Pakistan's airwaves: On militant turf, Radio Khyber offers a softer voice
In tribal areas, it provides an alternative to hard-line clerics with a medley of local news, talk shows, and music.
Kishwar yanks at her veil, caught in the sound equipment of a cramped radio production studio, and pins it back. "It's hard to be the voice of anything with all this cloth on my face," she jokes, alluding to her station's tag line, "The Voice of Khyber."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Kishwar, who, like others in this story, asked to have her last name withheld for security, is one of 15 reporters for Radio Khyber, a rare nonextremist station broadcasting in the town of Jamrud, in the militant stronghold of Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas. Airwaves in this region are filled with the illegal broadcasts of "FM mullahs" preaching about "holy war" and recruiting fighters.
Radio Khyber, launched in 2006 with government support, provides an alternative to the hard-line clerics with its medley of local news, talk shows, and music. But it treads carefully, trying to avoid backlash from either the militants – who criticize the playing of music – or the Pakistani government, which dislikes its news coverage in this sensitive region.
"Until Radio Khyber started news reporting, the FM mullahs were winning the dial wars," says Aurangzaib Khan, the manager of Media Development at Internews Pakistan in Peshawar, an international nonprofit that trains radio journalists and lobbies for free media.
Radio Khyber broadcasts for three hours each in the morning and evening. When it first started, the government – represented in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas by the FATA Secretariat – mandated that Radio Khyber simply broadcast Pakistani pop songs and use news reports from the state-owned Radio Pakistan.
But the station's staff soon found that mix insufficient. "We were only allowed to do entertainment programming, but ... the mood here was not for fun shows. We knew we had to do something more – we had to get news out and we had to hear what people needed to say," says Tayyab, Radio Khyber's news editor.
These days, the station offers call-in talk shows, news bulletins phoned in from reporters across Khyber, and feature programs on health, education, women's rights, and security – all in local dialects of the Pashto language. Sandwiched in between are short bursts of religious programming – sermons and Korranic recitations. Occasional songs by tribal musicians and the verses of local poets also liven up the mix.
"We have to promote our local culture," says Nazir, a station director. But news bulletins, which began last September while the Army was conducting operations against militants in the area, are the most popular items, he says. "In times of crisis, people want to hear what's happening down the road, not what's happening in Peshawar, Islamabad, Mumbai [formerly Bombay], or Washington."
Radio Khyber's local programming is helping to fill an information vacuum, says Mr. Khan, of Internews Pakistan. "People in FATA are a captive radio audience. The cable television infrastructure here is poorly developed and shunned for being un-Islamic." As a result, those who "rule the airwaves are the winners," he explains.
The Pashto-language broadcasts of Radio Pakistan are not transmitted throughout FATA, Khan adds. In any case, "where they are heard, they're viewed with suspicion because they promote the national viewpoint without acknowledging the diversity of listenership."