Tucked away on a dead-end street in Kabul, behind blast walls and gun-toting guards, sits a cornerstone of Afghanistan’s nascent democracy.
In a first-floor radio studio, Humayoon Daneshyar flicks on the microphone and delivers his intro, a jab at the government officials among his listeners. “Today we will talk about the thing we don’t have: electricity!” he says, to chuckles from his producers.
The tone of Daneshyar’s morning show on is colloquial, as evidenced when a listener calls in to berate the president, , for not being able to restore electricity to Kabul a month after the Taliban blew up two pylons in Baghlan. “Mr G, what happened to our electricity?” the caller asks.
Arman FM is Afghanistan’s first private commercial radio station. It is part of , the country’s largest media company, which forms the backbone of what has been nothing short of a 15-year media revolution.
In 2003, Daneshyar had an idea for a show that would change the way Afghans listened to the radio. Today, (Clean Your City) is one of Afghanistan’s most popular shows. An estimated 10 million people listen for an hour from 7am, five days a week, though numbers are hard to assess since many listen on public transport and in offices.
Daneshyar’s idea was simple. He wanted to hold politicians to account in the most direct way possible. “I wanted to broadcast the problems of the people,” he tells the Guardian.
Listeners call in to complain about everything from deteriorating security and shoddy rubbish collection to corrupt police. Daneshyar and his co-host then call the relevant official to demand answers. Whether it is the presidential spokesman, police investigators or army generals, almost everyone answers. Most are probably already listening to the show.
“Once, an official wasn’t picking up. So I said on the radio that perhaps he had resigned. That got him on the phone!” Daneshyar says with a grin.
Though listeners call the show from across the country, Kabul’s has been an overarching concern for weeks, and a humiliating situation for the government. Every day that residents wake up to dark television screens and cold water is a reminder of the Taliban’s growing reach and the government’s apparent inability to do anything about it.
“In America, they have windmills; here, if one cable is cut, the entire Kabul is without power,” one caller says.
Moby owns about 70% of the Afghan media, including Tolo, which is home to popular entertainment shows and the country’s first 24-hour news channel. The free press is one of the biggest accomplishments since 2001, driven equally by international aid money and an army of courageous young talent. But the media is also under threat.
The media watchdog, Nai, said since 2001, and hundreds more had been attacked. In January, a Taliban suicide bomber in Kabul, after working for Tolo and 1TV.
However, officials and warlords are just as threatening to journalists as militants, according to a .
“The past year, it has become worse,” says Daneshyar. “One year ago, we could travel freely across the country. But now security is getting worse in all 34 provinces.”
The mood in the radio studio, however, is unfailingly buoyant. Daneshyar’s producer, Sima Safa, plays a recorded voice message left by a regular caller with a knack for imitating the president. He proclaims,in the voice of Ghani, that the government has struck a deal with the Taliban to cut electricity to Kabul.
While its tone is jovial, the show helped expose one of the most notorious criminal cases of recent memory. In 2014, a caller reported the in a Kabul suburb. Police officials denied the incident, so the hosts shrugged it off as rumours, but the calls kept coming until one day a doctor phoned the presenter Massood Sanjer and said he had treated four women in a “very bad condition”.
Tolo News, the sister TV channel, went to Paghman, a district of Kabul, to interview victims and witnesses despite government pressure to drop the story, says Sanjer, who is also Moby’s director of broadcasting.
“We didn’t hold the story, we broadcasted it,” he says. Within 24 hours, police had arrested five men. Two months later, they were hanged.
“If someone hadn’t called, the government would have hidden it. So a show like this really helps society to be informed, and to let the government be accountable,” Sanjer says.
Daneshyar finishes his show by calling the spokesman of , the national power supplier, who promises the power will be reconnected by midday. Whether he would have said so without this nudge, nobody knows. Hours later, though, the power is back on.