The United States continues to support the burgeoning democracy in Afghanistan — and not only through diplomacy and force.
The State Department is trying to establish a free press in Afghanistan and is funding American universities' efforts to train journalists there.
Last year, San Jose State University in California and the University of Nebraska at Omaha each received grants in excess of $1 million. This year, four more grants are being funded, including one each at Ball State University in Indiana and the University of Arizona. The recipient of the final two grants has not been announced.
The grants provide funding for three years. Although specifics of each school's plans vary, in general American universities partner with Afghan universities to develop journalism curricula and train instructors.
The U.S. is also providing a media operations center for each partner university in Afghanistan — basically outfitting buildings with TV and radio stations and installing miles of fiber optic cables to establish Internet access, said Jim Willis, a NewsOK blogger who is involved with the Ball State project.
“The State Department's interest in this is that if the media is allowed to grow and flourish in Afghanistan, they will be able to highlight more of the things that the government is trying to do for the people,” said Willis, an Oklahoma native with family still living in Midwest City. “That kind of thing would undermine the propaganda being put out by the Taliban.”
Whether it will work is anybody's guess. The country's infrastructure is not up to the demands of a mass media as we know it, Willis said. The mountainous terrain interferes with television signals, and the breadth of the country and political realities make distribution of newspapers difficult. Internet access is not widely available, and connections are slow. Radio is perhaps the most effective way to reach people.
Beyond that, journalism can be a deadly business there.
“The Taliban is not interested in furthering democratic interests in Afghanistan,” said Willis, now a journalism professor at Azusa Pacific University in California. “They don't want a free press and obviously see this as a threat to some of the information they're putting out.
“So being a journalist in Afghanistan is about as dangerous as being a journalist in other Third World countries. Since this is being funded by U.S. dollars, this could become a target, just as anything American is a target in that region.”
Diane Guerrazzi is the co-director of San Jose State's partnership with Herat University in western Afghanistan. A class in which she was guest-lecturing in March was interrupted by nearby suicide attacks.
“Right about the noon hour, the students all started looking at their cellphones, and some of them had tears in their eyes,” she said. “They said there'd been a bombing near the university. ... I had a member of the U.S. Embassy staff at my class that day. She texted the Embassy. Within half an hour, a guy in a flak vest showed up, clearly an American, saying, ‘Let's go, let's go, let's go.'”
Guerrazzi ended up in an armored sport utility vehicle equipped with a rear gunner. Although she was cautioned to expect gunfire, her group reached the consulate without difficulty. She was advised to return to America; San Jose State officials agreed, and she flew home a few days later.
Despite that experience, she remains excited about the program, which aims to improve the quality of education in Afghanistan. Herat's journalism faculty is composed of young people without advanced degrees but with some media experience; the department head is in her mid-20s.
Much of the effort now is on improving the instructors' English skills so that they can earn acceptable scores on the TOEFL and GRE exams.
Once they do, they will have the opportunity to earn master's degrees in America.
“They're very dynamic and forward thinking,” Guerrazzi said. “They want to improve. Just like professors everywhere, they're excited by their students. It's just that the circumstances they're dealing with are so much more trying.
“Last winter, they had three days with no heat. The power goes out every day. The Internet is unreliable. Herat is one of the areas where we had the early troop withdrawals. If you Google Herat now, you'll see they have roadside bombings there all the time.”
Ball State's partnership is with Shaikh Zayed University in Khost, near the Pakistan border. Like Guerrazzi's institution, Ball State plans to work with the faculty to develop a journalism teaching curriculum. Goals include more than doubling the size of the journalism faculty and increasing student enrollment from 400 to 1,000. Afghan instructors will spend some time in the U.S., receiving training and visiting television stations, The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post.
“The idea is to bring the faculty over there up to what we would consider to be free world standards of teaching journalism,” Willis said.
“It's a massive undertaking.”
If Afghanistan is to succeed at developing a free press, it will require sustained support from America and the rest of the world, Guerrazzi said.
“We're doing the best we can to change things and show people the right way, but the faculty of journalism over there has been using Iranian textbooks from the 1980s, so the tradition of journalism hasn't been about freedom of the press,” she said.
“Everything we're teaching is relatively new to them. We're hoping these lessons will live on and that they can pass these traditions on to their students. ... If we're not able to change things militarily, maybe we can do it in terms of democracy and freedom of speech. Maybe this will be a major change that will resonate even after the troops have pulled out.”