PESHAWAR -- New radio stations being established by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government in every tribal district to inform residents of reforms, development initiatives and livelihood opportunities are set to go live next month.
KP officials in September 2017 approved two development programmes -- one establishing five radio stations in the tribal areas and another setting up radio production infrastructure. The tribal areas became part of KP in 2018.
"The main reason for the radio stations is to counter negative and anti-state propaganda by radio stations operating in ... Afghanistan," said Ghulam Hussain Ghazi, chief of electronic media projects at the Directorate General of Information and Public Relations (DGIPR) KP.
The cost of the first project is estimated at Rs. 310 million ($1.9 million), while that of the second project is estimated at Rs. 900 million ($5.5 million), Ghazi said.
The five radio stations are to be situated in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Bajaur, Kurram and Mohmand, he said. Work on the station in Bajaur is complete.
Workers soon will upgrade an existing station in Razmak, North Waziristan.
"Hopefully, all of the radio stations will go on the air by the end of November 2020," added Ghazi.
Founding the radio stations in Khyber and Orakzai districts will be part of the second project, which includes creating state-of-the-art production studios and is set to be complete by November, he said.
The new radio stations will not only communicate state narratives but also educate locals on the legal system and their rights as citizens of the province, said Ansar Khilji, station director of the DGIPR-operated FM Radio Pakhtunkhwa.
FM Radio Pakhtunkhwa is the parent network of Pakhtunkhwa Radio Peshawar, which will oversee the new radio stations.
Pakhtunkhwa Radio Peshawar was the first ever FM radio station owned by any provincial government, he noted, adding that authorities set it up in 2009 to counter anti-state narratives and paved the way for other FM radio stations.
The new radio stations will help the government to educate and enlighten the masses about the various ills of society, Khilji said.
"The government of Balochistan is following [KP] and is planning to set up its own FM radio stations like KP," he added.
Communicating with tribal residents
About 70% of the population in the tribal districts use radio as their primary medium for news and entertainment, according to Rahman Ullah, chairman of the Journalism Department at the Kohat University of Science and Technology.
Some of the more popular radio channels include Voice of America, Radio Mashaal and the BBC, which mostly operate from outside Pakistan, according to Ullah.
"In the past, militants also set up illegal FM radio stations and used them to report their 'laws' and public executions and to extort funding in the name of holy war," he said.
Operating from bordering Afghanistan or within the tribal belt, such stations often featured radical and anti-Pakistani propaganda, he added.
The fundamental reason for the effectiveness of illegal radio stations during the insurgency was zero access to traditional mainstream media in the tribal belt, according to Bakht Zaman Yousafzai, an assistant professor at the University of Peshawar who has conducted research on such stations.
Radio became the fastest, easiest and most effective way for militants to reach out to the public and communicate their message, he said.
Militants would use radio to solve community issues, Yousafzai added. Civilians would call and register their complaints, and the next day the militants would announce the resolved issues on their radio, gaining popularity and effectively communicating with otherwise isolated residents.
Giving locals a voice
The tribal belt has been ridden with warfare for decades and now has serious issues that must be addressed on a war footing, according to Islam Gul Afridi, a radio journalist from Khyber District.
The region, which served in the past as a buffer zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan, was formerly governed by a draconian, separate legal system, the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR).
Because of its difficult terrain and unique legal status, the tribal belt remained a hub for illegal goods, drugs and weapons.
In 2018, the federal government integrated the old tribal agencies with KP, bringing them under the jurisdiction of the provincial government and abolishing the FCR.
"Currently, there is no infrastructure, and communications networks that focus on agricultural, educational, health and even shelter-related issues are on the rise," he said.
"If we don't give the locals a voice, there can be no hope of progress. Incomes are low, and the public is unaware of the benefits and opportunities after the merger with KP," Afridi said.
"With low literacy rates, newspapers and other written media are useless. There is negligible use of smartphones, no internet, and no TV or cable network, which leaves radio as the only medium," he said. "Its effectiveness has been proven in the past because it communicates in the local dialect, which in turn promotes local attachment [to the stations' message]."