The U.S. State Department is funding American universities to improve journalistic standards in Afghanistan. Jim Willis, a NewsOK blogger and Oklahoma native, is involved with a Ball State University project.
BY KEN RAYMOND firstname.lastname@example.org •
Published: October 17, 2011
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.'”