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KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan—Though a handheld radio weighs only ounces, it’s a heavyweight in Afghanistan’s fight for rule of law.
Radio has historically been a successful medium in Afghanistan for a number of reasons. First, they are cheap.
Second, Afghanistan’s literacy rate is below 30 percent and, unlike newspapers, radios do not require a literate audience.
Third, Afghanistan lacks infrastructure and radios can be powered by humble alkaline batteries, hand cranks, solar power or all three. So, if the goal is to foster better, more reliable communication among the Afghan people it is the natural place to look.
Can radio bring rule of law? Probably not by itself, but it can help, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Cooley, deputy commander of Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team and head of civil affairs for the PRT.
“Really, what we’re trying to do is connect Afghans to Afghans and address the root causes of instability,” Cooley said, “and these radios are a means to do that.”
He added, “In some cases, these radios are the only connection they [the Afghans] have outside of their village elder or mullah.”
Radio can educate people about public roles and responsibilities, combat Taliban misinformation campaigns, and give Afghans a way to connect to their political leaders. In this way, radio can help Afghans establish the trust relationships that will hopefully lead to stability, Cooley said.
Small wonder, then, that International Security Assistance Force troops in Afghanistan have done so much to promote the use of radios.
In Khost province alone, ISAF troops have given tens of thousands of hand crank/solar powered radios to Afghan district governors and Afghan National Security Forces for distribution among the general populous, said Maj. Matthew Gregory of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
Gregory expressed confidence half of all the people in Khost province, at the very least, own a radio, and added that the true number is likely closer to 80 or 90 percent.
In addition, ISAF troops have helped Afghans acquire portable, low power radio broadcast systems called radios in a box (RIABs.)
In a country like Afghanistan, where the terrain is rugged, radio broadcast systems must be in a line of sight with its receiver in order to be heard, the source said. So it makes sense to have many low powered broadcast systems rather than a few high-powered broadcast systems that can easily be blocked by the terrain.
Most of the material broadcasted from these systems is music, but about 10 to 15 percent of it is news, public service announcements, and commentary.
When 4-25th ID arrived in February 2009, there were nine such systems in the three provinces where they operate. By the time they leave in January 2010, there will be 18 RIABs, almost all of them fitted with internet connections so that local DJs can discuss national and international news, Gregory said.
To see how these radios can help establish rule of law one need look no further than a locally educated Khost native, Hamid, who has been an outspoken proponent of rule of law in newspapers, radio and television.
Hamid’s weekly radio program invites the public to discuss such questions as “what is corruption?” and “what rights and obligations does an Afghan have under the law?” He takes callers on his show and, in one segment, offers prizes to those who can give correct answers to questions regarding rule of law.
“When there is no rule of law in a society, there is no justice in a society,” said Hamid. “In three decades of war the people of Afghanistan have really been away from the rule of law. It is therefore the need of the time, the demand of the time, to do something regarding rule of law.”
Hamid said he sees his show, which he runs for free, as a way of advancing rule of law.
“I feel it is important for my country,” he said. “It is not part of my job. It is my responsibility to do something.”
There is some reason to think his show is the intended effect. When his show first began broadcasting three years ago no one was able to answer the questions. Today, callers give correct answers regularly.
In one of the more dramatic responses he has received, a woman whose family would not allow her to call in wrote the answers down on a single sheet of paper and mailed it to him. Another recent caller said before listening to Hamid’s show he had no understanding of his legal rights or obligations. Having become a regular listener, however, he knew enough to take a claim to court.
“It’s legal knowledge that’s relevant to peoples’ lives,” said Sarah Groen, a U.S. Department of State representative with Khost PRT, “It’s not a dry lecture; people can actually call in and steer the discussion.”
Groen said although coalition forces are not funding Hamid’s radio program or his similarly themed television program, they are examples of how electronic media, particularly radio, can be used to support rule of law in Afghanistan.
She emphasizes, however, that radio is only a part of ISAF’s strategy for establishing rule of law in Khost province and the rest of Afghanistan. Other parts include training ANSF, rebuilding infrastructure, and getting the message about rule of law out through other media, such as comics.
“We need everyone to know what the formal court system can and should do,” she said. “That’s where we are at now.”
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