A dark time for Afghanistan’s journalists

Eleven days ago, I wrote in this newsletter about the threats to press freedom as US troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban advanced. Many Afghan news organizations had shuttered, while others were transformed into vectors for Taliban propaganda; many Afghan journalists had censored themselves or quit the profession, while others fled captured cities and provinces for the relative safety of Kabul. The day I wrote, Taliban fighters in the capital killed Dawa Khan Menapal, who had been in charge of press relations for the Afghan government; two days later, suspected Taliban militants killed Toofan Omar, who managed the Paktia Ghag Radio station, while he was traveling into Kabul from a nearby province, and also kidnapped Nematullah Hemat, a reporter for Gharghasht TV, in Helmand province. A week later, and Kabul itself had fallen. Reports have since emerged of Taliban militants going door to door and searching journalists’ homes. “This is a game changer for us all,” Mustafa Kazemi, of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US-funded broadcaster, tweeted yesterday. “Many have started counting their final hours of life in Kabul. Nobody knows what happens next. Pray for us.”

Afghanistan’s women journalists, in particular, have had much to fear from the Taliban’s surge. Many have received death threats. In recent weeks, The Guardian has spoken with dozens of female reporters about their experiences, and published a series of articles reported by Rukhshana Media—an outlet, named for an Afghan girl who was stoned to death after she fled a forced marriage, that was founded last year with the goal of amplifying women’s voices in a patriarchal media ecosystem—telling the stories of a female district governor and divorced women, among others. “I will try to keep it going for as long as I can,” Zahra Joya, Rukhshana’s founder, said of the outlet. “I see it as a source of hope for many women.” Yesterday, The Guardian’s Kate Banville spoke with female journalists in Kabul, one of whom said she and her colleagues had been “frantically trying to send their identity documentation and work to embassies before destroying any trace of their existence, physically and online.” The Fuller Project, which has also recently worked with Rukhshana, spoke with female journalists in Kabul, too. One reported making it to the airport despite being robbed at gunpoint en route. Others reported that they were staying. “If we die, we die,” one said. “If we don’t, we will have survivor’s guilt.”

Related: Journalism failed in Afghanistan too

Two weeks ago yesterday, the Biden administration announced, following an appeal from a coalition of media organizations, that it would create a visa program allowing Afghans who worked for US-based news outlets, NGOs, and other projects to resettle in the US. The program, however, was not without complications: Afghans would have to be referred into it by a qualifying news organization’s top leader, and would have to make their own way to a third country and apply from there—an increasingly difficult ask. Yesterday, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal wrote again to Biden seeking “facilitated and protected” passage to the airport and then out of the country for their Afghan colleagues; Fred Ryan, the Post’s publisher, also emailed Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, to ask that some two hundred of the papers’ staffers and their family members, who were already at the airport, be escorted from its civilian side to its military side, which the US controls.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is also working to help hundreds of endangered Afghan journalists. “A week ago we were talking about safe houses. Now we’re talking about how to get people out,” CPJ’s Maria Salazar told Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo. “Without help from the US and NATO governments that can support the evacuation, and support these journalists outside of their country, there’s very little we can do.” (US officials told CNN that they’ve been in regular contact with news outlets about their Afghan staff, and that they will continue to be a priority.)As Ben Smith, of the Times, reported on Sunday, more than a hundred journalists who work for US state-funded broadcasters—including Voice of America and Radio Azadi, an affiliate of RFE/RL—are also still stuck in Afghanistan. Yesterday, one Radio Azadi reporter told his network that he is staying put for now. (As with other Afghan journalists quoted in this article, the reporter’s identity has been protected for security reasons.) “How would I go to the airport?” he asked. “I just don’t want to take this risk of going out and then facing somebody.”

Despite their precarious situation, many Afghan journalists, including at Radio Azadi, have continued to report on the developing crisis. TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s first twenty-four-hour news channel, has broken important stories, including the flight of Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, out of the country. At one point, Taliban representatives entered TOLO’s compound and confiscated guards’ government-issued firearms—although, according to Saad Mohseni, the director of the channel’s parent company, they were “polite” and “almost professional,” and allowed the guards to keep other weapons before leaving. Mohseni told NPR that TOLO hasn’t been told to stop reporting yet, but he expects restrictions to follow soon; for now, he’s trying to work out how best to protect his journalists and maintain TOLO’s coverage in a climate that, in addition to being scary, remains highly uncertain. “It’s like being confronted by an alien army,” he said, of the Taliban. “We’re not sure exactly how they’re going to react to things.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

That, Mohseni said, includes the future of the network’s female correspondents. “We’ve actually told them to stay home for a couple of days until things become a little bit more clear,” he said. But they “do want to work. They’re insisting on it.” Earlier today, TOLO’s Hasiba Atakpal and Zahra Rahimi reported live from the streets of Kabul; in the studio, their colleague Beheshta Arghand interviewed a Taliban spokesperson. Observers noted that, while “historic,” the interview was consistent with a broader, image-softening PR campaign that the Taliban has run in recent months. It was clearly inconsistent with the death threats faced by other journalists who now can’t leave their homes for fear of their lives. For all the follies of the last two decades, Afghanistan does at least now have a free press. If it doesn’t survive the Taliban’s resurgence, it won’t be for want of trying on the part of the country’s remaining independent journalists.

Below, more on Afghanistan:

  • Foreign correspondents: Non-Afghan reporters for major US news organizations are still on the ground in Kabul, including CNN’s Clarissa Ward and NBC’s Richard Engel. Ward appeared on air wearing full-length Islamic dress. Online, right-wingers smeared her as a Taliban apologist and circulated memes that showed her previously reporting without wearing a headscarf; Ward clarified that the prior photo had been taken inside a private compound, and that she has always covered her hair on the streets of Kabul, though not to the same extent. Engel, for his part, said yesterday that the Taliban so far hasn’t been hostile to Western journalists. “If you have a good story to tell and you’re feeling victorious, it’s not usually the kind of time when you would lash out” at foreign reporters, Engel said. But “the Taliban basically are bullies… It’s only a matter of time until somebody pushes back on the Taliban and then we’ll see, I think, their true colors.”
  • An unexpected call: Yalda Hakim, a BBC anchor who was born in Afghanistan but left when she was a child, was reporting live on air from the broadcaster’s studios when Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson, called her cellphone. Hakim put Shaheen on loudspeaker and proceeded to conduct an impromptu interview, asking him about the Taliban’s intentions for Afghanistan. Shaheen pledged a “peaceful transfer of power”; Hakim pressed him on that pledge. The interview continued for half an hour.
  • A call for answers: Yesterday, Nazira Karimi, a US-based reporter for the Ariana Television Network, a privately-owned Afghan broadcaster, asked an emotional question of John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, at a press briefing. “I’m very upset because Afghan women didn’t expect that overnight,” Karimi said. “A woman has a lot of achievements in Afghanistan; I had a lot of achievements. I left from the Taliban like twenty years ago, now we go back to the first step again.” She asked Kirby to comment on Ghani’s whereabouts. Kirby declined to speak on Ghani’s behalf, but said that “we all understand the anxiety and the fear and the pain that you’re feeling.”
  • How to help: Since last week, Azmat Khan, an investigative journalist, has been updating a Twitter thread advising American reporters who have worked with Afghan nationals on the steps they can take to help them qualify for the US visa program. “While news orgs with bureaus in Afghanistan are probably very on top of this, other outlets might not be aware of this program,” Khan wrote. “You should reach out to your current/former outlet and ask if they might submit a referral.” Khan also compiled a Google doc specifically to help American freelance journalists push for referrals for Afghans that they may have worked with on a contract basis.
  • A step back: For CJR, Peter W. Klein, a war correspondent and executive director of the Global Reporting Centre, writes that journalism failed in Afghanistan. “A giddy excitement burns through newsrooms when there’s talk of a military action. War has built-in drama, pathos, characters, heroes, villains, patriotism, action—not to mention gripping images, the kind civilians will never witness firsthand,” Klein writes. “Many of us who have reported on the war stepped into the trap reporters often fall into, entranced by the drama of battles and the spin of military leaders.”


Some news from the home front:
Today, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, in partnership with CJR, will release the final episodes of How We Got Here, a new podcast for journalists exploring how history and identity shape narrative. In the podcast, six Columbia journalism professors have examined how race, gender, class, immigration, and American empire impact the stories we cover and how we tell them. In the fifth episode, Nina Alvarez speaks with Mae Ngai about immigration coverage and the invention of the term “illegal alien.” In the sixth episode, Alisa Solomon speaks with Jack Halberstam and Zach Stafford about coverage of genders and sexualities. You can find out more, and listen, here.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: A depressing vacuum in Afghanistan coverage, as Kabul falls

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.