In Afghanistan, a documentary media company and an independent news agency have teamed up to integrate mobile phones and SMS into news reports. From election-day text messages to stories of homemade airplanes, they’re demonstrating how a willingness to adapt mobile platforms to the landscape can contribute to a successful intersection of technology and media.
Small World News is a documentary and new media company that provides tools to journalists and citizens around the world to tell stories about their lives. Pajhwok Afghan News is an independent news agency headquartered in Kabul with eight regional bureaus and a nationwide network of reporters delivering stories in Dari, Pashto, and English. Together, the two launched Alive in Afghanistan, a website originally meant to showcase reports from the 2009 election in Afghanistan.
Alive in Afghanistan
Danish Karokhel, director of Pajhwok Afghan News, said social and multimedia platforms are new for many in Afghanistan. So he hired Small World News to help train Pajhwok staff on how to use these tools and equipment in the context of the 2009 elections.
Unlike other initiatives that bridge mobile technology and journalism, the project did not promote or encourage citizen journalism per se, said Brian Conley, founder of Small World News. Instead, it grew from a rudimentary, informal election observation tool to a broader platform for media dialogue and journalism support for trained reporters.
Alive in Afghanistan launched in 2009 when Small News Network set up an SMS reporting system for Pajhwok reporters during the Afghan presidential election that year.
At launch, Alive in Afghanistan received attention for how it posted citizen reports from “ordinary Afghanis” alongside verified reports from Pajhwok reporters. More than 100 reports came in on election day from Twitter, SMS, and directly from Pajhwok reporters. These were mapped using Ushahidi, a platform for map- and time-based visualizations of text reports.
Conley said the site turned out to be one of the only sources of real-time news on election day. But though individuals could submit messages via mobile phone, many could not access the website because reliable Internet access is not widespread in Afghanistan.
“Although, as the founders of the site readily admit, only a minority of Afghanis know how to use the site and have access to it, it’s still a great resource for real-time election news from Afghanistan,” reported a 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times.
Alive in Afghanistan was intended to be used to report on a looming presidential run-off election. When the run-off was called off in November, the site and functionality could easily have been abandoned by either Small World News or Pajhwok.
Instead, it was retooled and it “turned into more of a journalism-strengthening project for supporting a free and fair media in Afghanistan,” Conley said.
Karokhel, who is also a 2008 recipient of an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Pajhwok received user feedback following the launch that suggested news about daily life and daily activities would be an interesting addition.
So they did just that. SMS reports on the site are now sorted into multiple categories, including security, election, governance, construction, sport, health, and innovation. The reports also appear on special “SMS Updates” section on the Pajhwok website.
On October 19, for example, 15 SMS reports were posted on the Pajhwok site. They ranged from commentary about last month’s parliamentary election to sexual performance drugs to a teenager who constructed the country’s first homemade plane.
SMS Reports Alert Both Readers and the Media
While many mobile-based journalism projects capitalize on geo-coding technology and hyper-local conversations, Karokhel sees larger, international potential for this initiative. Pajhwok posts SMS reports on stories that are interesting to international readers. This comes, in part, from understanding that the audience of the site goes far beyond Afghanis, many of whom don’t have Internet access.
Another important function of the adapted platform is that the SMS reports foster a dialogue for other media outlets and help Pajhwok set the agenda and alert other journalists of breaking news from provinces across the country.
Pajhwok SMS reports are read by 93 radio stations, 25 TV news channels, and 14 daily newspapers. Reports are often picked up by many media outlets, Karokhel said.
In the near future, Karokhel plans to rev up the citizen journalism component of the project to provide SMS reports, in multiple languages, to mobile phones.
Overall, the project is a step forward for both Pajhwok and the media landscape. By taking advantage of training and equipment from Small World News — and running with it — “they will be very cutting edge for a news agency anywhere, and not just in Afghanistan.” Conley said.