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Afghan Radio Tries to Open a Closed Society

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we would like to take a few minutes and follow up on a story we reported a couple weeks ago about a media crackdown in Afghanistan. The government there has banned television stations from running certain Indian soap operas. These shows are incredibly popular, but hardliners in the government say they undermine Islamic values.

Afghan journalists and television executives say this is just one sign that the Taliban is gaining influence in the country. Barry Salaam is the managing editor of a popular national news radio program called Good Morning Afghanistan. I met Barry when I was reporting in Afghanistan years ago.

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He's in New York this week, and he dropped by the BPP studios to give us an inside look at what it's like to try to build independent, open media in an increasingly closed society. You and I met about five or six years ago, and at that time, Afghanistan's media was booming, really. There were hundreds of newspapers, and it was far from - very far from perfect, but there was a sense of possibility, there was a sense of optimism. How are things now?

Mr. BARRY SALAAM (Managing Editor, Good Morning Afghanistan): I think in the past two years there have been so many moves on the part of the Afghan government to restrict media. Initially, they issued guidelines like, this is what you can do, and this is what you cannot do. For example, in terms of security, they asked us two years ago that you shouldn't be, you know, portraying Taliban in the way that they're very powerful, or you shouldn't putting their news first. You know, you have to follow the guidelines that we provide you within terms of covering security issues and the Taliban issues.

So nobody obeyed, obviously. And we objected to that. And we did cover the stories the way we wanted. So what then government wanted to do, I would say Karzai's administration, was to do it in a way that's not very obvious. But in the meantime, it's very fundamentally addressed. So what they did was to focus on the Afghan mass-media law. They tried to change it and restrict it and put a lot of new items.

MARTIN: Let's take a step back. I don't think - I think people would be surprised to know that Afghanistan has a media law, correct?

Mr. SALAAM: It does have a media law, but it's been changed for three times now. So the final one that has been drafted by the Afghan government and sent over to the parliament for approval is really not a good one. Although we made a lot of changes by lobbying with the MPs. But when we convinced the MPs to accept those changes...

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MARTIN: The parliament members.

Mr. SALAAM: Yeah, the parliament members. They did accept the changes and they brought about a very good copy and sent it back to Karzai's office. And Karzai's office did not endorse it. So it shows that they don't want a good law to be passed. A free and proper law to be passed. So the problem is that they have put a very extremist Afghan minister of information and culture there, who is kind of behind all these moves and the democratic moves.

MARTIN: And he's in charge of all the media.

Mr. SALAAM: Exactly. The information culture post is very important because this is not to protect freedom of expression and free media, but also create a proper information strategy against the Taliban movement, and to be able to win the hearts and minds of people and try to bring hope to people. And, you know, to control the publicity issues, that's very important today in Afghanistan.

But instead of doing these kind of things, positive things, the Information and Culture Ministry's moving our society to a new problem that involves, obviously, extremism, but in the meantime it's fueling those ethnic and linguistic tensions and is splitting our society in two parts. A Farsi-speaking people and Pashto-speaking people. This is one of the most critical problems that we've been facing nowadays. The ethnic differences is now changing into ethnic hatred. And this is very dangerous.

I told once the minister of information and culture that if you replace the pens with guns, then there'll be streams of blood flowing. Because there's so much hatred now, you know, prevailing in our cultural society, in our media society. Media is spread between two parts of Pashto and Dari. This is very dangerous. This is a war of ideology, of mentalities, of lifestyle, of, you know, principles. And you got to align with someone somewhere. If you're neutral, if you're impartial, if you're only thinking about important values such as democracy, human rights and things like that, it really buys no support for you at the moment.

MARTIN: When you look at where your country is now, I mean after the invasion, after the U.S. overthrew the Taliban, you had a lot of expectations for where your country would be. Now in 2008, as you look at where Afghanistan is, not just the media, but where your country is, where your homeland is, are you in a better place?

Mr. SALAAM: You know, when we talk about present-day situation, we always try to compare it with the Taliban times. Well, Afghans say that they're better off now compared to the Taliban time. It's not a good comparison. I always disagree with that. We're not in a better position. We're not in a good place today. We've made a lot of progress in terms of civil and political rights and, you know, we have had media law. We have had constitution. We have had parliament. We have had presidential and parliamentary elections, things like that, which is good.

But in terms of economy, economic, social and cultural issues, we have not only made no progress, but we're much far behind. We still have a lot of need in terms of healthcare, in terms of electricity, in terms of water and food. And, you know, food prices are rising every day and people cannot buy bread. So we - in terms of economy, you know the poverty in the provinces. So this imbalance...

MARTIN: There's still an insurgency. There's still war going on.

Mr. SALAAM: Exactly. And that's - insurgency is deteriorating the overall situation.

MARTIN: Barry Salaam is the founder and managing editor of "Good Morning, Afghanistan," a national radio program. Thanks, Barry, very much for coming in.

Mr. SALAAM: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Enjoy your time in New York.

Mr. SALAAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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