Taleban-era radio announcer rides crest of the airwaves

Afghan radio presenters talk on air with a caller during the “Safai Shahar” (Cleaning the City) radio show at the Arman FM radio station in Kabul.

Afghan radio presenters talk on air with a caller during the “Safai Shahar” (Cleaning the City) radio show at the Arman FM radio station in Kabul.

Once a deadpan radio announcer under the Taleban, Masood Sanjer has gained renown for being a thorn in the side of accountability-dodging Afghan officials, exemplifying hard-won media freedoms that are at stake in a pivotal year.

His radio talk show “Safai Shahar” (cleaning the city) is something of a cross between a public helpline and a kangaroo court, enabling callers around Afghanistan to vent their civic grievances over the airwaves — from broken sewage drains to crime and corruption.

Sanjer, 36, plays troubleshooter live on air, phoning up relevant authorities to seek redress, often skewering them for answers and sometimes chivvying them into action.

“Does anyone know where the mayor of Kabul is this morning?” he purred into the microphone during a recent hour-long show broadcast live at 7am from a spartan Kabul studio.

A woman producer sat nearby, fingers skittering over a cellphone as she attempted in vain to get hold of the mayor after an angry caller accused the municipality of dumping raw sewage in his neighborhood.

“If you see the mayor anywhere could you please convey that Arman FM radio is trying to contact him? He isn’t answering his phone,” Sanjer said, pouting mockingly. “Is he still asleep?”

Sanjer was once a mealy-mouthed announcer at Voice of Sharia, the Taleban’s official mouthpiece during their oppressive 1996-2001 rule, cautiously vetting every word before it fell off his tongue. His life depended on it.

“One mistake, one wrong word and you could get locked up in a container by the Taleban,” he told AFP, revealing his sepia-toned photograph from the time sporting the mandatory beard and turban.

“And now look at me — I just switch on the mic and say whatever comes out of my mouth,” said Sanjer, now clean-shaven.

In many ways, Sanjer’s dramatic career trajectory mirrors the evolution of the media in post-Taleban Afghanistan into a feisty — and largely free — watchdog despite funding pressures and the ever-growing threat of violence.

From virtually no free media in the Taleban era, Afghanistan today boasts of hundreds of television broadcasters, radio stations and print publications — many seemingly unafraid of riling authorities with hard-nosed reporting about corruption and nepotism that is synonymous with Afghan officialdom.

“The sentence you often hear about the Afghan media being the only success story in Afghanistan is not a cliche or an exaggeration,” Massoumeh Torfeh, an expert on the Afghan press, told AFP.

“The media has become an instrument of political power. All politicians know they cannot survive without being heard on the media. Equally no politician, including the president, can escape being scrutinized by the media,” said Torfeh, a research associate at the London School of Economics.
But several media organizations face the serious risk of collapse, observers warn, as Afghanistan faces a precipitous economic downturn amid cynicism about the country’s future.

The United States plans to pull out the bulk of its troops from Afghanistan by December after 13 years of war, despite an ascendant Taleban, and the nation is in the midst of a rancorous power struggle after presidential elections marred by allegations of fraud.

International funding and advertising dollars that kept many media organizations afloat all these years are rapidly dwindling as foreign troops, contractors and NGOs depart.

But Saad Mohseni, chairman of his family-run Moby Group which owns five broadcast networks in the country including the popular Tolo TV and Arman FM, remains ebulliently optimistic about the future.

 
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