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Afghanistan funding: Local media already feeling the pinch

World leaders meeting in Tokyo pledged $16 billion in more aid to Afghanistan today. But an overall decline in foreign spending is already squeezing efforts like independent journalism.

By Correspondent / July 8, 2012

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks with British International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell at an international conference on Afghan civilian assistance in Tokyo, Sunday.

Itsuo Inouye/AP

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Kabul, Afghanistan

International leaders' pledge this weekend to provide $16 billion in aid to Afghanistan over four years comes as a relief to many Afghans who have long worried that the international community would turn its back on them as happened after the Soviet war. 

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Though a substantial commitment, $4 billion a year in aid represents a drop in the level of assistance Afghanistan has become used to since the US-led invasion in 2001. Already, the United States has scaled back reconstruction spending in the country by 34 percent, causing a number of Afghan organizations to reconsider their strategies and future sustainability. 

Among those already affected is the Afghan news industry. News agencies have been forced to make cuts, cancel programming, and reduce coverage as the tide of international funding recedes. The agencies that remain unaffected are predominantly those backed by political groups, often ethnically based, which predictably produce news with an agenda and protect party elites from scrutiny.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, independent Afghan media was all but nonexistent. For international donors looking to establish an open political culture, supporting a nascent independent media was a clear choice.

“It’s a reality that after 2001, most of the media outlets were established or started through the funding of foreign countries. Until now, they were just looking after foreign funding and they never thought about standing on their own two feet,” says Professor Mohammad Wahid Gharwal, head of the journalism department at Kabul University. “I’m worried that if the international community decreases or stops funding the Afghan media, there won’t be a vibrant situation for the Afghan media in the future.”

One of the most respected new outlets has been Pajhwok Afghan News, an agency with reporters across the country, many of whom international journalists would tap in dangerous areas.

Pajhwok was started entirely with funding from the United States Agency for International Development in 2004 with a plan to gradually reduce financial support until it was independent. That day came early this year. However, little more than six months after US funding ended, the situation already looks grim. Last month, the news organization laid off 70 of its 186 employees – a 38 percent reduction.

A response to the loss of donor funding, the cuts were also preemptive. Pajhwok's senior editors say they want to prepare for a future post-2014 when they say they expect ad revenues to drop as companies who worked with foreigners look to save money cutting ad budgets. They're also expecting their international subscriber base to shrink as the world inevitably loses interest in Afghanistan without a NATO presence here.   

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