TV Mountain in Kabul, Afghanistan, famous for its cluster of antennas that dominate the skyline
Afghanistan has been a major story of the past decade, but BBC Monitoring has been analysing the region’s media since well before the 2001 Nato-led invasion. Afghan team manager James Champion explains how the overthrow of the Taliban has allowed much closer involvement in a country where the media is now thriving.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan there was only one radio station, Voice of Shariah, while television was banned altogether.
Since the regime’s overthrow in 2001, scores of radio outlets and dozens of TV channels (both state-run and private) have emerged, alongside around 100 newspapers and several news agencies – one of which has good access to Taliban spokesmen.
For BBC Monitoring, accessing this ever growing range of sources in a consistent and reliable way could no longer be done from afar. It required a substantial presence in Afghanistan itself.
Monitoring set up its first small bureau in Kabul in 2002. Now there are 11 locally-recruited media monitors in the Afghan capital.
Smaller offices in Herat in the west, and in Mazar-e Sharif in the north, ensure that BBC Monitoring keeps across the content of both the national and provincial media.
A network of individual monitors in other provinces, such as Helmand, Kandahar and Nangarhar, also helps to broaden coverage.
What is BBC Monitoring?
BBC Monitoring is an open source news and information publisher, which provides 24-hour translation, analysis and distribution of media information in more than 100 different languages.
Its stakeholders include the Cabinet Office and agencies, Ministry of Defence, Foreign & Commonwealth Office and BBC World Service. It also has numerous clients, including UK parliamentarians, other governments, non-governmental organisations, analysts, academics, multinational companies and journalists.
Based in Caversham Park near Reading, staff monitor around 3,000 different TV, radio, press, internet and news agency sources every day of the year. The focus of the content being analysed is primarily politics, economics, security, media news, comment and reaction, but BBC Monitoring also tracks international social networking and video sharing sites.
Security remains a major issue when working in Afghanistan.
BBC Monitoring’s presence is kept deliberately low key and the safety of monitors is the top priority.
Insurgent attacks in central Kabul in January 2010 led to the office being closed for a day.
But the service to BBC Monitoring stakeholders – who include the BBC, the UK Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office – did not cease.
High-priority monitoring was taken up by the Herat office, as well as by colleagues in Uzbekistan and Caversham Park, UK, and many products were published as normal.
Telling the story
With such a wealth of material to analyse, monitors must know exactly what to select for processing from the media and what to ignore.
They have a clear set of criteria so that the items they publish are of value to stakeholders.
This includes breaking news of security incidents, latest political developments, live speeches and news conferences, but also reports on various anti-drugs, education, health and reconstruction projects taking place across the country.
Stakeholders are not only interested in what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan. They also want to know how the media are telling the story, so newspaper editorials and TV discussion programmes are part of BBC Monitoring’s daily media reporting.
As the 10th anniversary of the Nato-led invasion nears, BBC Monitoring is looking to expand its services further
BBC Monitoring's James Champion
The slowly emerging Afghan blogosphere is coming under our spotlight too.
For instance, Mark Millar at the British Embassy in Kabul says he relies on BBC Monitoring to understand better how counter-narcotics issues are perceived in the Afghan press.
We also use the reports to measure the effectiveness of some of our media campaigns and identify areas where we need to improve public understanding of the issue.
For the Ministry of Defence, our reports feed in to the military’s attempts to understand how to persuade and influence Afghans, how to rely less on force and more on ‘soft power’.
BBC Monitoring's headquarters at Caversham in the UK
Other stakeholders often comment on the way BBC Monitoring's work enhances their own analysis.
Independent consultant and academic Dave Sloggett, who works closely with personnel deploying to Afghanistan, described BBC Monitoring as a vital part of the jigsaw puzzle that needs to be built to understand the societal landscape to enable the correct balance to be found between soft and hard power".
He added that the service enables him to gain rapid purchase on important developments in the short-term, alongside medium to long-term trends.
As the 10th anniversary of the Nato-led invasion nears, BBC Monitoring is looking to expand its services further, with a more reliable supply of video and audio from the media – all part of an effort to understand and explain Afghanistan more comprehensively than ever.
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