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Afghan free media is a matter of time, says one who should know

Afghanistan’s media industry is one of the youngest and most vibrant in the world, having burst into life to fill the vacuum left just 10 years ago by the demise of the Taliban.

From a country without music or movies, Afghanistan is now jam-packed with radio, television, newspapers, magazines, film, music and theatre. Much comes and goes, and a consolidating shake-out has yet to level the playing field.

For media entrepreneurs like Sardar Ahmad Khan, Afghanistan is a land of opportunity. It's tough, competitive, full of challenges and inevitable disappointments, but energy and creativity can still find traction.

Sardar, a confidently suave father of three with frighteningly idiomatic English learnt from US soldiers while he was covering US-led operations for AFP at Bagram airbase in the early years after the 2001 invasion, saw his opportunity as foreign journalists streamed in behind the retreating Taliban.

"Like it or not, it was clear that the era of media freedom had come to Afghanistan,"; he says.

"I knew the Afghanistan story would remain in the Western headlines for quite a while and this gave me the idea to do something to be a part of this fascinating industry.

"I tried a couple of other ideas - a weekly news magazine or a monthly fashion magazine, but both failed to find a market.

So the idea of creating a media facilitating company came to mind, to provide services to the hundreds of Western journalists who were based in the country or visiting from time to time.

"Traveling outside Kabul as a journalist myself, I always relied on local assistance for a good story, so I knew that without a good local helping hand, be it a fixer or contacts or even a good driver, you can't get a good story. That’s where the idea came from.

"Then I had to pick a name: catchy, of course, but also immediately conveying what I was offering. I came up with Pressistan - press In English, and istan, the Dari word for land or country. And I attached ‘Kabul’ to give it an Afghan identity. And so, three years ago, Kabul Pressistan came to life."

Since then, Sardar - who holds down two jobs, as correspondent for AFP and managing director of Kabul Pressistan - has taken his inspiration from others who have built successful media companies, foremost among them Saad Mohseni, the man behind Tolo TV, the country’s most popular, and innovative, channel.

Kabul Pressistan has grown from a simple fixing/translation service into a comprehensive "one-stop shop" as Sardar likes to call it, offering a wide range of media services, including video, photo and text reporting, stringing, facilitating, monitoring, and training."It's been quick to make use of social media, with 3,400 friends on Facebook and a growing following on Twitter.

A recently launched SMS service has found a ready market for its breaking news and security alerts among the media, diplomatic and aid communities in Kabul and beyond.

Clients have included Western ambassadors, NGOs, and US and NATO military personnel, as well as journalists who have left glowing testimonials on the website - kabulpressistan.com.

Harper's writer Matthieu Aikins called the company "the Cadillac of Kabul-based fixers" while Singapore freelance photographer Simon Lim said simply: "Kabul Pressistan is a godsend."

Media freedom is yet to be institutionalised in Afghanistan, so censorship can be arbitrary - nervous military police, for instance, pointing their weapons at journalists covering suicide attacks.

Media is one of the few things that has thrived in post-Taliban Afghanistan but still we have a rocky journey ahead to claim we have a competent free media in this country,” Sardar says.

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of expertise and competent journalists and media manpower. We have lots of television stations, for example, but we don't have good journalists and experts to run them; we have hundreds of radio stations but we don't have people to produce content for them."

While others see a bleak future for the country and even imminent civil war as warlords and the Taliban compete to fill the vacuum that will be left by exiting foreign troops, Sardar strikes an optimistic note: "I'm working towards that time when all my dreams will have come true and all my plans comes to fruition - a couple of TV channels, a serious weekly news magazine like Newsweek, a network of radio stations and a huge production house."

Laughing at his own ambition, he adds: "I think we will definitely see the day Afghanistan has a truly free media and the manpower that it needs. The future is, without a doubt, bright."