USIP’s Theo Dolan and Michael Dwyer recently returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they are looking at ways to harness the power of social media to prevent or reduce violence and how to use a new radio program to educate rural Afghans on “rule of law” concepts in attempt to strengthen security in those areas. Dolan is senior program officer for USIP’s Center of Innovation for Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding. Dwyer is a senior program officer for the COI.

Photo courtesy of NY Times

You recently traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan. What are you working on?

Theo: We were there to get the lay of the land, in particular to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the role that media plays in inciting violence in Pakistan. That ranges from media products produced by jihadist groups to charges of sensationalism leveled at mainstream media. But it's also as simple as plain inexperience - the rapid growth of the media there means the average age of journalists is about 23.

Michael: We're starting with an analysis of the content produced by Pakistan media in combination with audience research. From that, we hope to get a more complex picture of the regional and linguistic variations of how people consume media.  We're also learning what Pakistani media and civil society want to achieve. A constant theme we found is the need for more effective regulation of Pakistani media, with the industry seeking a self-regulatory approach in which they take more responsibility.  There is some precedent for this in an agreement among major media organizations about reporting on violent incidents.

What were you doing in Afghanistan?

Michael: We are looking at ways to raise awareness among Afghans who live in more remote areas about rule of law concepts that are integral to building a strong civil society. As such, radio is still the primary source of information in rural areas of Afghanistan. In urban areas, it has changed a lot in recent years with the arrival of TV and more reliable electricity in larger towns. People in those towns often have access to TV, local radio, mobile networks and other sources of information. But people living in rural areas still rely on shortwave or AM broadcasts from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, the BBC and Radio Television Afghanistan. So we are seeking production partners and building links with civil society groups who can help us develop curriculum and we're forming content advisory groups in support of the radio programming we intend to produce.

What kind of radio programming would you be doing?

Michael: At least part of it is radio drama. There is a long history of radio dramas in Afghanistan, with the BBC's "New Home, New Life" being the best known. And of course radio drama allows us to raise issues that can be hard to raise directly since we can script story lines that engage listeners in ways that other forms of communication might not allow given cultural and linguistic barriers, as well as security issues. But we're trying to give radio drama a new twist – for example how can we harness the growing use of mobile phones to allow the audience actually influence the outcomes of the storylines? Some people in rural areas feel like they're being overlooked and lack access compared to those living in Kabul. Giving these rural audiences some control of the programs changes that dynamic. So we were really trying to connect with people who can then connect us with local groups in rural areas, so that we're not sitting in Washington, D.C. or even Kabul and designing programs from an urban perspective. We've got a three-to-four month period to design all of this, and we'll have programs on the air in the second half of 2012.

Are there any other projects you're working on? 

Michael: Yes, we're also working down in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Our colleagues at USIP are identifying youth advocates who can work on rule of law and justice issues at a community level. Our role is then to come in with social media tools and traditional media programs to help them map issues and get the word out about solutions. In that way, communities can learn what has worked elsewhere. There are some good youth organizations in Jalalabad, and some young people getting right into social media, programming and the like.  One of the really positive things that came out of our trip was the number of people who talked about emerging youth and gender volunteer groups. These are groups not looking for handouts, but people getting together to figure out how to do for themselves.

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