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USAID cellphone program aims to enhance Afghan media

The U.S. Agency for International Development is promoting a project to give Afghan mobile phone users free nationwide access to Afghanistan's newspaper, radio and TV news stories.

The project -- called Mobile Khabar, which roughly translates to "mobile news" in Pashto, Dari, Arabic and other regional languages -- is based on two beliefs. First, a wider audience and higher revenue will improve Afghans' ability to produce in-depth, well-sourced journalism, and, second, most Afghans have the ability to discern truth from fiction when given the opportunity to consult a variety of sources.

Troy Etulain, the project's creator and a senior adviser for media development in USAID's Office of Democracy and Governance, said studies dating to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s show that Afghans historically have sought out multiple news sources instead of a single news source based on an ethnic or ideological affiliation.

When the system is up and running, users will be able to punch in a four-digit code on their cellphones to subscribe to local radio reports from Helmand province, national cricket scores or English lessons offered through the Afghan foreign ministry, Etulain said.

In addition, audio bloggers will contribute commentary through a system similar to voicemail, he said.

USAID is funding the project with a $7 million grant that may increase to $16 million if option years on the main contract are exercised.

Mobile Khabar is just one part of USAID's media development program in Afghanistan -- the largest the agency has ever funded -- including a half-dozen regional journalism training centers where professional Afghan journalists and citizen bloggers are being schooled in everything from Internet media skills and video production to reporting basics such as maintaining objectivity and seeking multiple sources.

"From a media development perspective, this says to a local radio station in Mazari Sharif: 'OK, now you have a national audience," Etulain said. "Wherever people have access to mobile phones, they can listen to you. And you get paid more the more people that listen to you." USAID's funding scheme is weighted to pay bloggers and programs based on popularity -- the more listeners they attract, the more money those programs and bloggers will earn, he said.

Etulain said that at least initially, USAID advisers will screen the information sent to subscribers to ensure broadcasters aren't promoting militant propaganda or inadvertently endangering themselves or subscribers.

A former Bloomberg News reporter in Eastern Europe, Etulain has worked across Africa, South Asia and the Middle East as one of USAID's democracy fellows promoting open government through media reforms and development. His other projects include putting up low-cost, ready-made cell towers in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and supporting social media reporting in Armenia, where the largest mainstream media outlets are effectively under state control.

Etulain's goal is for Mobile Khabar to be self-sustaining within a matter of years and managed by an Afghan-run nonprofit foundation, he said.

Revenue will come from commercials, which will be broadcast between every third or fourth news report or blog post, and from companies and aid organizations that will use the platform to offer brief, paid surveys -- either market research for companies interested in expanding into Afghanistan, such as Coca Cola, or polling by political candidates, he said.

The service also may seek some revenue from listeners willing to pay for quicker access to news reports or perks such as text message alerts about new stories, Etulain said. The basic service will be free for all Afghans, he said.

Mobile Khabar will gather location and gender information from new subscribers, Etulain said, and retain some information about users' preferences. That will help the program offer targeted broadcasts such as blog posts about local issues and stories on specific issues, such as maternal health care for new mothers, he said. It also will help the service increase revenue by allowing advertisers to narrowly target their pitches to specific audiences, Etulain said, a common tactic in online advertising.

The service won't collect or disseminate any information that could endanger subscribers if it were stolen by the Taliban, al Qaeda or another militant group, he said.

The service's greatest vulnerability, Etulain said, is likely the cell towers it will depend on to carry its broadcasts and which are more vulnerable to a Taliban attack than the more dispersed and sometimes anonymous broadcasters.

The project could also be stymied if funding from USAID and other donors doesn't continue for Afghan's existing slate of independent radio stations, most of which were spawned by and remain dependent on outside backing to stay afloat. That funding could begin drying up as U.S. troops begin withdrawing from Afghanistan this year.

USAID alone has pumped more than $150 million into about 40 independent Afghan radio stations and other media development projects since 2002.

Ultimately, Etulain said, he hopes Mobile Khabar will democratize and expand Afghan media in a way similar to how the Internet has expanded Western media, by drastically lowering the price of entry. Some audio bloggers, for instance, could earn enough producing popular reports to spawn their own radio stations, he said. Other entrepreneurial broadcasters could raise money by charging a small fee to answer questions about specific topics, such as car maintenance or personal finance.

"It will allow for new radio stations to be enabled because anyone can have a channel," he said. "If you have a computer and a microphone, you can become a radio station."

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