Dec. 2, FATA, Pakistan (UPI NEXT) --
The closure last May of three U.S.-funded community radio stations in Pakistan's insurgency-hit tribal areas may strengthen militants' voices, residents fear.
The stations were among four set up from 2004 to 2006 in the four largest towns in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, including Wana in South Waziristan, Jamrud in Khyber, and Razmak and Miran Shah in North Waziristan. The Wana station has been off the air since it was blown up by militants in 2009. The other three broadcast for eight or more years, defying threats from militants against radio staff and juggling technical and operational difficulties.
The FATA Secretariat's director of information, Fazal Ullah, said the radio stations were shut down due to lack of funds -- U.S. Agency for International Development funding expired last year.
"We are aware of the importance of these radio stations. Discussion is under way with the provincial government for the restoration of these channels," he said.
USAID officials refused to comment.
Supporters of the closed stations have been lobbying the FATA and provincial governments to have them re-opened, saying they are the only way to counteract militant propaganda.
"Without an alternative voice, the propaganda of hardline extremists will control the airwaves," said researcher Aqeel Yousafzai, who specializes in militancy-related affairs in the tribal borderlands and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Tribal people and political leaders protesting the closures say the move has deprived the tribal areas of the only independent media operating in the region.
Yousafzai said radio was the only information source for residents there.
"Once again the ground is open for the breeding of militants via pirate radio stations that broadcast their propaganda," he told UPI Next.
"This government decision to close the stations will create anti-state mindsets in the tribal belt, which will have severe repercussions on the peace process and the war on terror," he said.
Iqbal Afridi, who heads the Khyber district branch of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which governs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said the prime purpose of government radio stations was to counteract transmissions by illegal radio stations used by banned extremist groups in the tribal belt.
"But with the closure of these community stations, tribal people will definitely be affected by the propaganda of armed religious organizations,” he said.
"It is an injustice for tribal people. Now they have no information about relief activities, the registration process of internally displaced persons or curfews, and no entertainment programs to listen to.”
Illegal FM stations have been arbitrarily used by Taliban leaders to spread their propaganda.
Maulana Fazalullah, known as "Mullah Radio," now the head of the Pakistani Taliban following the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone attack, started his illegal FM radio channel in the Swat valley in 2006. He used the airwaves to promote anti-Western views and the establishment of Taliban-style vice and virtue enforcement.
Mufti Munir Shakir, founder of the militant group Lashkar-e-Islam in Khyber, set up an FM radio channel in 2005. His successor, Mangal Bagh, took control of an FM station in the Tirah valley of Khyber.
Listenership for the illegal FM stations set up by militant leaders is limited because most Khyber district residents have fled the area to escape being caught up in clashes between army troops and militants.
Malik Qasmit Khan, a tribal chief in North Waziristan, told UPI Next community radio stations “have played a very important role in our daily lives.”
"Tribal people have become aware of government announcements and education programs. Political and local tribal news have also been part of these radio stations,” Khan said.
"But now, by shutting them down, the government has extinguished the sole light of information in the tribal areas. The people of Waziristan are now living in darkness.”
Shan Afridi, a Khyber social anthropologist, said the radio stations had fulfilled a dire need of tribal area residents for information.
"These efforts in the tribal areas were a good omen," Afridi told UPI Next.
"As tribal people have been passing through a transitional period, these radio stations have been playing a positive role. But now those who have stayed behind in Khyber Agency are being deprived of the benefits of these transmissions."