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Germany

German Military Reaches Out to Afghans on Air

As Germany prepares to send combat troops to northern Afghanistan, its military also aims to win over the country by radio.

An Afghan soldier smiles as he listens to the radio

The soldiers distribute radios to the people

Captain Sebastian Knepper works on the radio program that the German military, the Bundeswehr, broadcasts in Afghanistan. Last year he spent several months producing the show on site in the north of the country.

DW-WORLD.DE: Why does the German military produce a radio program for Afghans? Is that typical for regions where it has troops stationed?

Sebastian Knepper: It's clear to the soldiers why they're on the mission, but it's sometimes not clear to the local people. It's their right to know why the German military is there and we have to explain to the people what our mission is. Our intent is to provide them with reliable and factual information. Getting trustworthy information is an important issue in becoming an open, democratic society. That's the reason why the German military always deploys soldiers like me to countries where they're involved, in order to set up the kind of information structure that is found in developed countries like Germany.

It all started in Somalia in 1993. The branch I work in, called Operative Information, has grown since then. It's proven to be a good way to explain to the people [where we have troops stationed] why we're there, but also to react to actions by insurgents or terrorists groups. We inform the people of the facts surrounding the incidents and don't let the insurgents get in the people's heads.

German soldiers in Afghanistan

German troops are stationed in the north

We provide information they can sometimes only get from us, because there is no real infrastructure for TV or other media.

What do you mean by "information?" The word "propaganda" certainly comes to mind with such a program.

It's like a normal radio broadcast in Germany. We provide local news from their province or town, we provide the news from around Afghanistan and from all over the world. The radio hour is divided into four quarters and there is a news section in each quarter. We mix it up with entertainment and music.

Who are your listeners?

Those who can receive our signal. We have one station in the capital, Kabul, and four more in the north, the territory that is run by the Germans. There are other radio stations run by our allies all over Afghanistan.

The illiteracy rate is quite high in Afghanistan and the TV infrastructure is not as good as in Europe, so radio is the easiest way to reach the people. When soldiers go out to the villages, they give away radios that the people can use to listen to our program.

So it's popular?

It's quite popular. We don't have exact figures, but the latest poll from 2005 showed that the BBC's program is the most listened to, but the Bundeswehr's "Voice of Freedom" program came in second. That represents only five years of work to create a radio program there from scratch.

It sounds like a difficult job to produce a program from Germany in a foreign language for people living in a different culture. How do you overcome this challenge?

While we're in Germany, we prepare for the next region we'll be stationed in. It's the soldier stationed in Afghanistan who works on a daily basis on the program. He works together with the local journalists that produce the program in the local languages -- in Afghanistan these are Dari and Pashto.

We produce extra material here in Germany, like a program called "World of Knowledge," with Afghan refugees living here, but most of the work is done in Afghanistan.

Who are the local journalists you partner with in Afghanistan?

We have an Afghan staff. When I was there last year, we had 13 journalists working in Mazar-i-Sharif. They come to work each day, except Fridays, and do the program.

School in Afghanistan

Radio is popular because the illiteracy rate is high, said Knepper

What is essential to know about Afghan culture, the political situation there or the media landscape when producing a radio program that's interesting to the people?

In Afghanistan, there's a lot more talk on the radio. There's also a lot of music -- both Afghan and Western music. But they talk for a long time. On a German radio program, you wouldn't have a piece longer than 90 seconds, but in Afghanistan sometimes the pieces last for three to five minutes. Maybe it's a cultural thing -- they can concentrate longer than people [in Germany].

What was your daily job like?

My daily job was to get an overview of the latest local news in the region I was responsible for in the north. We have correspondents and freelancers providing us daily with news from various provinces. This has to be checked, and I decided which news to include in our program, as well as what kind of entertainment to use.

What criteria do you have for selecting news pieces?

The pieces have to stick to our goals, which are democracy, openness and rule of law. That is our mandate in these countries. It was my main job to check whether the news -- and the music, as well -- kept with these goals.

Do you think the Bundeswehr's work will help establish a freer and more stable media in Afghanistan in the future?

It's the first step. We can't think short-term. In the long-term, it's essential for an open society to have a valid media landscape. We also contribute by engaging and educating local journalists.

What did you learn during your own stay in Afghanistan?

The people there are more relaxed. They're satisfied with much less than people here in our western society. It's a war-torn country and people just want to have a stable and peaceful environment to work and live in. It was impressive to see how eager the people are for peace.

Click on the link below to listen to an excerpt from the Dari-language news program, which reports on the opening of a new school for girls sponsored by the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF).

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