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A Voice for the Voiceless: Interactive Radio in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Insecurity and poverty don’t just mean being deprived of material things – they can also deprive people of a voice. Conflict and scarcity make access to information difficult in many regions of the world. Where media are available, it is often the most extreme, dangerous groups who dominate and who falsely represent these regions to...

Insecurity and poverty don’t just mean being deprived of material things – they can also deprive people of a voice. Conflict and scarcity make access to information difficult in many regions of the world. Where media are available, it is often the most extreme, dangerous groups who dominate and who falsely represent these regions to the rest of the world.

In this edition of Digital Diversity, Zydrone Krasauskiene, Editorial Manager of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, explains how they try to prevent those extremists from robbing the people of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan and Afghanistan of their voice. By broadcasting in Pashto to the people of the FATA through their station, Radio Mashaal, they have taken back the airwaves, making a place where listeners can finally have the chance to articulate and discuss the real problems, debates and events that make up their everyday lives.

But the station doesn’t just provide information. FrontlineSMS software has opened up new frontiers for Radio Mashaal – literally – by creating a completely new and unorthodox way of making interactivity possible for the people of the FATA. By enabling listeners to talk back to the radio, they can counter the voice of the extremists and draw attention to issues that really affect them. In some cases, this citizen journalism has embarrassed the government into acting to resolve problems affecting the people of the FATA. Using mobile technology, Radio Mashaal has opened up a space for debate, advocacy, music and joking in one of the most isolated places in the world.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Zydrone Krasauskiene

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reports the news where a free press does not exist or is not allowed by the government. RFE/RL reaches nearly 25 million people in 28 languages and 21 countries in Russia, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia. In 2010, RFE/RFL began broadcasting in Pashto in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and part of Balochistan, with its new station, Radio Mashaal. The station is so important because, with no print media and no TV, these geographically different tribal border areas are effectively under an information blackout. Radio is the only feasible and available medium.

However, even this vital channel has been dominated by extremists, with the illegal FM Mullah Radio spreading extremist propaganda and militant groups even discouraging music. Hence the primary mission of Radio Mashaal – to reach out and inform local people, especially the younger ones. “We wanted to reach these most vulnerable people to counter extremists who want to dominate peoples’ minds” says Amin Mudaqiq, Director of Radio Mashaal. According to the latest audience research carried out in July 2011, the average Radio Mashaal listener tends to be male (69%), young (39% are under 30 and 28% under 44), has no formal education at all (33%) or has only primary education (27%), and is rural (97%).

Radio Mashaal strives to be a community radio which helps these people to contact the authorities, discuss problems with each other and share stories – to be the voice of the voiceless.


The Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Photo:


But to be successful in fulfilling this mission, Radio Mashaal had to establish interaction with their listeners. Until recently, however, the huge cost of calling RFE/RL headquarters in Prague prevented our listeners in Afghanistan and Pakistan from contributing to our programming. So an SMS service looked like a promising solution.

I first heard about the FrontlineSMS open source software, which can turn any computer into an SMS hub, at the Online News Association conference in Washington DC last September. When I was in London in April, I visited the FrontlineSMS office and during a chat with Amy O’Donnell, the Radio Project Manager, I asked whether we could try it out here at RFE/RL.


Muhammad Sami, 22, texting in the streets of Peshawar. Photo: Radio Mashaal.


After consulting with my colleagues, we installed FrontlineSMS software in our bureau in Islamabad and connected it to a GSM modem. Colleagues in Islamabad arranged to use a local SIM card and negotiated an extremely reasonable package with the local network provider – the subscription cost $1.75 per month including 10,000 SMS messages.

All was set, and on May 11, 2011 Radio Mashaal announced its phone number and invited listeners to contact moderators and programme makers.

The response was overwhelming. On the first day, over 130 text messages were received containing political comments, pieces of poetry and praise for Mashaal programmes. They even received some jokes. While we currently broadcast 9 hours daily, some of the listeners asked for an increase of Mashaal daily programming to 24 hours. In just six months, we received over 20,000 messages.

As a colleague from Radio Mashaal, Shaheen Buneeri explained, “The SMS facility has created an excellent opportunity for Radio Mashaal listeners to express their thoughts and feelings on social, political, cultural and security issues in the region. Through these messages, which are an important part of our news bulletins, listeners connect to their dear ones in foreign lands, and the Pashto diaspora shares messages of peace and goodwill with their friends and families at home.”


Text messages flood into the Islamabad Bureau. Photo: Radio Mashaal.


Radio Mashaal programmes are designed to address issues relevant to the local community. For example, ‘Problems and Government response’ covers a particular issue affecting the area, explores its impact, and then seeks out government response to find a solution. So incoming text messages don’t just give the audience a chance to respond – they initiate reports and investigations too. For example, about two months ago someone sent an SMS to Radio Mashaal from the Kacaha Panga area near Hango, complaining that although they lived very close to a gas distribution station, they had been disconnected from the main gas supply.

The issue was taken up by producer Stonzi Aow Sarkar of Radio Mashaal, who challenged the relevant authorities to find a solution. The authorities promised to solve the problem. Similarly, Radio Mashaal received messages in August 2011 about the shortage of water and electricity in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Radio Mashaal correspondents checked the situation on the ground and found that it was true. A local reporter was tasked to take the issue to the relevant authorities. He did so and filed a report on it, creating widespread interest in the issue.

Music plays a prominent role in Radio Mashaal’s programming. Since music is restricted by militant groups, local people are eager to hear popular songs which are not locally available. Radio Mashaal’s ‘Music Hour’ is a very popular live show, where listeners can now send in an SMS and request a favourite song.

This SMS project has established an extremely effective communication channel for Radio Mashaal listeners. The only drawback is that the huge number of incoming SMSs means we are unable to send replies to all of our listeners. But as Amin Mudaqiq, Radio Mashaal director says, “The most important thing is that the SMS service enabled our listeners, even the poorest of them, to contact us.”

More than 3 million Pashtuns live in the FATA region. According to this year’s audience research, Radio Mashaal’s weekly reach in this region is 8.4 percent of the Pashto population. This demonstrates the power of radio in communicating with this community and the increasing need to offer platforms to allow listeners to engage with the station.

To quote just one SMS that came in recently, in English: “Mashaal Radio is 1 of the best radio [stations] in the world!” Isn’t that rewarding?

Zydrone Krasauskiene worked from 1996 – 2004 for RFE/RL Lithuanian service, first as a freelancer then as a broadcaster. She ran her own daily programme on post-communist development in Central and Eastern Europe, monitoring those countries’ progress towards EU membership. As Editorial Manager, she has been intensively involved in identifying and applying best practice solutions which are relevant to RFE/RL’s language services.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Ken Banks
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.