Erik Bettermann: Using media to provide help for self help

Free and professional media are essen­­tial in strengthening democracy and supporting civil society processes. As a media companion for 40 years, Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) increas­­ingly provides help for self help in the course of reconstruction in Afgha­n­istan, even though the security situation has become increasingly difficult.

With regard to the democratisation and reconstruction process, the media have an important role to play in Afghanistan. Only independent media can perform a control function of political institutions. Furthermore, this type of media is an important source of information for the population on the structure and function of the civil society, as well as the democratisation process. The prevailing medium in Afghanistan is the radio, not least due to the illiteracy rate, which is particularly high among women and girls.

Germany can look back on nearly a cen­­tury of partnership with the multi-ethnic country in the Hindu Kush. Germany, which did not have any colonial interests, quickly gained a reputation as an honest broker in a country whose history is marked by attacks by foreign powers. Since the first broadcast of its programmes in the local languages Dari and Pashto in 1970, Deutsche Welle has not lost sight of Afghanistan. Its programming is considered to be independent and neutral. Deutsche Welle has a good name in the Hindu Kush, and the programmes in Pashto and Dari have earned an excellent reputation. Many people trust the broad­caster, which has accompanied the destiny of the country with its pro­gram­mes for decades. And the pro­gram­mes have time and again been adapted to the require­­ments of the political development.

Since the beginning of the Petersberg process of democratisation and the overthrow of the Taliban, DW has seen itself primarily as a platform of values in an open society: freedom of opinion and press, equality and human rights are central issues that guide the pro­­gram­­ming.

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These are well integrated into inno­­va­tive pro­­gramme projects. One example is “Learning by Ear”, a multilingual and interactive dis­­tance-learning programme, which is available both on the radio, the Internet and via partner radio stations. With the support of the Federal Foreign Office, “Learning by Ear” in Pashto and Dari aims at young Afghans aged twelve to twenty and deals with topics which play an important role in the daily life of young listeners.

For example, episodes on the topic “Political Education/Civil Society and Democracy” demonstrate the interaction between political institutions on the local and national level. It demonstrates how civil society involvement can exercise influence and explains the principles of democratic structures from the local to the national level. The series “Promotion of Girls and Women” deals with prevailing deficits and prejudices. Traditionally for societal, but also for current political reasons, girls have had less access to education. This series presents different education opportunities for girls through examples and shows how to access these options. Most of the authors are from Afghanistan and this is where all the series are produced. Lis­­­­teners can participate, for example by using the comment function on the web page to express ideas, or submit suggestions and topics. Of course, more traditional feedback channels such as the free SMS and telephone hotline, letters and e-mails are also available for contacting the editorial office.

Another series of topics which have be­­come an integral part of the agenda of DW is the civil reconstruction and development cooperation. DW has devel­­oped a “Reconstruction Magazine”, which is broadcast on weekdays in the morning prime time via the partner radio station Ariana FM to all the provinces of the country. Reports on the process of reconstruction and development do not only aim at giving the population hope, but they are indis­­pensible in maintaining con­­fidence in the democratic process of change. This appears evermore important also in light of media which are trying to achieve the opposite. The Taliban operate “Radio Sharia”, which can be re­­ceived almost everywhere in Afghan­­istan. Furthermore, they address the young, Internet-savvy generation on a multi-lingual website, conveying the following message: the only reason why Western countries are in Afghanistan is to make war at the expense of the civilian popu­­lation. They constantly claim that no reconstruction is taking place in Afghan­­­­istan, but that the foreign troops are gradually destroying the country.  

Radiosendungen sind wichtig, denn es gibt viel mehr Radio- als TV-Geräte in Afghanistan. Ihre Reichweite ist dank deutscher Unterstützung sehr hoch.

Radiosendungen sind wichtig, denn es gibt viel mehr Radio- als TV-Geräte in Afghanistan. Ihre Reichweite ist dank deutscher Unterstützung sehr hoch.

The reactions expressed by listeners of the DW magazine are more cause for delight. Deutsche Welle clearly fills a gap in local news coverage and continues where others stop. The reporters do not just visit press conferences where reconstruction measures are announced, they are on-site where reconstruction is actually under way. The key focus of the journalistic presentation is the per­­formance of German institutions and non-government organisations. Both its closeness to events and its critical journalistic distance have helped Deutsche Welle appeal to the public. Listeners often contact the editorial office because they are discontent with the reconstruction efforts in their region or because an exemplary project was completed in their area which did not attract any media attention. The possible withdrawal of troops by 2014 has led to a heated discussion in Afghanistan regarding the development of the country after this date. Within this discussion, the “Reconstruction Magazine” provides impetus and presents drafts for establishing a civil society, and counteracts fears and worries that the Afghan population will be left alone without any help from outside.

However, Afghanistan is not only a “topic” of news coverage to DW. For many years, the German foreign channel has provided help for self help – also with the aid of the German Federal Ministry for Eco­­nomic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Federal Foreign Office. This is how DW consequently supports the establishment of Afghan media. After the overthrow of the Taliban regime, programming offered in the local languages Pashto and Dari was extended: since 2002, DW-TV in Berlin has broadcasted, in addition to the radio pro­­gramme, twelve minutes of television world news especially for Afghan viewers.

In addition, the DW-AKADEMIE, the train­­ing and educational centre of Deutsche Welle, has contributed to the qualification of Afghan media professionals with a range of educational projects. Supported by BMZ, emphasis has been put on basic knowledge about journalism, technology and management issues since 2002. In the beginning, the focus was on the metropolitan Kabul area and the government broadcasting station Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA). Later, training was extended to Kunduz, Dschalalabad and Mazar-e Sharif, where RTA supported the establishment of regional broad­­casting stations. This intensive pro­­gramme offered by Deutsche Welle to RTA employees proved a success: they have been able to produce international news independently since the beginning of August 2006.

For DW-AKADEMIE, the year 2009 was fully dedicated to training on election coverage. In autumn, the Afghans were called upon to elect a new president. The project included on-site training and an information gathering trip to Germany, where the participants observed the elec­­tion coverage of the MDR broad­­cast network for central Germany during the local elections in Saxony-Anhalt. In addi­­tion, DW-AKADEMIE took part in “Learning by Ear” and contri­­b­­uted to the “Reconstruc­­tion Magazine”. Employees of the German foreign broad­­cast network gave speaker and technology training as well as training sessions in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif and Faizabad.  

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A current DW-AKADEMIE project is aimed at children. Especially in embattled areas and in the sphere of influence of the Taliban, it is still difficult for children and teenagers in Afghanistan to receive an education. The children’s television pro­­gramme for Afghanistan wants to alleviate this deficiency as part of a contri­­bu­­tion to democratisation and education efforts. Following the example of Germany’s “Sendung mit der Maus” (Mouse TV) or “Logo!”, the project financed by the Federal Foreign Office intends to broadcast educational content directly to the children, while main­­taining that this serves as no replacement to a school education. But still, educational programmes for children are a gateway to the world – which is particularly important for girls because they can hardly even leave their home in areas with a resurgence of Islamism.

For this reason, new em­­phasis will be put on training to report in areas of conflict for the Afghan partner radio stations in the next year. The focus will be on topics such as verifying news, hand­ling propaganda and information in kidnapping situations. Despite the still instable security situation, DW employees continue to do valuable work according to DW’s mission statement: “We convey the values of liberal democracy and are committed to human rights.” And: “We support civil society and peacemaking processes.” In Afghanistan, this would not be possible without the aid of liberal and professional media.

4594370485_781466c0cd_b-KopieThe author was born in Lindenthal (Leipzig district) in 1944 and studied philo­­s­ophy, education, and social education. Erik Better­mann was deputy secretary of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) from 1989 until 1991 and in the years 1995 to 2001, he was commissioner for federal affairs, Europe and devel­­opment assistance of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. Since 2001, he has been Director General of Deutsche Welle.