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50: A dream of prophets and bylines

An AT writer recalls his early fascination with the mystique of journalism and the arduous trail he and others still beat to bring the news to Afghans.
20.08.2013  |  Kabul
Zafar Shah Rouyee at his desk at Hasht-e-Subh. (Photo: Private. Main photo: Rouyee) 
Zafar Shah Rouyee at his desk at Hasht-e-Subh. (Photo: Private. Main photo: Rouyee) 

When I was in the fifth grade in school and listened to the radio, and the BBC in particular, I always thought that those who report the news are like some kind of winged prophets, flying abreast of everything that happens around us.

I did not entertain any hopes of going to college, as most young boys who graduated from high school went abroad to work. But I continued studying hard and in time I began to think that I too could grow wings as a writer and make a career in journalism. And as I prepared for the entrance exam to college, I set my sights on the school of journalism at Kabul University, and in 2002 I won a place.

I was dizzy with success and eager to put my new skills to use. During my first days of study our lecturers impressed upon us the importance and also danger of this profession. If a doctor made a mistake, they said, it could cost one patient his or her life. But if a journalist made a mistake, he or she could lead a nation to destruction. An alarming thought indeed, but it only reinforced my resolve to do well. 

In my classes I learned a very old-school approach to the subject. We were for example taught about carbon microphones, which I now know were already relics in journalism. What we learned was essentially what our teachers had learned decades earlier, so a real journalistic work environment came as a shock. I was in the second year when I found a part-time job at an Afghan weekly. But what I encountered quickly woke me to the fact that theory and practice are very different creatures.

Into the fray

Finally, after four years, I got my Bachelor of Arts in journalism in 2006. Before I graduated, I used to think that finding a job is no big deal in Afghanistan, and that the demand for specialists meant I would not go unemployed. But the reality was very different. Everything in this country was and still is based on connections and who you know. For around two years I worked with a daily first as a reporter and then a writer. Then the publication shut down and I was jobless again. 

Our lecturers said, "If a journalist makes mistake, he or she can lead a nation to destruction..."

There is nothing like a year of struggling to make ends meet to test your commitment to a career. This period eventually started to get the better of me, rent had to be paid, and I reluctantly began to broaden my work search to include government institutions, with no success. Then one fateful day a former classmate called me to say that a new daily was about to be launched and that they needed journalists. I immediately went to their office and came away with a job offer. Nor were they particularly interested in my diploma, wanting rather samples of my work, which I fortunately had in good supply.

Since 2007, I have worked as News Coordinator and Senior Reporter at Hasht-e-Subh Daily. Working here  was a completely new experience, since the manner of operation is very open yet rigidly hinged on principles of good journalism: balance, accuracy, objectivity, and with an engrained defence of human rights and democratic principles.

The burning issue

And it is a source of great pride to see these efforts pay off: Last year, the paper won the Press Freedom Prize awarded by Reporters without Borders, and it steadfastly holds its place as Afghanistan’s most widely read newspaper. As for content, we tackle the whole gamut of issues, but admittedly to varying extents. Politics, women’s and broader human rights, economics, art, culture, gender equality are all mainstays of our output. But we are very careful in any examination of ethnic and religious issues, which are highly sensitive in Afghanistan.

Many Aghan newspaper frontpages are dominated by conflict-related issues, leaving readers to delve deeper for cultural and other content. (Photo: Masood Momin)

Apart from the war itself, Issues concerning democracy, rights and gender equality usually dominate the first pages, although there is no strict order of priority. Articles are placed according to how hot the issue is at the time. Also, we usually run around ten news stories a day by reporters across the country. Sadly, most are about violence and war, maybe on average about half of the news we run overall is. And like much global newspaper coverage of Afghanistan, we also run little about reconstruction, mainly because these items are repetitive, usually about the inauguration of a bridge or road, or the excavation of wells.

But it is violence that generally dominates headlines still. As a rule of thumb, media outlets tend to ignore incidents with less than five deaths. However, there is a noticeable culture of restraint regarding graphic images of violence. Photos of bodies and cruelty that can negatively impact peoples' minds are not commonly published.

In the early post-Taliban era, media outlets were less concerned with the welfare of readers and viewers, and when a security incident occurred, live reports would transmit all of the accompanying horrors. Images of victims drew criticism from government officials, human rights groups and families, and the media were pressured to be more sensitive. Most still respect this shift. 

A long way to go

I have had a varied career so far, but quite how my experience and working environment compare to media work in the West is hard to say, since I've never seen a news room in London, New York or Berlin. From what I understand from the internet and from seeing Western papers, we are still worlds apart professionally in many respects.

I know that workloads and time constraints are also heavy in western media, but it seems the pursuit of speed over quality has raced out of control in Afghanistan. Journalists are given way too little time to properly research and prepare their reports, and inevitably the product suffers.

There is nothing like a year of struggling to make ends meet to test your commitment to a career

For this reason too, Afghan media are not as effective as their Western counterparts in their influence on government policy and the national debate. Our media do not sufficiently penetrate these issues to influence policy makers, or to better enlighten the people about what the government does. Lack of attention to the media by the government has still also not enabled them to find their right place in society. 

The same factors also had an effect on my own career and dreams too. As that fresh-faced journalism student, I longed to be the best, but when I now compare myself with Western journalists, I am all too aware of my limitations and those of my Afghan peers.

Sometimes I think this formative dream of making my mark in journalism will elude me all my life. But as they say, the glass is half full: knowing where you still need to grow is a big part of attaining your goals. And as tough as the journlistic environment and subject matter remains for myself and my colleagues across the country, the fact that we keep on going means the dream is alive and well.