The Reluctant Propagandist

It’s 7 a.m. in Kabul. As usual, hundreds of thousands of cars are stuck in traffic jams around the city, where police checkpoints, Humvees, and blast walls congest the perilous streets. Taxi drivers in faded yellow Corollas roll up their windows and try to shoo off street children blowing heady incense — meant to ward off evil spirits — inside their cars. Policemen yell “boro, boro” (move) through the loudspeakers of their dark-green pickups. Fruit sellers calmly navigate the madness, pushing heavy carts laden with dark-red pomegranates, juicy grapes, and Pakistani mangoes while dust lingers in the air behind them.

Here, nothing is ever certain: Any minute, a bomb could go off, destroying families, livelihoods, and hopes.

But in this chaos, one thing is a constant: the energetic voice of Massood Sanjer, one of the hosts of a popular morning show called Safay Shaher (or “Cleaning Up the City”) on Arman FM, the country’s first private radio channel. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, his show is undoubtedly one of the most widely listened-to in Afghanistan.

“If you walk on the street between seven to eight, you just open a car’s door and you can listen to it,” Sanjer says.

Almost everyone tunes in while commuting to work, getting through their morning chores, or standing in line in front of a bakery.

Over the past decade, Sanjer has become a celebrity in Afghan media. His ability to find humor in serious matters brings relief to Afghans who have suffered from war for four long decades now — starting with the Soviet invasion in the late ’70s, civil war and Taliban rule in the ’90s, and the past 18 years of increasingly worsening conflict between terrorist groups and Western-supported Afghan government forces. But more importantly, the fact that the show holds the country’s leaders to account for their incompetencies and apathy has given a sense of power to regular people in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Every day, people from all over the country call in with their complaints about the security situation, lack of electricity, or any other issue they might be facing. Sanjer then calls the responsible authorities and questions them live on-air.

He is not even afraid to make fun of the Taliban:

“The Taliban had blown up the electricity [line] that brings it to Kabul. So we said, ‘Who paid you? Was it someone from outside of the border?’ Stuff like this. It’s very sensitive for Afghans if you make fun of them,” Sanjer says, sitting in his office.

The callers also join the fun, but sometimes they can get a bit carried away, which is why there is a 40-second delay in place. “Someone called a spokesperson a shit-talker,” he laughs.

This didn’t make it on-air.

In Afghanistan, radio is still widely listened to, and especially in rural areas it is the main source of news. Arman FM, whose name is Persian for “hope,” was launched in 2003, two years after the end of Taliban rule, and it is now one of the most popular stations, particularly in the country’s cities.

“We are the last door that people can knock,” Sanjer says with a relaxed smile on his face.

He is a voice for the powerless who would otherwise have little hope in getting their complaints across to the authorities.

But as famous as he is today, not everyone is aware of Sanjer’s past, of a time when he used to lend his voice to none other than the most deadly enemies of freedom of speech in Afghanistan today: the Taliban.

Read the full story here.

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