PESHAWAR -- Listeners to radio stations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) these days hear shows dedicated to education, entertainment and youth, a far cry from years ago when militant ideology filled the airwaves.
Radio has long been used by militants to communicate with the general public, notably during the surge in militancy in Malakand Division in 2006-2012.
During this period, more than 100 illegal, militant-operated FM radio stations spread extremist messages, rallied local support and called for donations, according to a study conducted by Rahmanullah, a journalism lecturer and doctoral student at Iqra National University in Peshawar who goes by one name.
"These illegal stations were used to disseminate radical religious ideologies and to spread extremist propaganda throughout the province," he told Pakistan Forward.
As a counter-measure, the KP government in 2009 launched two FM radio stations in Peshawar and Mardan.
In addition, most of those militant radio stations have gone off the air, after troops repeatedly defeated militants and expelled them from KP.
"Since 2009, Pakhtunkhwa Radio has helped shape the counter-narrative against radical ideologies in the region," Rahmanullah said, referring to the station broadcasting from Peshawar.
"Most of the programmes from Pakhtunkhwa Radio are related to entrepreneurship, creative market linkages and youth leadership," said Nizam Uddin, a Pakhtunkhwa Radio producer.
"The response of the youth, particularly from Malakand and tribal areas, has been very high and there is a greater demand for more programmes," he told Pakistan Forward.
To meet this demand, "Pakhtunkhwa Radio has expanded the area reached by its broadcasts ... to 90% of KP and 70% of [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)]", Nizam said.
In April, the government launched three FM radio stations covering Kohat, Swat and Abbottabad to ensure that information reaches residents in far-flung areas of the province.
"The channels are gaining rapid popularity among listeners across [KP] and FATA," Nizam said.
Countering militant ideology
Firdos Khan, director of FM radio at the KP Directorate of Information and Public Relations, recalls the initial challenge of countering the militants' messages.
"There was no state machinery available to communicate with residents of remote areas," he told Pakistan Forward. "The terrorists took complete advantage and started their own FM channels."
"We rose to the challenge and started to counter their narrative," he said "Now we are broadcasting programmes to promote government reforms and educate the community."
Militants used FM channels to denounce polio vaccinations, health care, government policies and the Pakistani army, Rahmanullah said.
"The reason they were successful in utilising radio is that there were limited sources of information and rampant illiteracy in the rural areas of the province," he said. "Therefore, people believed whatever they heard through media channels."
Mastermind of militant propaganda
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazlullah was one of the masterminds behind pro-militant radio in KP. In 2006 he launched an illegal radio station in Swat that he used to preach extremist messages.
Seeing that Fazlullah was able to reach a broad audience and exploit the community negatively, the federal and provincial governments started to inject counter-terrorism content into the programme grid, said Sardar Ali Khan, former station director for Radio Pakistan Peshawar and founder of FM 101 in KP.
"The government-owned radio channels became the torch bearer and launched exclusive programmes on counter-terrorism in a better manner," he told Pakistan Forward.
The programmes motivated audiences to recognise the negative aspects of terrorism, he said.
Focusing on youth, building community
Most of the programmes are focused on youth, said Saqib Nawaz, a producer at Pakhtunkhwa Radio in Swat.
"Terrorism in these areas left youth confused and without direction," he told Pakistan Forward. "Our programmes are focused on education, entertainment and opportunities for livelihood. Our aim is to come up with an alternate and popular narrative to counter the propaganda of religious extremists."
Bakht Zaman, assistant professor at the University of Peshawar Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, has researched the use of radio by miscreants in Malakand Division.
"The FM channels established by the government in these areas are important in countering terrorism because they are community radio channels," he told Pakistan Forward. "Locals can easily access these channels because they are from within their community rather than national radio channels."
Local stations with nearby transmitters have stronger signals than sometimes distant national broadcasters do, and the use of local languages attracts more listeners.
"Secondly, the broadcasters are from within the community, and they can easily identify the [specific] needs of their audiences," Zaman said.