Media is considered to be one of the pillars of a modern nation. As an indispensable tool for democracy, the press is expected to act as a watchdog of government and empower the public. But at the dawn of a US-led invasion of Afghanistan over 12 years ago, the media in the war-ravaged South Asian nation found itself in tatters.
Under the Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001, nearly all forms of media in the country were banned except for the regime-run Radio Sharia, which only broadcast religious programs, and a few other Islamic publications. Listening to music and watching television were outlawed by the extremists. The country's communications infrastructure lay in ruins.
But when NATO troops ousted the Taliban from power in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Afghanistan's media experienced a renaissance. Vast sums of foreign investment flew into rebuilding the country's crippled press and broadcasting, propelling a transformation of the Afghan media landscape.
Today, Afghanistan boasts a sprawling media sector with some 65 television channels, 174 radio stations and hundreds of print publications. About 86 percent of population has access to telecommunication services; some 8 percent have Internet access, according to Afghan government.
This rapid growth has led many to view the country's media as a remarkable success story in the post-Taliban era. Ordinary Afghans have also placed greater trust in the nation's media than in their government or court system.
In a nationwide survey conducted by the US-based Asia Foundation in 2013, public confidence in electronic media stood at 68 percent, while the corresponding figures for parliament and judiciary were much lower at 47 and 43 percent respectively.
But despite the impressive gains made over the past decade, acute challenges remain. The impact of the media boom has largely been confined to urban areas, where access to information is easier and electricity supplies are more reliable.
The picture in rural areas, however, remains starkly different. The Asia Foundation's survey notes that there hasn't been much progress in villages as local community councils continue to be the main channels of information due to a lack of infrastructure and low literacy levels.
With an estimated nine million illiterate adults, Afghanistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world, which accounts for the low newspaper readership. According to a report published in 2012 by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), print plays only a small part in the nation's media scene.
Most information is transmitted by broadcasting stations. Radio is the country's dominant medium with more than 60 percent of Afghans regularly tuning into different stations, according to a 2010 research study commissioned by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Radio is followed by television with a viewership estimated at around 48 percent of the population.
However, the success of Afghan broadcasting has a downside: a high-reliance on foreign money. Over the past decade, millions of dollars in international aid have been pumped into efforts to build independent media outlets. For instance, a significant amount of the 2.1 billion USD in German reconstruction aid to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2010 has been spent on media development.
There has been criticism that the financial support has led to the mushrooming of radio and television outlets which lack a viable business model and depend entirely on external financing for their survival.
In its 2010 Afghanistan Media Assessment Report, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) argued that instead of focusing on setting up media institutions which the Afghan economy could not support, donor countries "should invest primarily in the Afghan media's production and dissemination of socially constructive contents."
Analysts believe the sector's financial dependency on international aid makes it vulnerable to any cuts in funding. Andrew Wilder, South and Central Asia expert at USIP, told DW that "too rapid and drastic a reduction in foreign aid levels would be very destabilizing and risk undermining many of the tremendous socio-economic gains made during the past decade."
Foreign influence, however, is not only limited to investments. It has also had an impact on the content. For instance, more and more foreign entertainment programs are being broadcast and the nation's airwaves are filled with Indian "Bollywood" movies and soap operas.
Despite many people complaining in the USIP study that these programs convey ideas and messages that contradict their traditional societal norms and cultural values, these shows remain hugely popular, the report noted, echoing a clash between conservative values and the principle of freedom of expression in the conflict-ridden country.
The right to freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed under the nation's constitution, which came into force in 2004. But despite the laws that "ostensibly protect press freedoms, the government continues to use the restrictive elements of the constitution and media law to harass and punish media organizations and reporters," the CIMA report stated.
In 2012, for instance, President Hamid Karzai's administration tried to tighten its control of the media by placing restrictions on foreign broadcasting, creating a long list of media "violations" and setting up a government-controlled media complaints commission.
Following a huge domestic and international outcry over the proposals, Kabul decided to revise the draft law. But the incident showcased the political challenges faced by journalists and media organizations across the country.
Experts believe the attempts to curb press freedom have resulted in reporters and authors practicing self-censorship. "There is today a stronger sense of 'government control' and journalists fear that they may face reprisals if they criticize the government too overtly," Sari Kouvo, a human rights expert and co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, told DW. Kouvo added that the real test of a democratic state is how well it protects those expressing alternative views.
There are growing concerns about journalists being physically assaulted. A resilient insurgency and a climate of impunity make the country one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist. Statistics compiled by the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee reveal that journalists were either attacked or threatened at least 35 times in the second half of 2013.
"Journalists who try to expose the wrongdoings of warlords, insurgents or other powerful individuals are threatened, beaten and even killed, and this limits their ability to conduct in-depth reporting," Sheldon Himelfarb, director of the Media, Conflict and Peace-Building Center at USIP, told DW.
Against this backdrop, the scheduled withdrawal of NATO troops from the country by the end of the year has sparked renewed fears over the safety and security of reporters. Threats to journalists, however, come not only from the Taliban and criminals, but also increasingly from government troops. "Of particular concern was the growing number of cases where the attacks implicated government officials, including members of the Afghan security forces," Human Rights Watch noted in its 2014 report on Afghanistan.
The country's media also regularly scores low in international rankings for press freedom. In 2013, Afghanistan ranked 128 out of 179 nations in the Reporters without Borders' Index, reflecting that the vibrant and expanding Afghan press still faces significant challenges in the coming years.