By WALTER PINCUS
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; A13
Saying that "freedom of information is essential to stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan," the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has decided to expand its media activities in that country.
Since 2002, USAID has funded a network of 43 FM radio stations in Afghanistan, trained Afghan journalists and established a content and distribution service for news and radio programming that reaches 80 radio stations.
This new ambitious effort, tagged the Afghanistan Media Development and Empowerment Project (AMDEP), is described as "essential" to expand "the availability of reliable information that allows Afghans to make informed choices about goods, services, their government and the future of Afghanistan," according to a pre-solicitation notice posted last week. Of course, USAID is hardly the only U.S. government agency that has become active in the Afghan media arena. Agency overlap exists -- albeit on a smaller scale -- such as the overlap within the intelligence community, as The Washington Post reported last month.
In May, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced it was open to applications from "local representatives of civil society, including non-governmental organizations and universities," for grants from the State Department's public diplomacy funds. Grants would range from $500 to $10 million, the notice stated, and could pay for projects that "expand media engagement . . . build communication capacity of the Afghan people and government . . . [or] counter extremist voices that recruit, mislead, and exploit."
The U.S. military and coalition partners also sponsor various media activities in Afghanistan. A Pentagon official recently provided an example related to the Defense Department budget next year. It calls for spending $180 million on "psychological operations" in Afghanistan and Iraq, a category once known as strategic communications. The Pentagon defines such activities as those that "induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator's objectives." In Afghanistan, they are almost all run by civilian contractors.
Meanwhile, USAID will seek its own contractors to run AMDEP projects, but they should be nongovernmental organizations or firms willing to give up profits, according to the solicitation notice. The new efforts will include creating regional Afghan media training and production centers; consolidating existing Afghan professional media associations, thereby building "a network capable of advocacy and self-regulation to high journalistic standards"; and providing technical assistance to Afghan ministries in the media sector to help with "business-friendly government regulation of the airwaves and licensing procedures."
The first AMDEP project is to be a mobile phone service that would supply subscribers with free customized daily news reports. The reports would include information streamed from local and foreign radio and television broadcasts (in languages spoken in Afghanistan), newspaper articles read aloud and local blogs.
Subscribers could customize the information they want and access the service numerous ways, including calling a toll-free number for a menu of what's available or selecting a service and receiving a daily call.
The purpose, according to the USAID solicitation, is "to enable the sophisticated news consumption behavior of Afghans who have highly developed skills for triangulating facts by accessing a variety of news sources."
News sources selected for the service are to be paid on a per-user rate, which, according to the USAID notice, could provide incentive for such groups "to produce higher quality and quantity of content." The service is to be operated "according to a non-discrimination standard in regard to independent news and information content." Not mentioned is whether the sources that provide the news would include those favorable to the Taliban or critical of the United States and coalition forces.
Dubbed "Mobile Khabar," meaning mobile news in both Dari and Pashto, the venture aims to increase "the number of individuals creating and sharing their own news and information amongst each other" and expand the use of cellphones to deliver news and information, according to the agency.
USAID expects the contractor to establish what it calls the "Access to Information Foundation" which it projects would need $7 million a year to operate. Though access would be free to subscribers, the agency believes that advertising eventually would be a part. Seeking advertisers, according to USAID, would be another lesson the system teaches the Afghans -- that "from the outset . . . users gain an understanding that advertising comes as part of the provision of news and information."
What has been the result of the first eight years of USAID media programs? Its Afghan office is trying to find out, with a national media assessment, audience survey and efficacy study occurring this summer. Its purpose, according to USAID, is "to gain an understanding of the role media plays in Afghan societies." It plans to share the results to "inform media developments and communications efforts" of the U.S. government, including the military, which has been financing similar polling and surveys over the past four years.