It all started with an idea for a dial-for-news phone number.
Reporting from conflict zones is risky business anywhere in the world. But in Pakistan’s restive border region with Afghanistan, formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, it was nearly impossible.
The inhabitants of this semi-autonomous area were subject to different, colonial-era laws and for years, they were stuck between two warring sides: militants like al Qaida and the Taliban versus the Pakistani military. This made the region largely out of bounds for journalists and left the locals hungry for news.
But against those odds, Tribal News Network, a radio news organization, emerged to fill this void in 2013, working from Peshawar and delivering news to the tribal areas in the local language, Pashto.
Founders Tayyeb Afridi and Said Nazir, both from the tribal areas themselves, started working for a government funded radio station in the area’s Khyber district in 2006 to counter militant narratives. But when Afridi and Nazir started covering local news, the station was suddenly shut down in 2009.
“The government was not happy because we were at times critical,” Nazir said. In a volatile situation, any information that could potentially turn the locals against the army was considered dangerous. But the response of the audience had been overwhelming; local news was clearly something sorely missing in the troubled region.
Shortly after that, Afridi and Nazir stumbled on some funding from international organizations and decided to continue their quest on their own. But what lay ahead was not an easy task.
Firstly, recruiting reporters in a remote region where few had access to education was a huge challenge. “We focused on training people,” Afridi said. “Initially we trained local people, core staff and freelancers and correspondents from different areas.” They also managed to recruit women from the area, which is a conservative part of the country.
Secondly, because of colonial-era laws, it was technically impossible for locals to own a media organization in the FATA region. Therefore, Afridi and Nazir, now managing editor and executive director of TNN respectively, had to find ways to go around this.
Initially, they established a mobile phone system where people could call a number and a news bulletin would play automatically. This service was provided with the help of the German Embassy in Pakistan.
These calls, though free for the public, cost money, and when the service became unexpectedly popular (they had 600,000 calls in the first month), TNN exhausted a year-long budget in just a month. They tried to charge callers, but that killed its popularity. In the end, they had to abandon the initiative and stick to working with partner stations that were broadcasting in FATA.
“It was very difficult to convince the stations. They were music oriented and didn’t like news because it was dangerous,” Afridi recalls.
Once, TNN did a story on polio vaccination, something the militants vehemently opposed because of misconceptions and propaganda. “[The partner] stations got scared that the militants are listening. They think [polio vaccination] is not good. So you could see the bar; they weren’t even ready for health news. But we kept going,” Afridi recounts.
Slowly, however, the popularity of TNN’s bulletins convinced the stations to keep them on air.
The fact that TNN focused on issues that had an impact on people’s lives garnered them a following from the start. “People love to know about their issues and developments around them,” Nazir says. “In Pakistan, the media [focus on elites and] very rarely talk about the victims — the people affected by policy making.”
Today, TNN employs 13 people in Peshawar, supported by 35 freelancers and 40 citizen journalists working from all over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Despite its roots in radio, TNN describes itself as “digital-first”. They publish first online (in Urdu and English), and then repurpose those stories for their partner radio stations. Their news articles are posted on their website, podcasts go on SoundCloud, and videos are on YouTube. They’re also found on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “It is important for increasing our presence. Our audience has also increased,” Nazir says.
According to Nazir, they are getting 10,000 new followers on Facebook every month.
“You need different skills for it. We train our staff and we are becoming quicker now. We used to be very slow online. You need timely information,” he says.
The staff at TNN has been trained on topics such as news skills, how to write for an online audience and how to produce videos — something they did not pay much attention to before.
They’ve now divided the staff between digital and analog with four producers working on news bulletins and four editors on publishing stories online. There is also a social media editor.
Afridi and Nazir have realized that diversifying their content can also help build their audience. For the first time in Pakistan, they hired a transgender person to host a lighthearted program. “You need entertainment as well, which was lacking,” Afridi says.
But popularity alone does not pay the bills.
TNN continued to depend on donor money and their partner stations. It was difficult to get ads. “It was cheaper [for the advertisers] to deal directly with the stations. They weren’t interested in working with us because we were the middle player,” Afridi says. Only one avenue remained: they desperately needed their own station.
After security in the area improved and a reform bill was passed in Pakistan in 2018, the tribal areas officially came under the constitution and now it was finally possible to own a media organization. The government hasn’t announced new radio licenses in the area yet, so in the meantime TNN has found a partner in the city of Mardan where they are now setting up a station together.
“Slowly we are becoming more commercially oriented because it’s the only way towards sustainability,” Nazir says.
TNN remains committed to delivering news despite difficult circumstances. “Whatever space is available, we utilize it,” Afridi concludes.
Maija is an independent journalist working from Islamabad, Pakistan. Previously, she was based in Afghanistan. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Atlantic, Foreign Policy and Al Jazeera English. Follow Maija Liuhto on Twitter.
Republished with kind permission of Splice: reporting on the transformation of media in Asia