In the vivid media sphere of Afghanistan, there is no depth. Recently, before I finished my book on Afghanistan, I tried to interview some people inside and outside the country. Every time I contacted people in the media sector, they asked me which radio or television station I represented. The main and effective means of communication in Afghanistan are remarkably oral. However, by saying “extraordinarily”, I am admitting the same condition for other nations, but it raises a much higher level of being oral for the Afghan media and culture.
In this context, there are so many articles and programs about the Afghan media. However, few proceed to conduct an academic, extensive and impartial study to give a clear picture of what is happening within the media sector in Afghanistan. Therefore, the Afghanistan Media Assessment report might be the most reliable study on the Afghan media since the Seraj al Akhbar was published a hundred years ago. I can even think that sometimes the Afghan authorities refer to this report when they make a decision in the national media.
The study was conducted in 2009 and 2010. First author Eran Fraenkel is an expert and instructor in metrics and evaluation. The report states that he has done extensive media work. Its first co-author is Emrys Shoemaker, a specialist in strategic and development communications. He has worked with various government and United Nations agencies, as well as international and local non-governmental organizations, throughout the Middle East. And finally, the third author is Sheldon Himelfarb, associate vice president of USIP and executive director of the Center for Innovation for Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding. Although the report says that they have a lot of experience in their jobs, unfortunately their profiles on the Internet are poor and their contacts are hardly found on the Internet. With some existing contact details, I tried to contact them, but the contacts were invalid or they did not respond to me. I also left a voicemail for the authors at the Innovation Center for Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding, but got no response.
The reason for contacting the authors and the sponsor was that I wanted to get more details on how that work was carried out, as it currently has some methodological problems and ambiguities, which I will describe.
The first problem in this study is sampling. Sampling is important indeed, and when it comes to doing research in Afghanistan, it becomes even more important for any researcher to devise a well-structured sampling strategy. This study does not provide any table of details about the respondents. In a society like Afghanistan, different samples in different districts of the same city will respond differently and sometimes opposite. Currently, and without these details, it is difficult to review the report’s methodology.
The second problem has to do with the methodology to analyze the raw data, here in-depth interviews. Did you just categorize them? Or did you try to design a framework within which the pieces come together to help make the big picture? Here again, any judgment is almost impossible.
The third problem has to do with local colleagues. In Afghanistan, there is a fragile agreement between ethnic groups not to provoke each other. However, in this rivalry, few dare to remain impartial. People may be academics, but at the same time, they are discursive soldiers of their ethnicity of origin. In this area, foreign researchers will often be seduced by local colleagues to benefit a certain group. When foreign researchers are Westerners, it is even more important that local colleagues win their hearts and minds. They know how texts are important in the West and how reports can affect policies that directly and indirectly affect ethnic groups in Afghanistan. So a small change in the field worker team will culminate in totally different results.
The fourth problem also concerns local colleagues. The large amount of work on this report was done primarily by Afghan colleagues. Where are their names? Ethically, all investigator names must appear on the report. Yes, they have already been paid well, but that is not enough.
The fifth problem in this work is the lack of sufficient contextual knowledge about the object under study: the culture and media of Afghanistan. There are many cases. I bring this one for your review:
Many respondents, both in outside the media sector, they indicated their own perception and that of the wider public of Iran’s negative impact on the Afghan media landscape. Iran’s influence was said to range from financial support to sympathetic Afghan media (described as “Shiite” media), to opening cultural centers that distribute pro-Iranian videos and other materials, and sending print and broadcast materials. Iranian to Afghans living in border areas. (page 11).
Here the authors are unable to realize that most of Iranian cultural influence in Afghanistan is not political. Historically, Iranians and Afghans share many cultural traits, and since cultures have geographic continuity, with the help of new communication technologies, exchanges have accelerated. Another reason for zeal for Iranian cultural products is their value. To be sure, Iranian cultural products are much closer to what is known as “high art”, compared to Indian and Pakistani cultural products. So discipline defines how you receive in Afghanistan and by whom. The final reason for Iranian cultural influence in Afghanistan is the Persian language. This is the main language of the people in Afghanistan and people enjoy the programs that are produced with their language more. Furthermore, the Persian language is powerful as it is the language of many elegant writers and poets.
In my experience, the Iranian political system has a very ineffective presence in the cultural sphere of Afghanistan. When I was in Afghanistan, I couldn’t find anyone who could tell me that he had referred to Iranian cultural representation once.
Let’s look at another example of poor knowledge of the social context:
Respondents noted that educated Afghans, particularly those returning from voluntary or involuntary time abroad, often face hostility as purveyors of foreign ideas. Rather than being welcomed into their communities and applauded for their educational achievements, returnees often wear the label khariji (foreigner) (page 14).
Practically, the Hazaras more than any other ethnic group in society experience such discrimination. For other ethnic groups, the situation is much better. As an example, Kabul University accepts many professors who spent most of their lives abroad, but in most cases rejects Hazaras.
The sixth problem is the value of the findings. Yes, a great job was done. But if an Afghan media and communication expert were asked the same question, they would have given the same answers without spending tens of thousands of dollars!
And finally, despite many shortcomings and problems, most of the statements and conclusions in the report are true to the best of my knowledge of the media and the people of Afghanistan. The authors should once again thank their Afghan colleagues for doing such a good job. And Afghanistan should thank the author for doing such extensive historical work. I hope the same study will be repeated soon, keeping my points in mind.