Thursday, 22 August 2002

Afghans Thirst for Web Access

I wrote this article for Online Journalism Review, which ran it on 22 August 2002. It looks at how some Afghans became experts at online publishing while in exile and then returned after the fall of the Taliban to confront their country's devastated communications infrastructure.

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On my recent media-training visit to Kabul, a group of Afghan journalists asked me for some instruction in online publishing. “Just one problem,” they said. “No one has any Internet access here yet.”

On the list of Afghanistan’s priorities, you might not think the Internet rates very highly. This is, after all, a country still hobbling away from more than two decades of war, with perhaps three million refugees trickling home to find crippling poverty, an unsure security situation, a widespread gun culture, 30 percent literacy, and food shortages in certain regions to name but a few of the country’s problems. With all that, the Internet hardly seems relevant.

But among local journalists, government workers and other educated Kabulis, there is a real thirst for access. In large part this is because many returning Afghans became accustomed to the Internet while abroad, where they scoured the Web for news from home and used e-mail to keep in touch with family members in Germany, Pakistan, England, California and everywhere else Afghans have been dispersed by years of conflict.

Afghan online publishing in exile has been very strong in recent years, despite serious language difficulties; the Web abounds with Afghan news, information and even music sites, all keeping Afghan ex-pats up-to-date with their country and culture. More recently, international NGOs have been focusing attention on Afghanistan using the Internet, including ReliefWeb, InterNews and my own Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which trains local journalists to an international standard and publishes their work both on the Web and within Afghanistan in local print newspapers and magazines.

With many returning Afghans used to such news and e-mail communication abroad, they can only be disappointed with what they find back home: a devastated communications infrastructure. The phone system is so destroyed that it is impossible even to make a simple telephone call from one city to another. A tiny digital telephone system exists for some government offices to communicate between cities, and some expensive satellite phone calling offices can dial internationally, but that still leaves the overwhelming majority of people simply cut off from the very country they live in. To talk of the Internet in such a situation borders on folly.

Still, the warning that "no one has any Internet access here yet" was not entirely correct. Even the Taliban, infamous for hanging TVs and cassette tapes not to mention people from trees, had Internet access -- well, a few Taliban-era ministers had e-mail access, anyway.

Today, eight months into the new Afghanistan, the capital city of Kabul can boast two Internet cafés, and you could always get access through a satellite phone, as foreign correspondents and the UN do. But with the cafés charging $4 per hour and the sat-phones $1.50 to 2 per minute, these are not very realistic options for people in a country where the annual GDP per capita is $160. A man lucky enough to find a job as a government employee will earn only $30 per month on average. Even for a returning refugee with a bit of foreign-earned money in his pocket, the café and sat-phone options are very costly.

But it's not just returning Afghans who are hungering for the Internet; many local journalists who somehow managed to remain in Afghanistan throughout the troubles are pushing for it, as well. They are seeking both access to outside news sources and the opportunity to offer their news and information to the outside world.

One such person is Sultan Ahmed Baheen, who until a recent reshuffle in mid-August was head of the Bakhtar Information Agency (BIA), the official state news service. Baheen asked our organization for some assistance in setting up BIA's very first Web page. For my sins, I got the assignment.

Teaching people about the Internet without the Internet does present a certain challenge. Thankfully, training BIA’s people how actually to use the Internet, was not necessary, as my two eager young students were already very familiar with it, having spent the last eight years in Pakistan, where they had Internet access at home. Still, this was going to be a virtual lesson in virtual publishing

The lessons themselves were pretty simple. I wanted to give them a page and structure a beginner could maintain and even trouble-shoot, so I showed them how to use about 30 HTML tags, and we set out some flat pages in a basic, two-level file structure.

I also wanted them to know some essential "don'ts" about Web page design, so that even the simple page would look a bit elegant. Those "don'ts" were very straightforward bits of advice, such as: don't use more than three or four colors on a page, don’t use blinking or marquee-moving text, don’t use background sound effects. All of which, in their initial child-at-a-circus excitement, they originally wanted to have on their page.

The key in all of this was to keep it simple to start off with. When the Bakhtar pages go live, the news agency will provide a one-page English-language run-down of the day’s news, and every news page will be archived once it passes its sell-by date.

Of course, this will only be a beginning: better pages will be developed as the journalists and budding webmasters at BIA get more experience. Eventually, they are hoping to publish in several languages, especially the official languages of the country, Dari and Pashto. At some point, they will have to develop a content management system like other news agencies, and they will want to create a system to manage user access to it. But those are all future plans; for now they are satisfied with being able to get something online immediately once they have Internet access. UNESCO has promised to help BIA with the access issue.

A few hours of training is not going to make Afghanistan a Web wonder over night -- this was just a first step -- and the most serious issue for Afghan journalism is the content of the information rather than the mechanism of its delivery. After all, improving fundamental journalism and reporting skills is the main reason media NGOs such as my IWPR are involved in Afghanistan today.

Basic concepts of proper sourcing, balance, accuracy and fairness are the most essential lessons that need to be learned here. But with a bit of luck -- or, as they say in Afghanistan, "insha'Allah" (by the will of God) -- Bakhtar’s Web site will soon be up and running. In any case, it will very likely be the first Web site hosted from within Afghanistan, thus finally bringing some light to an information blackout and connecting a country that has for too long been separated from the rest of the world -- and with disastrous results.

The dirt track of Afghan online publishing is ready to merge with the world’s information super-highway.


Andrew Stroehlein helps train journalists in Afghanistan and 21 other countries for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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