“The road to Kabul airport was a one-way street, – We couldn’t go back. Not to get clothes, computer or notebooks,” says Afghan journalist Seyar Sirat. Credit: Gie Goris/IPS
  • by Gie Goris (Brussels)
  • Interpress service

“I’ve always felt good at my desk,” says Seyar Sirat. “I’m quite an introvert by nature, so spending hours in front of my screen for TOLO News was a blessing rather than a curse. Until August 15, 2021, when the world of Afghanistan began to fall apart. But even that morning, I continued to work with concentration until the news came that President Ashraf Ghani had left the country. That was the moment some people burst into tears. That was the moment I left.

Sirat tells his story at the first international gathering of Afghan journalists since the day Kabul fell. Some journalists were able to come over from Afghanistan, others traveled from various European countries where they now live and try to work. And where they have to try to build a second life, “like newborn children”, as Sirat puts it. In a new language, in a foreign context, but with intense and familial ties to the homeland. And with deep, mental scars.

“The road to Kabul airport was a one-way street,” notes Sirat, visibly emotional. “We couldn’t go back. Not to get clothes, computer or notebooks. Not to go back to work or the old life. Those three days and nights around and at the airport are the most tragic and traumatic moments of my life.’

Dead and wounded

There is no shortage of trauma among Afghan journalists. A colleague from the north of the country informed me about this just a few days ago that on March 11, in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, there was an attack on a meeting of local journalists from various media. The toll was high: three dead and 30 injured, including 16 journalists. This is confirmed by the Afghanistan Journalists Center. The attack, meanwhile, was claimed by IS-KP, the local branch of the Islamic State.

After the attack in Mazar-e-Sharif, a number of journalists ended up in hospital. Even there they were not appeased by the armed representatives of the current rulers. “They should have killed you all,” they heard from the Taliban, who had to guard and protect them.

In his opening speech to the meeting of Afghan journalists in Brussels on 15 March, EU Special Envoy for Afghanistan Tomas Niklasson also referred to the latest tragedy and set it in the wider context of a dramatic deterioration of human rights and the rule of law since the Taliban. took the power. He cited the latest report by UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett, which was able to document 245 cases of violations of press freedom since August 2021. These include not only attacks, but also arrests, arbitrary detentions, physical violence, beatings and torture. “Most of you will say that this number is an underestimate,” Niklasson said. All the journalists present nodded.

Lost space

The trauma does not begin for everyone on August 15, 2021. “At least 120 journalists from home and abroad have been killed in Afghanistan in the last 20 years,” noted Hujatullah Mujadidi, head of the Afghan Independent Journalist Union, in his opening remarks to the meeting. ‘Afghanistan had 137 TV stations, 346 radio stations, 49 news agencies and 69 print media until two years ago. Together, these accounted for 12,000 jobs. Little of it remains. Meanwhile, 224 media platforms closed their doors and at least 8,000 media workers – including 2,374 women – lost their jobs.’

“We had finally created space for ourselves after centuries of restrictions,” said Somaia Walizadeh, a journalist who was able to flee the country. “That space has been taken away from us again. Of the few media that were founded, run and nurtured by women, there are still a few. But even there, men are now taking aim.’ Reporters Without Borders reports that in half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, not a single female journalist is still employed and more than eighty percent of female journalists are out of work.RSF also estimates that 40 percent of media platforms have ceased to exist and 60 percent of all media workers became unemployed after August 2021. So it is no wonder that around 1,000 journalists have already fled abroad.

The crux of the problem

Those who want to do real and independent journalistic work in Afghanistan encounter one difficulty after another. “It was never easy to get reliable information,” says Somaia Walizadeh, “but today it is almost impossible. According to her colleague Abid Ihsas, who is still active in Afghanistan, this has to do with journalists on the ground facing Taliban fighters “who don’t know or realize the importance of independent media.” But it doesn’t stop there, he says, because the entire administration under the current authorities is extremely centralized and hierarchical: “Every detail and every piece of information has to be approved and released by a higher authority every walk.”

But the real root of the problem, according to Ihsas, lies in the deliberately created ambiguity. There is a 10-point regulation – which is very vague – but no real media law. – It is never clear what is permitted according to the authorities and what is not. In the end, it depends on the moment and the person in front of you. Usually the rules are communicated orally and ad hoc. This not only leads to a lot of direct censorship, but also too much self-censorship due to the constant uncertainty.’ Rateb Noori, a refugee journalist, summed it up like this: “The fact that relatively few journalists are in prison is not even good news under these circumstances. Above all, it shows how effective intimidation is.

The insecurity also applies to what journalists do outside of their formal mission. “Forwarding a WhatsApp message or liking a tweet or FB message can already get you in trouble,” said Ahmad Quraishi, director of the Afghanistan Journalists Centre. Other problems he identifies: “There are very limited lists of journalists who have been invited to press conferences or given access to those in charge. These almost never include women, and if they do, they are additionally screened and checked.’

Fariba Aram adds that foreign journalists are treated much better than domestic colleagues. “It seems that those in power still want a reasonable image in the rest of the world, while in Afghanistan they are against anything journalistic,” she says. Hujatullah Mujadidi of the Afghan Independent Journalist Union confirms that: They are trying to divide us. International versus national. Diaspora versus interior. “Good media” versus “bad media”. That is why it is crucial that journalists and the media continue to speak and negotiate with one voice, he concludes. True as it is, perhaps Tomas Niklasson put it better when he described the journalists in the room as ‘not united, as this is excessively ambitious, but coherent’.

The hard hand and the long arm of power

Legal uncertainty, censorship, lack of access to information and financial difficulties together constitute an almost insurmountable obstacle for Afghan journalists. And for the hundreds of journalists who continue to practice their profession from Europe, Pakistan, Australia or North America. In fact, they face the same barriers to information and must navigate with extreme caution what they write or share, as there is always a chance that family members left behind will pay the price for their truth-telling.

Someone testified about an article he was going to write for an international news site about climate change and air pollution. The requested information never came, but the claim that they knew where his family lived did. Rateb Noori also had a similar experience. His news site investigated a story about the de facto repeal of the requirement that women appear on TV wearing face masks. In that case, it was not the journalist’s family that was threatened, but local colleagues – even though they thought they were safe in their changing hiding places.

What to do?

Analyzing the current situation turned out to be the easy part of the program. When asked what could or should be done about it, Afghan journalists and their international partners from the EU, Unesco, RsF and the International Federation of Journalists came up with little more than tentative ideas. “You cannot solve problems that are more than 20 years old in a few weeks,” argued Najib Paikan, who recently had to close his own TV station. “But what we should resist is the idea that the Afghan media is helped by helping Afghan journalists flee the country. There they become parcel couriers, taxi drivers or cooks, while the country needs their expertise, commitment and courage.’

That brought Paikan applause, even though everyone knew that leaving is the choice of a large section of now desperate journalists. Also, the problems don’t go away when you cross the border, noted Wali Rahmani, a fugitive media activist. Hundreds of journalists are stuck in Pakistan and are just anxious to survive. Food and shelter for themselves and their families. They too have the right to international support.’

At the award ceremonies

Alongside the conference in Brussels, the annual awards for journalist of the year were also handed out. The 2023 awards went to Mohammad Yousuf Hanif of ToloNews, Mohammad Arif Yaqoubi of Washington-based Afghanistan International TV and Marjan Wafa, reporter for Killid Radio. In the past 10 years, a total of 14 journalists have received the award, five of whom are women.

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service