Expanded Afghan media is already the winner in presidential elections

is a journalist and analyst specialising in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The dramatic expansion and proliferation of media in Afghanistan in recent years played a pivotal role in the weekend’s presidential elections, by mobilising millions of Afghans in all parts of the country to take part in the democratic process despite widespread security threats by the Taliban.

Although Afghanistan is one of youngest democracies in the world, with its economy almost totally dependent on foreign aid, the presidential election campaign somehow resembled what might be seen in any modern democratic country. As the BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet observed in Kabul, while the results aren’t known, many Afghans feel their country itself has scored a victory by staging a relatively peaceful poll.

Most of the credit for this goes to the newly expanded media: 75 TV channels, around 200 radio stations and hundreds of daily newspapers throughout the country.

Afghan social media - freed from journalistic ethics, like it is anywhere else in the world - played its mischievous role, too, by spreading rumours and attempting to scandalise the personal lives of the leading candidates. But, as social media in the country is still young and its use still pretty limited, it may have made a lot of noise but not necessarily have influenced the outcome of the polls. Perhaps we can judge that better when the final results are in, several weeks from now.

What’s certain is that the role of the media in the 2014 elections has proved that it could turn out to be one of the most powerful weapons against the Taliban in the future. The credit for an unusually high turnout at Friday’s vote goes to a media which kept Afghans in all parts of the country fully engaged during the campaign and encouraged them to cast their vote on polling day. Despite serious threats by the Taliban, which had pledged to disrupt the elections and punish those taking part, more than seven million voters out of the total 12 million registered ignored security threats - and cold, wet weather in several parts of the country - to choose their candidate.

The TV channels and print media hold sway in urban areas, while radio dominates the rural regions. Tolo, one of the most popular TV channels, hosted a debate between all the presidential candidates at the start of the campaigning period. It was the first of its kind in Afghanistan and considered crucial for the election campaign, particularly in urban areas. In the 2009 presidential elections, state broadcaster RTA hosted a similar debate but it excluded Karzai’s main challenger Abdullah Abdullah, who is running again this year.

This time the TV debate was staged along the lines of other democracies, with every candidate equally challenged and given equal time to answer. It was conducted in the two main languages of the country, Pashto and Dari - broadcast live, and heard by millions of Afghans on the radio. Many observers believe that it was the presidential debate that triggered election fever, increasing the turnout.

And although the debate was ignored by the mainstream TV channels in neighbouring Pakistan, some leading newspapers gave it front-page coverage. Some people living in the bordering provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, many whom speak Pashto as their first language, also watched it live.

Debate on social media meanwhile centred on the candidates’ personal lives. There was hardly any mention of their domestic or foreign policies. Out of a population of 30 million, around 1.7 million people are on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and other social networks. Around 2.4 million Afghans have access to the internet. YouTube specifically played an important role, with a large number of campaign videos and speeches posted and watched by thousands both in and outside Afghanistan.

Around 19 million people in Afghanistan have mobile phones, so campaigning on mobile played a key role. As campaigning was not allowed in the two days before the vote, the authorities suspended the text-messaging service on 5 April following complaints that it was still being used by some.

But when it comes to the rural heartland, which has traditionally played a crucial role in shaping the political map of the country, radio was at the centre of this election campaign, encouraging people to cast their vote.

The US-funded radio station Azadi, private station Arman FM and the BBC are among the most popular radio channels in Afghanistan, collectively reaching the entire population. A further 200 other radio stations played their part in strengthening democracy during this critical period.

As the date for US and Nato forces to withdraw from Afghanistan draws nearer, there are fears that some Afghan media outlets which are dependent on foreign aid may not survive beyond 2014.


Afghan election: Millions vote in presidential poll

The College of Journalism’s Pashto website