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.
So, Fekrat teaches his recruits what a pseudonym is, and émigrés from Afghanistan's mainstream press come to find out how they can write without fear or favor or filter.
Fekrat's relationship with mainstream media goes beyond furnishing a forum for its refugees—he often sees his work lifted from the Web and reprinted in newspapers. It's Afghanistan's take on syndication; copyright infringement is low on the list of law-enforcement concerns. The thievery is fine with Fekrat for the most part, since he has no particular interest in being credited with the work, and he can stomach the lack of compensation, but he beseeches editors to print the name of the blog they poached from so readers can go there for more.
Fekrat pays little attention to the warnings of his friends and disciples. He violates traditional codes of conduct in his writing and his behavior with the kind of devil-may-care disregard that compels those close to him to question his survival instinct. He has been imprisoned and had his Web site hacked and his life threatened for controversial postings. He treats these as shots across the bow. He'll duck down for a week or so, take his most incendiary postings offline, or just dial down the rhetoric. If need be, he'll go into hiding, dancing around so no one can find the source—a method he learned from the Taliban, which continued its radio broadcasts even after the U.S.-led coalition took the country, because no one knew where they originated.
And then he'll be back at it, enraging literate mullahs with musings on sexual subjects he finds in the Quran, waving his telephoto lens out of car windows while conservative women hit the deck like he's strafing bullets.
At his most recent blogging workshop, held at the only Internet cafe in Bamiyan, a remote outpost in the highlands of central Afghanistan, Fekrat calls for order. There's no bathroom, just a dedicated space behind the building, and no power, so they've rigged the computers to a generator. Fekrat will pay for the generator's gas with $200 he raised in PayPal donations to his Web sites. "Sign up for a Gmail account," he yells, as the journalists crowd around the computers as if they've never seen one before. Fekrat had to turn people away at the door, but they're still above capacity. He's accustomed to working with limited resources, though, and in the past he has conducted classes with a single connected computer, so he knows how to make the most of the gathering. His mission is simple—get as many people signed up and inspired to write as he can.
When he opens the floor to questions, the president of the Bamiyan Journalists Association asks earnestly how blogging will overcome the underlying problems facing print media, principally, that people can't read. It's a limitation, Fekrat acknowledges. The beauty of blogging is that the barrier to entry is low, but access to a connected computer is a big enough obstacle for most people in Afghanistan. Many don't have the means to log on or know how to look for blogs; most don't have the inclination. So Fekrat is satisfied for now with rousing a noisy chorus of voices speaking truth to power, and that means the elite in his own country and the citizens of those that have a hand in Afghanistan's affairs.