BBC correspondent Bilal Sarway accompanied journalists from RFE's Radio Azadi as they distributed solar-powered radios in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The distribution was part of a project to hand out 20,000 radios to Afghans in remote areas who have little or no access to independent media sources. [read the article in full
"Can Free Radios Put US On Afghan People's Wavelength?
Bilal Sarwary | BBCNovember 12, 2010
A US-funded radio station is trying to win the Taliban propaganda war by distributing thousands of free, solar-powered radios in remote parts of Afghanistan.
The BBC's Bilal Sarwary joined the military as they handed out the hand-cranked receivers, and found them a hit with Afghans - but can they persuade the people to switch off the militants' message?
Our flight was due to take off early from the capital, Kabul. But neither I nor the handful of other journalists waiting at the airbase had any idea of our destination. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and the air force had kept it a secret for security reasons.
As we soared away on an Mi-17 helicopter, its Afghan Air Force pilot informed us we were bound for the city of Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
We were to join the military as they helped distribute hundreds of free radios.
Some 15,000 of the receivers have already been given away in cities, villages, districts and mountainous border areas of Afghanistan, with several thousand more still to be handed out.Hell breaks lose
The sets come with a torch, which is especially useful for people in rural areas.
The authorities hope the devices can help counter the message of Mullah Radio, as the Taliban-sponsored broadcasts are dubbed.
The US-funded AM and FM receivers can pick up a range of other broadcasters, including the BBC, Voice of America, commercial stations and even occasionally Mullah Radio - in areas where attempts to jam the militants' signal have not succeeded.
Akbar Ayazi, of Radio Free Europe, denies they are simply trying to beat Taliban propaganda with an American equivalent.
"These [Mullah Radio] stations incite hatred, intolerance and ethnic violence," he said.
"By handing out these radios, we're enabling people to find out what's happening and enjoy entertainment in some of the remotest areas in the country, where there's no internet, newspapers or television.
"Our radio station is one of the most listened to in Afghanistan. No, it is not propaganda.'
' News and tunes
Radio Free Europe's Afghan service broadcasts across the country in Pashto and Dari, on-air 12 hours a day, five days a week, combining news with Afghan traditional and pop music.
Shortly after arriving in Jalalabad, we were taken to the city's main bus station, where dozens of Afghans had gathered.
The crowd seemed orderly - until the distribution began. All hell broke loose: everyone wanted a radio.
Afghan policemen tried to restore order, pounding the crowd with rifle butts to keep them at bay.
Within seven minutes, 60 of the radios had been snapped up; the military left more than 400 other receivers with the police to distribute.
Akbar Mohammad, 28, a Jalalabad shopkeeper, told the BBC he listened to Radio Free Europe as well as the other stations picked up by the sets.Radio heads
"I just use the radio to listen to news and music," he said. "Sometimes I listen to Radio Free Europe, sometimes to Voice of America, sometimes to the BBC and sometimes to other local radio stations.''
Crank up the volume: Can this little box help the US drown out the Taliban talk?
Mohammad Osman, 42, from Nangarhar's Kama district, said: "I took the radio to listen to music. The fact that it is hand-cranked will save me a lot of money not buying batteries for it.
"I like Radio Free Europe and their music programme. But I will also listen to other channels and news.''
The Afghan conflict has experienced its bloodiest year, with record casualties among civilians, all too often caught in the crossfire.
With the Taliban gaining ground, the US-led coalition knows it must work harder than ever to cut through the crackle and interference of the militants' message.
It remains to be seen whether free radios will help resolve the US-led coalition's reception problems with the Afghan people.