By Shirazuddin Siddiqi
Afghanistan's media landscape has dramatically changed since the Taleban were toppled by the US-led coalition in December 2001.
Strong oral culture and low literacy rate mean radio is the medium
The country has never before had local electronic and print media operating independently outside state control.
Years of crisis and fighting have turned Afghans into keen and sophisticated media consumers.
However, numerous obstacles still hinder the development of enduring free and independent media.
There are now more than 300 newspapers and other publications in circulation across the country.
More than 50 FM radio stations and five private television stations are broadcasting.
And a new generation of journalists is beginning to play a stronger role.
"Enthusiasm and motivation are the two things you can see more of among some young journalists," Sayed Aqa Hussain Fazel Sancharaki, deputy information minister, says.
"Journalists are much more motivated to search for and find the truth and tell it."
Radio in the lead
A strong oral culture, problems of distribution of print media and low literacy rate are some of the major obstacles for the print media.
Tolo and Aina television stations are becoming popular in the country
Radio is the most popular medium in the country.
Print journalists tend to mix up fact and opinion, unlike electronic media which take their lead more from the influential tradition of BBC journalism that has a greater emphasis on factual reporting.
"Radio clearly remains the most popular medium," says Adrian Edwards, a former journalist who is now the spokesman for the UN secretary-general's representative in Afghanistan.
"I would expect radio to remain so for some time to come given current income and literacy levels."
FM radios - especially music stations - have gained significant audience shares.
Arman FM - a private station - is now the most popular station among the youth of Kabul.
The station now broadcasts in four other provinces.
The new competitive market has compelled international broadcasters to increase programming and introduce more Afghan-focused schedules.
The American Radio Liberty and Voice of America (VOA) now broadcast 24 hours a day in both Dari and Pashto languages.
They, as well as other major international broadcasters such as the BBC and Radio France International are now also broadcasting in FM.
Private television channels - especially the Tolo and Aina stations - are becoming popular.
Television is developing fast in the cities
"Tolo is daring in its search for new topics," Baqer Moin, a leading expert on Afghanistan who is currently a member of the country's media monitoring commission, says.
"Some of their interviews with personalities like President Karzai, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, and Marshal Fahim have been ground breaking.
"So have been their feature programmes on homosexuality and violence against women."
Television, particularly in the private sector, is developing fast in the cities.
"If the experience of other countries is anything to go by, as incomes rise television will expand into rural areas quite quickly," says Mr Edwards.
The success of the Ghurian television station, set up in Herat's remote district of Ghurian by an Afghan who returned from exile in neighbouring Iran, indicates the potential for growth of television in the countryside.
The station is now beaming three hours of broadcasting into 500 homes around Ghurian.
Quality and content
The content of television and radio programmes is often still not convincing for Afghan listeners who have developed a sophisticated judgement in the years of unrest in the country.
Traditional ways of thinking and overused models of programming get in the way of creativity.
They also results in lower professional standards of journalism.
"When an article is poorly researched, sources aren't checked, loose opinion takes the place of hard facts, poorly founded claims and accusations take the place of the truth, you end up with a cynical kind of journalism that is of little value to anyone," Mr Edwards says.
Deputy minister Sancharaki, a former Afghan journalist, admits that "we don't yet have a strong institution that can reach journalists nationally, upgrade their skills and give them protection."
Adrian Edwards says in Afghanistan "at present the best protection journalists have for themselves is the highest possible standards of professionalism and behaviour."
"The messenger needs to be trusted."
Warlords and conservative religious groups, however, are still strong in the country.
Observers say some governors have too much power in the provinces and so they suffocate the media.
"Provincial governors and government officials have not yet understood the current climate," Mr Sancharaki, deputy information minister, says.
"They try to use the media to create an image for themselves."
Another issue is that some Afghan journalists - especially the older generation - are still under the spell of self-censorship.
"There are several areas of concern which include intimidation and self-censorship pressures," Mr Edwards says.
"If the media is to fulfil its role - which ultimately has to do with watching out for the health of the state and society - journalists need to be able to do their jobs properly, and free from unhealthy pressures."
Will the current vibrant media last long enough to support Afghans in rebuilding their lives and their country?
Afghanistan does not have a developed market where private media can draw on subscription or advertising to finance themselves.
"In Afghanistan the advertising market is clearly too small to support the large number of media outlets that currently exist," Mr Edwards observes.
Naturally, some of the existing media outlets will disappear from the market.
Despite these concerns, many are still optimistic about the future of the media in Afghanistan.
New technology is making its way, which, in the long term, may offer alternative delivery channels.
"Internet and mobile technology are taking root in the country," Baqer Moin says.
Adrian Edwards believes "a healthy and strong media is within reach."
"It is a hard job seeking out the truth, yet I've met journalists doing just that, and with obvious intelligence, humour and determination."