TARINKOT, Afghanistan – Ehsanullah Wulasmal, a freelance journalist in Afghanistan’s remote southern province of Uruzgan, is feverishly typing up a story about the restive region where the Taliban control the countryside and have practically besieged its capital, Tarinkot.
He says reporting stories in the dangerous region is not a problem for him. He enjoys chasing leads, talking to people, and visiting villages for on-the-ground coverage. Even the armed Taliban and uncooperative government officials are not major hurdles for him.
Rather, it’s the lack of reliable Internet in Uruzgan that poses a major problem. Wulasmal says he faces a real struggle whenever he tries to file a story to the radio station and website he writes for.
“Sometimes, I spend a day or several days reporting a story, but then filing that story is an uphill task,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Wulasmal frequents half a dozen government offices around Tarin Kot to email his stories from their connections. “As a journalist, I frequently report critical stories about the government, which prompts officials to deny me their Internet,” he said.
The mobile phone industry is often seen as one of Afghanistan’s major successes after the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. The Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority (ATRA) estimates that more than 18 percent of Afghanistan’s more than 35 million people are now connected to the Internet. While the telecommunications sector has grown exponentially, remote provinces such as Uruzgan are still lagging far behind because of poor infrastructure, a Taliban ban on Internet access, and attacks on telecom facilities.
“I appeal to the Taliban that the ban on Internet access for journalists is preventing us from highlighting critical problems facing the residents of this region,” Wulasmal said.
Taliban restrictions in the region mean that currently mobile operators only offer 2G Internet while their overall mobile telephone service is limited to a few hours during the daytime.
The only reliable Internet service in Tarinkot is offered by a couple of Internet cafes. But at nearly $7 for 1 gigabyte, it is simply too expensive for most residents.
While using his mobile phone to access the web in the blazing sun outside Uruzgan’s Hewad Internet Café, Naqibullah, a young resident, complains about the price of satellite Internet. “Even when you pay a lot of money for the Internet, you can hardly use it for a couple hours because the 1 GB packet lasts briefly,” he said.
Said Wali, the owner of Hewad café, says Internet service providers in the city have no choice because they too spend a lot of money purchasing satellite Internet. “We do not have a fiberoptic cable here or [3G or 4G] Internet access,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “How can we sell the Internet cheaply when buying it is so expensive?”
Mohammad Saeed Shinwari, a spokesman for the government regulator ATRA, says the government plans to connect Uruzgan to the country’s fiberoptic network. He says that as a stop-gap solution authorities attempted to provide Tarin Kot with microwave Internet, but the insurgents destroyed eight of the aerials.
“What can we do about such insecurity?” he asked. “We appeal to the armed opposition and the security forces to provide security to us so we can provide all our compatriots with telecommunications facilities.”
It was not possible to immediately reach the Taliban for comment. But targeting telecommunications infrastructure has been a favorite insurgent tactic since the Taliban insurrection gradually strengthened after 2006. By 2008, targeting the newly installed mobile-phone towers became a frequent Taliban strategy. In later years, the Taliban forced mobile companies to shut or limit their coverage. To disrupt the presidential election last year, the Taliban resorted to destroying cell towers.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Sharifullah Shahrafat’s reporting from Tarinkot, Afghanistan.