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Afghan Media Struggle to Survive the Pandemic

Fewer ads, COVID-19 restrictions, and falling revenue have media outlets in Afghanistan “on the edge of collapse.”

Ezzatullah Mehrdad
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Afghan Media Struggle to Survive the Pandemic

In this Aug. 31, 2019, file photo, an Afghan man reads a local newspaper about peace in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Radio Nasim, a private FM radio station, used to broadcast three political talk shows as well as social and entertainment programs in Daikundi and Bamyan provinces of central Afghanistan — before COVID-19 reached the country. With the virus was spreading in Afghanistan, Radio Nasim struggled to air its talk shows and programs.

The radio station laid off four out of seven reporters and cut down its programs. Overall, it stopped airing 50 percent of its programs, including political talk shows, on-the-ground reporting, and entertainment, due to financial hardships as well as the fear of infection from COVID-19.

“The situation was hard for the province before the coronavirus,” said Sultan Ali Jawadi, director of Radio Nasim. “With the virus, the financial hardship for media deteriorated. In the past, we had some advertisement revenues, but we have lost them, too. All local media are on the edge of collapse.”

The virus hit Afghanistan at a time of conflict and slow-motion peace talks; the audience of Radio Nasim increased by 40 percent. Ironically, while the radio station was struggling to survive, more people were tuning in to learn about peace talks and the virus. With media cutes, people have less information about the peace process, “though peace is vital,” said Jawadi.

Across Afghanistan, media outlets are struggling to survive the pandemic. Even with the audience numbers surging, the fear of infection by the virus has restricted the coverage of Afghan media outlets. Many media workers, including reporters, were contracted COVID-19 and some died.

Moby Group, the country’s largest entertainment company that includes TOLO News, was first to report cases of COVID-19 among its employees. Then Bayat Media Group reported cases of the virus among employees as well. In Baghlan province, one weekly and one radio station temporarily stopped printing and broadcasting because their editors had contracted the virus, according to Nasir Ahmad Noori, the Media Watch Manager at NAI-Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a report that as many as 70 Afghan media employees had contracted the coronavirus as of June 4.

However, the side effects of the pandemic have been even more severe for Afghan media outlets, in particular independent news organizations.

When the Afghan government imposed a lockdown in cities to slow the spread of the coronavirus, start-ups and small businesses were shut down. And that meant less advertisement revenues for the media outlets. The more a media organization depended on ad sales, the harder the organization was hit by the pandemic.

“The impact of COVID-19 was that many reporters lost their jobs,” said Noori, the Media Watch Manager at NAI. “The media outlets laid off first those who were unnecessary, like translators. A number of medias were closed, while others suspended their programs and broadcasted archived programs.”

The financial burdens caused by the pandemic weighed especially heavy on newly-established Afghan media outlets.

“We were in an emergency situation [where] media outlets’ role were more important,” said Sediqullah Tawhidi, chief of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee. “We needed mass media coverage, but it did not happen. Peace talks is a serious issue. People deserve to know about their future.”

In Afghanistan, traditional media organizations are the reliable sources of information. Radio stations, TV channels, and print media like newspapers and monthly magazines widely inform the public. Though social media platforms  have gained users, news on social media pages are often misleading and full of exaggeration.

Radio stations in particular play an important role in informing the public, as 75 percent of Afghanistan’s population live in rural areas with less access to other sources of information. Jawadi, the director of Radio Nasim, said radio is popular and cheap enough that almost everyone can afford one.

When the coronavirus hit Afghanistan, media outlets adopted different approaches to continue airing programs and keep their staff safe. Tawhidi, the chief of Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, said that radio stations, TV channels, and print media of the country set different timetables for staff in order to avoid crowded offices and slow the spread of the virus. Many reporters were asked to work from home, but they often lacked access to the internet and electricity.

In eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, Enikass TV channel cut three important programs that used to air during primetime in the evenings. “Zawab” (Answer), “Hal Lara” (Solution), and “Shebey” (Night) were three talk shows that in which local officials were questioned by the people, Shukrullah Pasoon, the general manager at Enikass TV, said. These shows had the biggest audiences, but could not keep going amid the pandemic.

Etilaat Roz Daily, a leading independent newspaper in Kabul that publishes in Persian and English language, lost 90 percent of their income since the pandemic hit Afghanistan in late February 2020. The daily stopped printing and lost subscription revenues consequently. Businesses paid near zero for advertisement on Etilaat Roz’s online platforms.

Zaki Daryabi, publisher of Etilaat Roz Daily, said they discussed in a meeting with reporters of the daily how to handle the pandemic. The daily decided to equally distribute payments for April, and then cut monthly salaries of more than $300, pay half of salaries of five staff members, and put three staff on unpaid leave. “It was hard to lay off anyone,” said Daryabi.

Daryabi said that a group of ten media outlets, including TOLO News and Ariana News, appealed to the Afghan government for help. The group suggested that the government offer long-term loans, cut taxes, and reduce electricity and water bills. The Afghan government has yet to respond to the request, as the government struggles to survive the pandemic on its own.

“Reports and news productions decreased,” said Tawhidi, the chief of Afghan Journalists Safety Committee. “Even Moby Group, which is the largest news production company, faced financial problems and their programs were decreased. When news production falls, the public is less informed.”

“The coronavirus has given Afghan institutions an excuse not to pick up our calls and answer our questions related to corruption,” said Daryabi of Etilaat Roz Daily. “Access to information has become very hard.”

The farther from the capital, Kabul, the harder Afghan media outlets were hit by the pandemic. Noori, the Media Watch Manager at NAI, said that the most vulnerable media outlets are located in provinces of the country, where “an individual had set up a media station and sustained it by advertisement revenues,” which went down near to zero, said Noori.

Radio Nasim, the FM private radio station in Daikundi province, used to generate between $200 to $300 per month from ad sales. The station has not received any advertisements since mid-March 2020, either from the local government or private companies in the province. The owner of the radio paid the bills using private possessions.

“We highlight the shortcomings and incompetence of the local government,” said Jawadi, the director of Radio Nasim. “We try to continue broadcasting. But if we do not receive budget, we apologize to the people and tell them that we cannot broadcast anymore.”