The Media Today

The mounting press-freedom toll in Afghanistan

September 15, 2021

Last week, an Afghan journalist based in Kabul reached out to me. He told me that the situation for reporters in his country had become increasingly bleak since it fell to the Taliban in mid-August and US forces withdrew. After the Taliban took over, the Dari-language newspaper for which he worked shut down, citing the risks of continuing to operate, and all its staff became unemployed; since then, he told me, he has been at home, living with the “fear and anxiety” that the Taliban might find him—worries exacerbated by the fact that he also worked for the former government, which kept his data in files that the Taliban could now access. (I’m not naming the journalist or his former paper, for security reasons.) As thousands of Afghans crowded at Kabul’s airport in the hope of catching an evacuation flight, he decided that it was too dangerous for him to join them, since he has young children; on August 26, an explosion, claimed by an ISIS affiliate, killed hundreds at the airport, including one of his former colleagues. “I lost my job, my freedom… everything I had,” he told me. “If I can’t work as a journalist, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I can pay for my life expenses and how to pay my children’s school fees.”

As I’ve written repeatedly in this newsletter, the period leading up to the Taliban takeover and US withdrawal was replete with worrying signs for press freedom, which had flourished, despite the ever-present threat of violence, since the Taliban last held power. Even as Taliban officials promised that the group has changed and plans to respect the press within the framework of Islamic values, affiliated militants beat some journalists and raided the homes of others, in one case killing a relative; meanwhile, many independent news organizations either shuttered or started to censor themselves. In the two weeks since the withdrawal concluded, at least two private networks, Ariana and TOLOnews, have tested the Taliban’s claims of tolerance by continuing to put female journalists on the air. As Sharif Hassan, of the New York Times, reported over the weekend, however, many outlets have further moderated their output. TOLO took a political comedy off air. A TV station cut away from a report about the Taliban killing a pregnant police officer; a radio editor removed anti-Taliban chanting from audio of a protest.

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As it has consolidated its power, the Taliban, Hassan notes, has generally been tighter-lipped than it was in its insurgent phase, and has provided less access to official information than the prior government did; TOLO reported this week that despite a cabinet having been appointed, many ministries still lack spokespeople, and journalists’ queries are often going unanswered. (The Taliban said that it’s still working on staffing.) When the Taliban has offered access, it has often done so on terms it deems favorable, privileging messages and images that it thinks might bolster its legitimacy, or project strength; last week, it reportedly took a group of foreign reporters to see the husk of a CIA base that the US destroyed on its way out. According to Voice of America, a US-funded broadcaster, in the hours after US troops left Afghanistan, the Taliban detained a dozen or so reporters—including Pakistani and German nationals—near the border with Pakistan, accused them of unauthorized photography, and held them overnight. Journalists in various areas have reported the confiscation of their equipment on similar grounds.

A week ago, as protesters, many of them women, demonstrated against the Taliban’s rule, officials declared the protests—and coverage of them—to be illegal; when Nabih Bulos and Marcus Yam, of the LA Times, showed up to a protest in Kabul, militants lunged for their cameras and told them that photographing women is banned now, too. The same day, per Bulos and Yam, police detained Taqi Daryabi and Nemat Naqdi, who covered the protest for Etilaatroz, a newspaper that has continued to report critically since the takeover. Daryabi later said that the Taliban tortured him and beat him unconscious; Naqdi said a militant ground his face against the floor; Yam took photos of both men stripped to their underwear, revealing angry crimson cable marks on their backs and circling their thighs. Three colleagues who turned up to advocate for Daryabi and Naqdi were detained, too, as was a producer for Euronews who was reportedly also beaten in custody. According to the United Nations, at least nineteen journalists were detained last Tuesday and Wednesday; most were released, but Morteza Samadi, a freelance photojournalist who was detained at protests in Herat, was still in jail as of this week. On Friday, UN human-rights officials called on the Taliban to protect protest and reporting rights.

This week, TOLO reported, citing media-rights groups, that 153 Afghan news outlets have gone dark in the month since Kabul fell; Reporters Without Borders has estimated that of the seven hundred or so female journalists in Kabul prior to the takeover, fewer than a hundred were still working as of early September. Many journalists—especially those with professional ties to international outlets—were evacuated before the withdrawal wrapped up. But some of those who got out—for example, Storai Karimi, a female reporter who was evacuated to Pakistan, where there are networks of Taliban sympathizers—still don’t feel safe. And, according to the International Federation of Journalists, about thirteen hundred journalists remain stuck in Afghanistan, including hundreds of staffers who worked for VOA and Radio Azadi, another US-funded broadcaster. A State Department spokesman said that the US was working to evacuate those journalists when the airport bombing derailed its plans; officials with the US Agency for Global Media say they’re still working to get their colleagues out—but the process is not moving quickly enough. In general, as Anthony Bellanger, the secretary general of IFJ, has put it, it’s neither possible to evacuate every remaining Afghan journalist nor desirable, from the point of view of shining a light on what’s happening there. IFJ has raised nearly fifty thousand dollars to help Afghan journalists, and is distributing the money to needy journalists stuck in Kabul. “​​There will be journalists who want to stay and do their job,” Bellanger told The Guardian, “but the future is black for them.”

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The journalist who contacted me said that he has not received any financial assistance; he added that he and his colleagues reached out to various Western governments about evacuation during the withdrawal period, but received only automated replies. He said that he can’t flee to the border, in no small part because he worries for the safety of his children. But his home might not be safe either. He is unable to escape, and unable to continue with his career. When he first messaged me, he told me first about his desire to get out, then asked if I knew any journalists in Kabul in need of translation, or other help. “I have knocked every door, and have sent my application to all organizations that work for journalists,” he said. “My hope,” he added, “is going to vanish.”

Below, more on Afghanistan and press freedom:

  • A death: Last week, as Taliban fighters fought with the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, an anti-Taliban alliance, in Panjshir province, in the northeast of the country, Fahim Dashti, a onetime leader of the Afghanistan National Journalist Union who had recently become the resistance front’s chief spokesman, was killed. “Dashti was known as a powerful champion for a free media,” IFJ reported. He “founded a newspaper in Kabul after the US-led invasion in 2001 and provided regular updates on Twitter on the conflict in Afghanistan right up to his death. He was also a contributor to the IFJ’s South Asia Press Freedom Report,” and helped his union join IFJ this year.
  • The war, I: This week, Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, appeared before the foreign-affairs committees in the House and Senate, where he was grilled by critics of the administration’s execution of the Afghan withdrawal. Writing for Crooked Media ahead of the latter hearing, Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut and member of the committee, argued that the critics, including in the news media, are “dangerously wrong.” Americans, Murphy wrote, must cure themselves of the “‘execute better’ mentality” behind much of the criticism, so that “America never again gets distracted from achievable goals by another impossible Afghanistan-like mission.”
  • The war, II: Writing for Just Security, Elliot Williams, an official in Obama’s Justice Department who is now a CNN legal analyst, argued that, having ended the war in Afghanistan, the US should now end its war on drugs. “Many of the tragedies and sins associated with failure in the war in Afghanistan could equally apply if the words ‘in Afghanistan’ were swapped out with ‘on drugs,’” Williams argued. The latter, he went on, has also “raged for decades; was immeasurably bloody; was carried out with no clear exit strategy; had the support of an American public that was blinded by politically charged debates and that scarcely appreciated its costs; and is managed by political leaders who overwhelmingly want it to end, but do not want to own the responsibility for doing so.”
  • Meanwhile, in Pakistan: This week, Pakistani journalists staged a sit-in outside the country’s parliament, in Islamabad, in protest of a bill that threatens press freedom; the bill would create a central regulator for Pakistani media and give government officials more powers to crack down on reporting under the pretext of targeting “fake news.” According to Dawn, journalists also staged a sit-in inside the parliament building on Monday, after they found themselves locked out of the press gallery without prior warning. A further protest against the bill, in Lahore, was planned, starting today.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Erin Overbey, the archive editor at the New Yorker, posted a Twitter thread excoriating the print magazine’s record on diversity; Overbey noted, among other stats, that since David Remnick took over as editor, less than 0.01 percent of feature and critics pieces have been edited by a Black editor, and that, between 1990 and 2020, the magazine did not publish a cinema review or Letter from Washington by a writer of color. The New Yorker’s website, Overbey found, has a “comparably impressive” recent diversity record. A spokesperson said the thread does not “present a full or fair view” of the magazine and “its ongoing efforts,” but added that there is “always more work to do.”
  • This week, over a hundred stakeholders—including Media 2070, the Writers Guild of America, East, and the National Association of Black Journalists—demanded that the Federal Communications Commission investigate structural racism in its media policies. Black journalists have recently challenged major news organizations to “address the harms they have caused,” a letter says, but “choices made by lawmakers and regulators have also played a foundational role” in racism in the media. The letter notes, among other points, that Black ownership of broadcast and cable companies is “minuscule.”
  • Recently, the WGAE held elections to its council that were shaped by a dispute between two rival slates; one argued that the pace of the union’s recent digital-media organizing has detracted from its traditional representation of TV and film screenwriters, while the other asserted that digital journalists are central to the union’s mission. The election is now over and the results are in: three members of the former slate won officer roles and four of its members won council seats, as did all seven members of the latter slate.
  • For CJR’s new magazine on political journalism after Trump, Hunter Walker, who was a White House correspondent for Yahoo then became the first solo Substack writer to get accredited there, reflects on the return of the briefing under Biden. His “professional press shop makes it harder for the media to penetrate the depths of the White House,” Walker writes, “and to locate pressure points that can take things off script.”
  • The Post’s Margaret Sullivan explores the Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent decision not to use the word “audit” in its coverage of a Trumpian push by Republicans to investigate the 2020 election results in the state. “We think it is critical to speak plain truths about efforts to make it harder to vote and about efforts to sow doubts about the electoral process,” Dan Hirschhorn, an editor, told Sullivan. “There is clear, objective truth here.”
  • Recently, Fox News requested that employees inform the company of their vaccination status; yesterday, its head of HR said, in an internal memo, that more than ninety percent of full-time staffers reported being fully vaccinated, and that those who aren’t (or did not report back) will soon face daily testing. Last night, the White House praised Fox, and urged the network to “convey to their audience that these types of practices” work.
  • In media-business news, Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, that Breakthrough Energy, a climate-advocacy network founded by Bill Gates, is supporting Cipher, a new outlet that will cover the climate crisis. Fischer also reports that the Winklevoss twins, of Facebook fame, are financing Payload, a media company focused on the business and policy of space. And Slate laid off five staffers yesterday, and will leave some open jobs unfilled.
  • For Poynter, Michael Bugeja argues that the Times and other news organizations should consider removing columns and op-eds from their websites—where readers struggle to differentiate them from news—and instead convert them into opt-in newsletters for subscribers (as well as running them in the print edition). Columnists would doubtless “dislike the option as it diminishes influence,” Bugeja writes. “That’s the point here.”
  • And NPR’s Bobby Allyn profiles Hanson—a car enthusiast, “concerned citizen,” and self-appointed media watchdog who turned up at the fraud trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, and badgered reporters to treat her fairly. (“Everyone is just copy and pasting each others’ stories without thinking,” he said.) Hanson turned out to be Bill Evans—the father of Holmes’s partner. You should read every word of Allyn’s story.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.