This week, RFE’s Radio Mashaal marks the first anniversary of the launch of its Pashto-language broadcasts in Pakistan’s Pashtun heartland.
“Our listeners are desperate for reliable news,” says Radio Mashaal Director Amanullah Ghilzai. “Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called Pakistan ‘the world’s deadliest place for journalists.’ And Reporters Without Borders calls the Swat Valley, ‘the valley of fear.'”
On a recent broadcast of one of the stations’ most popular call-in shows, “War Stories,” a widow from the Swat Valley recounted the story of a 14-hour Taliban attack on her house that killed her husband and son. Another popular Radio Mashaal program is airing a weekly series profiling Pashtun tribal elders who have been killed by the Taliban. The targeting of elders, who form the backbone of Pashtun society in places with little or no government presence, is an underreported tactic the Taliban has been employing for nearly a decade.
Away from the fighting, Radio Mashaal’s show, “Your Future,” is a program for youths offering advice on schools and careers. Ghilzai calls it “a how-to for young people interested in getting job training, applying for Pakistani schools, or studying abroad.”
“Most of our listeners in these parts of Pakistan simply do not have access to such basic information,” he says. “That’s why we also produce programs dedicated to women’s issues and health care.”
When the worst flooding in decades devastated large portions of the country last year, Radio Mashaal reported from some of the most inaccessible parts of Pakistan. In the aftermath of the floods, a program called “Hopes” aired 100 special reports on the disaster which provided, among other things, information on where people who lost their homes could turn for help and information about water-born illnesses.
During its first broadcast on January 15, 2010, Radio Mashaal surprised listeners when renowned Pashtun pop star Haroon Bacha emerged from hiding as the host of a new cultural affairs program. Bacha — a Pashtun entertainment icon — was forced to flee the region three years ago when Islamic extremists threatened him and his family.
“Radio Mashaal is galvanizing a population starved for artistic outlets,” says Bacha, who says his songs of peace are part of “a liberal Pashtun tradition of tolerance.”