Minutes into Afghan President Hamid Karzai's speech before the Afghanistan Donor Conference in Paris, he congratulated his country on its "independent media," which, having "grown exponentially" since the ouster of the Taliban, is a harbinger of Afghanistan's imminent rise to respectable statehood. With a fresh infusion of development dollars, no doubt, Karzai could build on the thriving infrastructure, cultivate a legitimate civil society, educate girls, smoke out the extremists, and generally rid the world of its turbaned bogeymen.
Not everyone buys that. Though the telecom infrastructure in Afghanistan is growing at a pace that exposes confounding contrasts—kids download videos on mobile phones while their houses lack electricity for much of the day—the mainstream press hasn't grown up as fast. Given expanding access to eyes and minds, the national press isn't as sophisticated as it could be.
That's where Nasim Fekrat, a 25-year-old self-trained journalist and self-styled free-press crusader, comes in. Fekrat works from a small office in West Kabul, his laptop powered by a car battery that sucks up city electricity while it's on so he can work when the power is off. Fekrat founded the Association of Afghan Blog Writers and has taken on the task of recruiting bloggers from all over Afghanistan.
"I believe blogging will change things," he says. "We don't have free media in Afghanistan. We don't have independent media." As far as Fekrat is concerned, the "500 printed publications" touted in Karzai's speech is an extravagant claim, and even if it is accurate, the abundance of choices serves more than anything to saturate the market. "Afghans aren't interested enough to pay 5 afghani [1 cent] to buy a newspaper." Most can't read anyway, particularly in rural areas. Few publications can command enough readers to stay afloat, so buoyancy is bestowed not by circulation and ad sales but by benefactors. "The papers have to get money from parties and groups, so all media [outlets] are related to groups and parties. Although they write 'independent' on the front, actually they're not; they're depending on groups, political parties, which belong to races and tribes."
Fekrat's facial features are distinctly Mongoloid, in accordance with his Hazara heritage. His skin is rough and his look rugged, powerful in a primitive way; a rack of oversize teeth is arranged in what might best be described as a rebellious manner. He's fiercely independent, even irreverent, but then he's never had a reason to believe in the benevolence of a higher authority. Fekrat's father wanted him dead by the time he was 12 because Nasim didn't care for Allahand couldn't remember to pray, so he spent his adolescence fending for himself. He taught himself English, photography, journalism, the anatomy of the Internet, and he put it all together by posting his thoughts and photographs online. Then he started encouraging others to do the same and raising money on his Web sites so he could go into the provinces and spread the gospel.
Karzai's plea to the donors seemed to strike all the right chords, and he came home with a handsome purse of $21 billion in pledged aid. Naturally, Karzai's view was filtered through rose-tinted glasses (Fekrat's are decidedly opaque), but his assessment misrepresents a country where journalists who rattle the cage get bitten—killed, threatened, put on death row for distributing materials critical of Islam. In April, Afghanistan's minister of information and culture called the concept of free speech "cheap talk" and demanded a ban on five TV shows he deemed un-Islamic. The Parliament delivered.