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Akbar Ayazi Remembers A Different Afghanistan

Akbar Ayazi On RFE's Impact In Afghanistan
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Akbar Ayazi discusses about his memories of Afghanistan's bygone past and looks to the present and future of the fledgling Afghan media.

Afghanistan as Akbar Ayazi experienced it during the 1970s was a radically different place from the one we see today.

Ayazi -- now a regional director of RFE/RL's broadcast services to Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq -- was a young college student in Kabul when he first recognized his passion for radio. Told that he had a good radio voice, he went to work as an anchor for the Afghan National Radio and TV.

Ayazi nostalgically remembers the peaceful bliss of life in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979. In 1973, according to Ayazi, over a million European tourists visited Afghanistan; the country was a prominent stop for hippies traveling overland to India.

“No one even knew what a machine gun looked like, because all the Kalashnikovs were in the military barracks. Afghanistan was not a very developed country, but it was democratic and peaceful,” Ayazi recalls.

But with the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was thrust into a 30-year-long conflict that continues to this day.

Despite the effects of war, the media environment has developed quite significantly and Afghanistan has some of the most dynamic media in the whole region, according to Ayazi.

Without concrete media regulations, the market is open to anyone with the funds to start a television or radio station -- meaning that every warlord has his own television channel; even the Taliban has its own FM stations promoting hate and extremism. But Ayazi is optimistic that the situation with the local media in Afghanistan will gradually change over time.

'We Go To The People'

For now, one of the international radio stations pressing for change is Radio Azadi, RFE/RL’s Afghan service.

What distinguishes Radio Azadi from other international broadcasters is the fact that the radio focuses on the local issues and problems of ordinary Afghans.

“The main agenda is the people. Everybody is reporting on the president’s meeting, a bomb exploding, but you need to do a story that is about people,” Ayazi says. “We go to the people, to the villages. We talk about daily life, so Radio Azadi has not only become like a source of information for the people, it has become sort of like an institution for them. They connect to Radio Azadi and Radio Azadi has also created a platform for the listeners to engage in debate and discussion.”

In 2009, Ayazi moderated Afghanistan’s first-ever presidential debate with a sitting president, as Hamid Karzai faced off against two challengers: Ramazan Bashardost and Ashraf Ghani.

Ayazi describes moderating the event as “the most difficult thing I ever did in my journalism career because this was something that was unprecedented in Afghanistan.”

“The presidential debate was a good example of taking power with debate and discussion and focusing on the issues rather than taking a gun and taking power,” Ayazi explains.

However what makes Radio Azadi the most listened-to radio is its credibility. Ayazi says that although many Afghans watch TV during the daytime, they will switch on the radio when the news comes on to listen to Radio Azadi’s news, or to confirm what they’ve heard elsewhere with the information coming from Azadi. Over half the country listens to Azadi on a weekly basis, according to audience research surveys.

“When you have over 50 percent of the entire population listen to you [and] trust you that means you have established credibility no matter who funds you,” says Ayazi.

Radio Azadi is so credible that even the Taliban competes to get its message across on the network. After the September 20 assassination of former president Burhannudin Rabbani led to reports that the Taliban was responsible for the killing, a Taliban spokesperson called Radio Azadi with the contention that the Taliban’s leadership had not authorized the attack. Radio Azadi was the first to broadcast the breaking news.

But the Rabbani assassination was also a reminder of just what a different country Afghanistan is today from what it once was. Ayazi’s nostalgic reminiscences of 1970s Afghanistan are nothing more than a dream to the generations born after the Soviet invasion in 1980. More than thirty years later -- and ten years after the 2001 U.S-led invasion -- Afghanistan still has a long way to go in repairing all that has been lost since those halcyon days.

-- Deana Kjuka