In Afghanistan, host of a popular radio call-in show takes public complaints straight to officials on the air

MAMOSA Report — Massood Sanjer, host of a popular radio call-in show in Afghanistan, takes public complaints straight to officials on the air.

A defense ministry worker complained that no one in his department had been paid in months. Sanjer placed a call to the relevant department head, who mumbled something about a technical delay but then confided in a burst of exasperation, “I’m a general, and I haven’t been paid in six months, either.”

A more anxious request came from a young Afghan stranded across the Pakistan border, which Pakistan closed weeks ago after extremists attacked from the Afghan side.

The caller said he had missed a crucial entrance test at Kabul University and begged Sanjer to find out if he could have a second chance. Sanjer said he would try to help, then turned to his co-host. “We need a Trump who will seal the border completely,” he said with a grin.

Sanjer’s studio at Radio Arman lies behind a thick steel door, deep within a block-long bunker comprising of a maze of production sets and tiny offices, barricaded against car bombs and gunfire.

But when the station comes to life every morning at 7, it opens up a freewheeling, live conversation with the entire country — sharing callers’ concerns, putting officials on the air to respond, and offering sympathy and comic relief to a nation exhausted by poverty and war.

The hour-long interactive call-in show, called “Cleaning Up the City,” started 14 years ago as a sounding board and troubleshooting service for community issues, and it still performs that role, rotating among mundane daily themes such as education and utilities.

“People trust us. They see us as a source of help and pressure,” said Sanjer, 38, a hyperactive, irreverent journalist who has directed and hosted the show since it first aired in 2003. “I get 1,000 calls a day and I have a database of 10,000 phone numbers. We get answers, and we change people’s lives,” Sanjer told The Washington Post.

Sanjer uses various tricks to get public officials on the air. When one diplomatic official did not pick up his phone, Sanjer just let it ring, while speculating to listeners that he was busy shaving and tying his tie. The embarrassed official finally called back.

Sanjer said that one frequent caller pretends to be President Ghani, mimicking his high-pitched voice to the delight of listeners. (Ghani, actually a workaholic according to reports, has become a punching bag for public frustration about government divisions and drift amid persistent poverty and violence.)

However, after years of civil war, communist revolution and extremist Taliban rule, freedom of expression has returned and blossoming in Afghanistan.

“We are much better today than during the Taliban, but some things make me hopeless. In some ways we are still back where we were then.”

Sanjer’s family never fled the country, as many middle-class Afghans did during its years of conflict and repression.

With Taliban insurgents causing mayhem nationwide, Sanjer has plenty of reason to worry for his safety. But although he has sent his family to live in Turkey, Sanjer said he is committed to staying.

“You can always be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I don’t feel scared to walk down the street,” he said. “The country needs us.”
Radio Arman as well as three TV news and entertainment stations are owned by the Moby Group, Afghanistan’s dominant media company.

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