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Broadcasting from the basement: supporting Afghan audiences during COVID-19

Shoaib Sharifi

Country Director, BBC Media Action Afghanistan

Accurate and trusted information is critical to coping with the COVID-19 pandemic – especially when communities are already facing insecurity, as in Afghanistan. Find out how our flagship national TV discussion programme, Open Jirga, has adapted to life under lockdown to continue supporting audiences across the country to cope.

“How can families deal with the mental health effects related to quarantine?”

“We live in a Taliban controlled area, how can we access coronavirus testing services?”

“How can we hold a funeral for a loved one who has died from the virus?”

These are just some of the questions raised over the past few weeks during special COVID-19 broadcasts of our longstanding discussion show, Open Jirga.

Meaning ‘Open Assembly’ in Dari and Pashto – the main languages in Afghanistan – the show reaches over 6 million people across the country and is renowned for bringing citizens face-to-face with their leaders for inclusive and constructive debate. In previous episodes, audiences have raised important issues such as peace talks with the Taliban, disability rights and gender equality, including in debates with the current and former presidents.

The show’s success has always rested on its live studio audience, its ‘assembly’ of normal people who ask about issues that matter to them. But under lockdown, this is simply out of the question.

Last month, our production team set about adapting Open Jirga’s format to ensure the safety of our production crew and panellists, without compromising on the show’s ability to engage audiences and support them to hold their leaders to account.

Over two days, our team rapidly transformed the communal area in the basement of our Kabul office into a makeshift TV studio. We replaced the live audience with virtual question-gathering via video link, reduced the number of panellists from four to two, and followed safe distancing measures on set.

The first COVID-19 special, aired on 13 April, focussed on living with lockdown. Many people in rural areas aren’t observing the rules, in part due to conflicting messaging about physical distancing from health officials and religious leaders. So Open Jirga welcomed a top Islamic scholar and a senior health official to gather around an aftaba lagan, a traditional Afghan handwashing pot, to address people’s specific concerns and set the record straight with cohesive, trusted information.

Watch a clip from a recent Open Jirga broadcast on COVID-19

Since then we’ve covered practical topics, such as how and when to use facemasks, as well as discussed public access to health services for communities living in conflict zones or areas controlled by the Taliban. And, crucially, we’ve busted some of the new myths and rumours about COVID-19 emerging every day – for instance that drinking black tea, shaving your head or wearing henna can ‘cure’ the virus. We’ve also aimed to dispel the widely-held belief that the virus is mostly killing non-Muslims, which has led to complacency within some communities.

At BBC Media Action we also know from experience that media can help audiences feel more hopeful as they connect with others and hear them echo their questions, feelings and worries.

This is so important as there is also much fear and mistrust of health systems here in Afghanistan, and stigma towards people who have, or might have, COVID-19. As one virtual questioner puts it:

“People in our area do not want to opt for medical support fearing that if people learn they have COVID-19 they may be discriminated against or stigmatised by others as ‘coronavirus-affected people’.”

Enabling people to share and discuss their worries helps to break down this stigma and foster understanding, and by welcoming trusted figures on our basement broadcasts, we’re opening up important issues in a positive way – rather than leaving them to sow further division in society.

It’s strange not having our audience members with us in person, but there’s no doubt that they – and our millions of viewers across the country – are with us from a distance, in our new ‘virtual assembly’.

And while we hope for some form of normality to resume soon, even under lockdown the show must go on.

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Shoaib Sharifi is Country Director for BBC Media Action Afghanistan.

Open Jirga is broadcast on BBC World Service Dari and Pashto Radio, as well as the state broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan. It is also aired on Salam Watandar, a network of 101 FM stations across the country.

This work is currently funded by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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