A New Radio for Pakistan’s Pashtuns

By Abbas Djavadi — In the last three months, I have attended job interviews with 40 Pashtun journalists from Pakistan to work for Radio Mashaal, a new service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL, for Pakistan’s Pashtu-speaking people, especially in the regions bordering Afghanistan. For the broadcasts that start mid January, we had carefully short-listed the candidates from a long list of professional applicants. We were pleasantly surprised by the level of professionalism of these candidates and their dedication to all the high values we at RFE/RL stand for: free flow of accurate news and information ultimately helping to counter voices of extremism and intolerance and serving universal human rights and freedoms for all.

They came from different corners of Pakistan’s «Pashtu belt» — from Quetta in the south to Mardan in the north — as well as crowded multiethnic cities such as Islamabad and Karachi. They all worked for different Pakistani media outlets, both electronic and print. And everybody had a different story to tell. One had to emigrate from his native town in Balochistan to Karachi because of serious threats by the Taliban and pressure from local tribal leaders. Another had received warning letters from the Taliban hanged on the house door of her parents and a third one, a journalist and a popular singer, said he was forced to produce his new CDs with a pseudonym after receiving dozens of threatening phone calls from the extremists. Some others, obviously, had so far no noteworthy confrontation with the Taliban but felt that they could serve their professional goals better in an international and more professional media organization.

Different And Better

A journalist from Balochistan was saying that in the face of pressure and intimidation by extremists, people from tribal areas «don’t get two things» in their own, native language: «accurate news and information about what extremists are doing in the region and the world and the cultural, traditional background of tolerance and nonviolence in the Pashtu history.» «You should offer not only reliable news and reasonable debates on how and why,» he said, «but also talk about those like Rahman Baba [a sufi Pashtu philosopher and poet who advocated unity of mankind and tolerance 300 years ago] to show that the Taliban extremism is foreign to Pashtu culture and tradition.» And a young female journalist from Peshawar was suggesting to talk about the richness of the Pashtu music and the importance of girls› education to counter the Taliban’s brutally hostile campaigns in both areas.

«Most of the Pashtun women in tribal areas are uneducated and powerless in the family,» said Amanullah Ghilzai, the chief editor of Radio Mashaal, a veteran journalist from Quetta with a long work experience in Western media. «No Pashtun mother on earth would allow her kids be misused for a suicide bombing if we educate and empower Pashtun women. That is something we have to contribute to.»

Isn’t it going to be a brave effort?

To be sure, Pakistan has a very vibrant and competitive media landscape with dozens of TV channels, hundreds of radios and maybe thousands of newspapers and websites. Most of them are, though, in Urdu or English and, thus, not so easily understandable for the majority of the Pashtuns who have a relatively large illiteracy rate in tribal areas. With the TV signals, even some in Pashtu, fighting to cover the distant tribal regions and usually languages that are not native to the audience, Radio Mashaal will have an important role to play. Voice of America’s Deewa Radio started in 2006 and developed to a Pashtu-language program for Pakistan with 15 hours of news and music. With its nine hours of news program, RFE/RL’s Mashaal Radio will complete a 24/7 stream for Pashtuns in Pakistan.

«Yes, But…»

Still, we have observed sensitivities on the side of some officials and others both from Pakistan and Afghanistan. In all those conversations, one question that needed to be addressed time and again was: «Wouldn’t it practically boost Pashtun nationalism on the two sides of the border and, thus, further destabilize both Pakistan and Afghanistan?»

«RFE/RL combats ethnic and religious intolerance and promotes mutual understanding among peoples,» so our Mission Statement. But practice and tradition is more important than assurances and mission statements. For decades, we have been broadcasting to Russian as well as non-Russian peoples of the Russian Federation including Tatars and, more recently, Chechens. In spite of some concerns in the start-up phases of these broadcasts, there has been no single credible accusation against RFE/RL of advocating separatism or secessionism. Our editorial policies and procedures would not permit it and we would take any complaint to that effect very seriously.

Useful for All

The same practice and tradition apply to our very successful Dari and Pashtu broadcasts to Afghanistan, Radio Azadi, that has become the most popular radio in the whole country. Through its extensive, accurate, and objective news and information and debates, Radio Azadi is contributing to peace and stability in Afghanistan and is playing an important role in the fight against extremism.

In Islamabad, a local journalist asked me why Radio Mashaal will be only in Pashtu language, and not, «for example, in Urdu.» I said because the overwhelming majority of the Taliban are Pashtuns and the first requirement of democracy is a well-informed citizenry. Our hope is that providing news, information and debate in the native language of the Pashtun society would free up their hijacked dreams of living in peace and stability and enjoying universal freedoms they deserve. It is a hope that the Pashtuns share. And it is in the interest of Pakistan, the region, the U.S., and the world.