

Tayyeb Afridi is a journalist from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, a region that borders Afghanistan. He visited KUT in May 2011 on a US Pakistan Journalism Exchange through the International Center for Journalists. You can read more of KUT News’ Pakistan coverage.

In Peshawar, I met a radio talk show listener Haji Noor Zaman, who is 60 years old and is displaced from Khyber Agency due to operation against militants. I asked: Do you still listen to radio? He said yes, he is listening but only to news bulletins from Radio Deewa.

Radio Deewa is U.S. government-sponsored radio. I asked what’s new. He said America has diverted its cannon facing Baluchistan and has built up its human rights case against Pakistan.

I was surprised to hear this sort of comment from a person, who is illiterate and once had a hashish shop at Khyber Agency. I asked in the same breath, that if they are making human rights case against our country, then why do you listen to it? His answer was that no local radio is providing this sort of critical news and he can’t change the dial as long as they are providing critical local information.

I got his thinking. He wanted to listen to critical media, in the form of radio broadcasting. Readers of newspapers and viewers of the television are luckier than radio listeners in Pakistan because they can read and watch critical media. But the people of FATA don’t have access to critical mainstream media, and using the Internet for information is out of the question as most of the region has no electricity and telephone connections.

 One couldn’t do private news business in tribal areas of Pakistan because of laws that prohibit independent local broadcasting. That is the reason the people don’t know much about their surroundings and even they don’t know about most of their rights: rights to good education, rights to good health, rights to freedom of expression, rights to freedom of assembly, rights to legal counseling and so on.

In the absence of local broadcasting, people rely on U.S-run radio services, which offer local and regional information in the Pashtu language. The entire FATA could tell you what happens to Muslims in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan because they have access to global information through radio networks but they couldn’t tell you what is happening to them because a critical 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 Khyber Agency, telling him that his daughter’s polio case has been confirmed. After taking details, the reporter asked why you want to tell this story to people.  The caller’s response was quite interesting. He wanted to tell the public to accept polio drops – otherwise they too would lose their daughters.

But to me, his choice 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, which is popular in the border region – and would be broadcast in their own language. Unfortunately, that father doesn’t call the local government radio station because it seemed he has no faith in that radio station.

Local government executives who benefit profitably from border region, have no interest in encouraging the masses to speak in a community voice against injustice. The executives were allowed by the government to control, instead of serve, the people. The principle was left to them by British Raj and they continued with it to serve themselves instead of people. In fact, the Mullah Radio had grabbed people’s attention as they were critical of system injustices and offered solution to these injustices in the form of Islamic Sharia. We have seen how the Mullah has used radio for his political advantage in Swat and FATA. 

The local government in FATA and Swat didn’t see radio as important in reaching the public as the Mullah did. Even today, local government officials still don’t prefer radio to newspapers, because it’s easier to show a newspaper to bosses sitting in Islamabad or Peshawar. Such officials often prefer to read newspapers rather than listen to the radio, which is regarded as a cheap medium for the masses. The irony is that local government has yet to establish radio in Swat, which was devastated by Mullah Radio.

The local media can lure back audiences from foreign radio if they were allowed to play that critical role. They would need to realize that they have competition from abroad, and they have to win local people’s hearts and minds through critical media. They would need to incorporate more important topics such as militancy, security, politics and good governance into the agenda. Today our thin Government and Commercial agency-run local radio lacks all these, even in Pakistan.

Good local radio journalism can’t be established in the region until and unless government ensures freedom and protection, with easy procedure and less expensive licenses. The federal government needs to understand that people have right to expression – to criticize policies  – if they are not benefiting the citizens.

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 radio, they should demand this from federal government to inform marginalized communities across the country.  

Theoretically, everyone agrees that radio can play a very important role in governance and in alleviating systematic injustices. But in practice, they don’t want to give voice to impoverished communities.  If we couldn’t establish and empower local radios, then listeners like Haji Noor Zaman can’t change the dial to listen local radio.

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