SPOZHMAI MAIWANDI, VOA's PASHTO SERVICE II
Spozhmai Maiwandi was the chief of VOA's Pashto Service, broadcasting to Afghanistan, for ten years. She directed the service's broadcasts during the civil war that followed the end of Soviet occupation of the country, and then during the rule of the Taliban. The challanges she faced in the position of chief were both professional and personal.
When Spozhmai became chief of VOA’s Pashto Service in 1991, most of the members of her staff were male, and most were older than she. They also all came from a traditional, male-dominated culture.
“After every program we would have a meeting, after the air show, a self-critique kind, to see what went wrong and what went well and how we could improve the sound and also the content of the broadcast. And at one such meeting we were speaking, and I said, ‘well, I think if we had done that this way it would have been much better.’ And all of a sudden one of the editors became extremely angry, and he said, ‘you should not be saying that’, and I said, ‘why not, this is what I think’, and he said ‘because I’m older than you, you’re like my daughter, and you’re not supposed to tell me how to do things’. So you can imagine.”
Although her first years as head of the service were quite difficult, Spozhmai Maiwandi says she eventually won the respect and support of every member of her staff.
“Through being fair. Through being good. Through not being bossy. I was thinking – I still think – of the Pashto Service as a family. And I was one of the members of the family. I never sat in my office, as a chief of the service, I was always with them. Whoever was late in doing something, I would pick up and help. So I think they saw that I was not there to hurt them in any way, I was there to help them, so jointly we could have the best product, the best broadcast for the people of Afghanistan.”
Pashto is the language spoken by the Pashtoons in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Spozhmai Maiwandi says the primary aim of the Pashto broadcasts was to provide listeners with objective information that was not available to them from any other source. And indeed, a 1990 survey showed that 80 percent of male Afghans regularly listened to VOA
“What America wanted first of all was to give the people news, good or bad, but balanced, reliable, correct news. That was one thing. And then of course we were talking to them about democracy. To let them know, though our programs, through our news, through our features, through our interviews, about different parts of democracy. And American life and society.”
During the ten years that she was the Pastho service chief, Spozhmai Maiwandi says she was particularly interested in reaching the women of Afghanistan.
“And the way we did that, is all along we had a woman’s program. And we were interviewing women on all kinds of issues, not only political issues – social issues, issues of health, on their problems. And we tried to reach the refugee community, that we thought it’s good to air their voice and their problems.”
Spozhmai Maiwandi says that with the coming of the Taliban to power in Kabul in 1996, VOA’s Pashto-language programs focused on another theme, as well.
“We had more programming on human rights, because of their very drastic decrees against women, and not only against women, against men, too, the forced beards, and all those other things, forcing people to go to pray. So our emphasis was more on human rights, on what human freedom is, on things like that.”
Spozhmai Maiwandi says that the service established contacts with Taliban leaders so it could get their reaction to events or stories. It was because of these contacts that Spozhmai was able to interview Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, ten days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September 11. The 12-minute interview dealt with terrorism and Osama Bin Laden and the reasons Mullah Omar refused to turn Bin Laden over to international justice. It caused quite a controversy.
“Within hours we found out that the State Department was strongly objecting to this interview and it being aired. They said Mullah Omar is our enemy, he’s a terrorist, and we should not become a mouthpiece. I believe that’s what they said. And then of course everybody was very unhappy about that, because for years and years we are told that we have to have balanced programming, every view on every topic, and this was the other side of the story.”
Despite the State Department’s objections, three days later Voice of America broadcast a report with excerpts from Spozhmai Maiwandi’s interview with Mullah Omar, as well as quotes from President Bush and a Western expert on Islam.
“The interesting thing for me was how much attention did it get from the media outside VOA. With one or two exceptions there was, I would say, overwhelming support for this interview that we had done, that it should go on air. One of the concerns that everybody has is that this war on terrorism might curb the civil liberties, the freedom of the press – and we don’t want that to happen.”
Looking back on her career with the Voice of America’s Pashto service, Spozhmai Maiwandi says she is proud to have faced and overcome many challenges. But her greatest satisfaction, she says, is the respect of the listeners in Afghanistan.
“My biggest satisfaction is, I have a clear conscience, I did a very good job, my listeners are proof of that. Anywhere I call, the moment I say, “Salaam Aleikum”, they say, “Oh, Spozhmai, from Voice of America!”
Spozhmai Maiwandi is currently the Afghanistan Program Coordinator of the South and Central Asia Division of the Voice of America. Afghan music
English Programs Feature #7-36562 Broadcast August 5, 2002