Threats to the press as the US withdraws from Afghanistan

In July, a coalition of news organizations and press groups—including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Committee to Protect Journalists—wrote to the Biden administration and Congressional leaders with an urgent request. They sought humanitarian relief and a special visa program for journalists and support staff who contributed to US media coverage of the war in Afghanistan; many fear reprisals as American troops withdraw and Taliban militants advance. The organizations pointed to a precedent—the Bush administration’s move, in 2008, to offer immigration help to Iraqis who helped US outlets—and estimated that only a “modest” number of Afghans would need similar assistance, given the small US media footprint in Afghanistan. “We are doing what we can as private organizations to assist our former and current Afghan colleagues but our capacity to provide relief is limited,” the request stated. “Without the assistance of the US Government, many of these Afghans face grievous harm and death for having done nothing more than lent their labor and skills to making certain the world knew what was going on in their country while US troops were there for the past twenty years.”

On Monday, two weeks after the request was sent, the State Department acted on it, announcing a refugee program for Afghans who have worked for US news organizations, NGOs, or other projects, and plugging holes in an existing plan for Afghans who have worked for the US military. It was a welcome development; still, details were scarce, and the requirements we know about seem onerous. Media referrals to the program must come from a news outlet’s most senior leader. (That person must be a US citizen.) And even though the US has arranged transport out of Afghanistan for many of those who served the military, people eligible for the news-related program will have to make their own way to a third country, apply to the US government from there, and wait months for a decision. The State Department has pledged to support Afghanistan’s neighbors in dealing with refugee flows, and said that its process will further “evolve”—but for many Afghans, just getting to the border is dangerous and expensive. “This is incredibly hard,” Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, acknowledged. “This is, alas, the case for millions of people around the world who find themselves in very difficult situations, and particularly in Afghanistan now.”

ICYMI: The Visual Failings of the Heat Dome Coverage

The situation for journalists in Afghanistan at the moment is indeed very difficult, whether they work for international or domestic media. In February, a report from the United Nations found that at least six media workers had been killed in the country since September, when the Afghan government and the Taliban opened peace talks. The danger to journalists wasn’t new, but the report concluded that their murders had become more targeted and premeditated. Since then, there have been more deaths. In March, gunmen shot and killed Mursal Wahidi, Sadia Sadat, and Shahnaz Roafi, three staffers at Enikass Radio and TV, in separate yet simultaneous attacks in Jalalabad. In June, attackers in Kabul blew up a van carrying Mina Khairi, an anchor at Ariana News TV, along with other passengers. Khairi’s mother was also killed; the circumstances of the bombing were murky, but Khairi’s colleague said that he suspected it was intended to sow panic among journalists. Last month, Danish Siddiqui—a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist with Reuters who was embedded with Afghan security forces—was killed during combat with Taliban militants in Spin Boldak, on the border with Pakistan. A Taliban spokesman said the fighters didn’t know that a journalist was present, but according to news reports and images, they brutally mutilated Siddiqui’s body before turning him over to the Red Cross.

Despite persistent danger, press freedom—bolstered, in no small part, by US aid money—has blossomed in Afghanistan since 2001, when the Taliban regime fell. The group’s recent resurgence is threatening to reverse that. As Taliban fighters have gained territory, many journalists in the affected areas have fled to Kabul; some have buried their broadcasting equipment to prevent it from falling into Taliban hands. In the past four months, at least fifty Afghan news organizations have shuttered; others have been forced to broadcast Taliban propaganda. Militants have used radio stations to promote “jihad and violence,” Najib Sharifi, the head of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, told NPR. “They don’t allow the voices of women to be aired through those radio stations. They don’t want any form of music to be broadcast through those stations.” Some reporters have received death threats. According to Sharifi, many reporters are censoring themselves. Hundreds have left journalism altogether.

The threats to press freedom do not stop with the Taliban. As the Afghan government struggles to secure the country, it seeks to control the narrative, laying down restrictive edicts (news organizations have been told to call fallen soldiers “martyrs”) and threatening to criminalize news that, in their view, is inimical to the national interest. Last week, authorities in Kandahar arrested four journalists—Mohib Obaidi, Qudrat Sultani, and Bismillah Watandost, who work for a local radio station, as well as Sanaullah Siam, a cameraman who has worked for Xinhua, a Chinese state news agency—after they traveled to Spin Boldak to interview Taliban commanders. Officials have accused the journalists of spreading terrorist propaganda. As of the weekend, it was unclear whether they had been formally charged, or what their fate would be.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

As US forces leave the country, the Pentagon, too, has been a problem—imposing a “de-facto press blackout” around its withdrawal and denying media requests for embeds and interviews with troops, as Megan K. Stack wrote recently for The New Yorker. “A military that’s withdrawing from battle, whether it’s an organized withdrawal or a retreat, doesn’t want any media nearby,” John Moore, a combat photographer with Getty Images, told Stack. “The military wants to show itself in a victorious way. When you’re leaving a field of battle, it never looks victorious.” John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, attributed the lack of media access to the threat of Taliban attacks and a precious few military-press liasons on the ground; he also suggested that until the withdrawal announcement, many US news organizations seemed to have lost interest in reporting on Afghanistan. “If it’s true that the military kept the war shrouded when it was convenient,” Stack wrote, “it’s also true that very few Americans went looking for it.”

Many Afghans who helped American journalists with their stories over the years now face the prospect of a violent future, unless they can make it to a third country. Afghan journalists without foreign-media ties may try and get out, too, even without the prospect of a US visa. Others are planning to stay put, including Sharifi. “If we lose all our journalists, that will be a big loss for Afghanistan,” he told Stars and Stripes. “I want to stay. I want to fight.” Bushra Seddique, a female reporter who recently graduated from Kabul University’s journalism school, told Al Jazeera that she is also planning to move forward with her career. “By choosing to pursue journalism, I already accepted the barriers and difficulties of working in this field in this country,” she said. Seddique hopes to report stories that portray Afghanistan as more than a warzone. “I believe that journalism is not just a job or subject,” she said. “Pursuing journalism is a desire for change and to help.”

Below, more on Afghanistan:

  • A similar request: After the Biden administration granted US news outlets’ request for a visa program for media workers, a coalition of news organizations in the UK—including The Guardian, The Times of London, and the Financial Times—wrote to their country’s government with a similar plea. “Britain has recognised the vital role of Afghans who served as translators for our armed forces, and the unique dangers they face because of their service, through the creation of a visa programme for them,” their letter states. “The Afghans who worked for UK media outlets have also been critical to our national understanding of what British men and women fought for Afghanistan, and the conduct of our allies in the Afghan government.” The opposition Labour Party backed the effort.
  • A murder: Last week, Taliban fighters in Kandahar killed Nazar Mohammad, a comedian who gained renown by posting routines to TikTok. “He was known for crude jokes, funny songs, poking fun at himself, and often making fun of topics thrown at him from fans,” Al Jazeera reports. “The brutality of the killing heightened fears of revenge attacks. It also undermined the Taliban’s assurances that no harm would come to people who worked for the government, with the US military or with US organizations.” The Taliban alleged that Mohammad worked for the Afghan National Police.
  • A deadly day: In April 2018, ten Afghan journalists were killed on the same day: nine of them ran to cover a bombing in Kabul and were killed in a second blast; the tenth was shot in Khost Province. All told, it was the deadliest day for the press in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, in 2001. Working with Aliya Iftikhar and Mehdi Rahmati, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I spoke with relatives, friends, and colleagues of the murdered reporters for an oral history published by CJR. You can read it here.
  • An edit: This week, the Times published a review of a new book on Osama bin Laden under a headline that referred to him as a “fanatical terrorist and devoted family man.” The headline met with complaints on social media, particularly from politicians on the right. On Wednesday, the Times changed it; it now reads, “A Fuller Picture of Osama bin Laden’s Life.” Mediaite has more details.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Facebook shuts down research, blames user privacy rules

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.