ATN Joins Afghan TV Scene

Afghan workers set up an electoral poster

Afghan workers set up an electoral poster of candidate Ayatulah Riynee in Kabul ahead of the forthcoming Sept. 18 parliamentary elections. The elections offer ATN a unique opportunity to establish a nonpartisan reputation. (Photo: Shah Marai / AFP-Getty Images)

Jamshid Matin, at the age of 20, is a minor celebrity in Kabul. He’s the host of two music programs on Afghanistan’s newest and most ambitious television network, ARIANA, which launched on Aug. 16. Broadcast over the most powerful television transmitter in the country, with the capability of reaching 10 million Afghans, ARIANA Television Network (ATN) is starting big — which is fine by Matin, who worked as a radio journalist for several years. He’s excited about the way television is revolutionizing the way Afghans communicate.

Matin writes, produces, and anchors both of his shows, which air several times a week. ‘Top 10’ is devoted to music videos requested from call-in viewers, and ‘Setere Hai Rangeen’ features popular music artists. “I receive emails all the time from Afghans who are so happy about ATN,” Matin says. “ATN respects and represents the culture of Afghanistan.”

After decades of war and destruction of the country’s infrastructure, television is slowly becoming the dominant media in Afghanistan. ATN joins a field of four existing stations in the country, all private save the single government-owned network based in Kabul. Though many rural Afghans lack regular access to electricity, more than half of those living in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif are estimated to have a household television. Generators often fill the electricity gap, and satellite dishes are popping up throughout the countryside.

Ehsan Bayat, the founder and chairman of ATN, is gambling that Afghans are — and will be — enthusiastic TV viewers. “Afghans are resourceful people. They know that television will play an important role in the redevelopment and democratization of our nation. When they don’t have televisions themselves, they watch somewhere else.” And he believes that, because many Afghans have little or no formal education, the power of visual images in communications and entertainment cannot be underestimated. A Unicef survey in 2003 estimated that only half of Afghan men and fewer than 1 in 5 women are able to read and write.

ATN’s primary aim is to produce and broadcast as much local content as possible. This strategy sets ATN apart from its competitors, who regularly import foreign programs for airing. To successfully build a roster of locally produced programs, ATN is actively recruiting and developing Afghan talent, from technicians to writers to program hosts. 95 percent of the network’s payroll is comprised of Afghan employees, drawn from all ethnic groups and regions of the country.

ATN is hoping its daily live news programs in Dari and Pashtu, the two official languages of Afghanistan, will be the anchor of its broadcasts. The programs cover both local and international events, and the segments are produced in-house. “We want to earn Afghanistan’s trust as a neutral, objective source of information and news,” Bayat says. “We will not affiliate ourselves with political agendas.”

The parliamentary elections on Sept. 18 offer ATN a unique opportunity to establish a nonpartisan reputation. The staff of ATN are working over-time to produce comprehensive election coverage from each of ATN’s five regional news bureaus, including features on controversial local and national issues, like the continued influence of warlords and this year’s poppy harvests.

ATN is also offering each parliamentary candidate an opportunity to speak directly to the voting public through 30-second on-air spots, provided free of charge to the candidate. These messages are especially important to female contenders who are struggling to promote their candidacies in these historic elections. “Afghans need the most up-to-date information so they can decide for themselves how to cast their votes,” Bayat says. “We take our obligation to support the elections very seriously. It is important that all candidates are heard.”

ATN is equally devoted to developing educational and cultural programs for Afghans of all ages. A children’s program is in development that teaches reading skills, arithmetic, and geography. Other programs, like those hosted by Matin, are geared toward adolescents and teens.

A talk show focusing on family issues and challenges facing women in modern Afghanistan is also being produced. Many Afghan women work in the home producing textiles and crafts to supplement the family’s income, and ATN hopes to tap these female viewers with programs designed specifically to address their concerns.

Sports reviews, original comedy and drama productions, a roundtable program with discussions on traditional Afghan culture and heritage, and religious programming are also in development.

Content invariably means controversy in Afghanistan. Tolo TV, another private network based in Kabul, has drawn the ire of conservatives for its programming featuring scantily-clad female singers and dancers. Popular Bollywood films with love scenes that would be considered tame in the West particularly infuriate Afghan religious leaders, who have announced plans to launch their own Islamic network to counter the corrupting influence they say networks like Tolo represent.

Bayat hopes to bypass these minefields. “We want ATN to be the source that Afghans turn to for objective news, as well as informative educational and cultural programming. And in the long term, we want ATN to be the channel the world turns to when it wants news about Afghanistan. That’s why our motto is ‘a window for a better tomorrow.’”