On March 18, Afghan journalists commemorate their national day.
At the first international gathering of Afghan journalists since the day Kabul fell, Sirat shares his story.
The long arm of power with a rough hand the combination of legal ambiguity, censorship, lack of information access, and economic challenges creates a nearly insurmountable barrier for Afghan journalists.
Yet the notion that supporting Afghan journalists fleeing the nation benefits Afghan media is something we should reject.
The awards on the sidelines of the conference in Brussels, the annual Journalist of the Year Awards, were also awarded.
On March 18, Afghan journalists commemorate their national day. Because of broad restrictions, rising intimidation, and a recent attack on journalists, there aren’t many reasons to celebrate this year. But, Afghan journalists displayed tenacity at a distinctive gathering in Brussels.
At my desk, I’ve always felt comfortable, says Seyar Sirat. “Spending hours in front of my computer for TOLO News was more of a blessing than a curse because I am naturally very reclusive until August 15, 2021, when Afghanistan’s entire world started falling apart. Yet, I remained focused on my work even that morning until I heard President Ashraf Ghani had left the nation. Some of them started crying at that point. I departed at that very moment.
At the first international gathering of Afghan journalists since the day Kabul fell, Sirat shares his story. Some journalists were allowed to travel from Afghanistan, while others travelled from different European nations where they currently reside and seek employment. And there, in Sirat’s words, they must attempt to create a second life “like newborn newborns”. With strong family links to the country despite speaking a different language and being in an unfamiliar setting. And with significant mental wounds.
The road leading to the airport in Kabul was a one-way street, Sirat observed, clearly upset. We were unable to return. Avoid picking up items like clothing, computers, or notebooks. Not to return to my job or my former life. The most devastating and horrific times in my life were the three days and nights spent near the airport.
Deceased and hurt
The anguish experienced by Afghan journalists is widespread. A few days ago, a colleague from the north of the nation told me about an incident at a gathering of local journalists from various media outlets on March 11 in Mazar-e-Sharif. The death toll was high: 16 journalists were among the 30 injured. The Center for Afghan Journalists confirmed. Meanwhile, the local affiliate of the Islamic State, IS-KP, claimed responsibility for the incident.
Following the assault in Mazar-e-Sharif, several journalists were admitted to hospitals. The armed representatives of the current leadership did not reassure them even there. ‘They should have killed you all,’ they heard from the Taliban, who had to guard and defend them.
Tomas Niklasson, the EU Special Envoy for Afghanistan, referred to that recent tragedy in his opening remarks to the gathering of Afghan journalists on March 15 in Brussels. He also placed it in the broader context of a dramatic decline in human rights and the rule of law since the Taliban came to power. In support of his claim, he highlighted a recent report by UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett, who has been able to compile 245 instances of infringements on press freedom since August 2021. Together with assaults, these also include arrests, arbitrary detention, bodily harm, beatings, and torture. Most of you will claim this number is an underestimation, Niklasson stated. The journalists in attendance all nodded.
Not everyone will experience tragedy on August 15, 2021. In his opening remarks to the gathering, Hujatullah Mujadidi, the director of the Afghan Independent Journalist Union, said that during the previous 20 years, at least 120 journalists from home and abroad have been assassinated in Afghanistan. Until two years ago, Afghanistan had 137 TV stations, 346 radio stations, 49 news agencies, and 69 print media. This collectively represented 12,000 employees. It’s mostly gone now. In the meantime, 224 media outlets shut down, and at least 8,000 media employees, including 2,374 women, lost their jobs.
After centuries of limitations, “we had finally created space for ourselves,” said Somaia Walizadeh, a journalist who managed to leave the country. We have once again lost that space. Few media outlets started, organized, and supported by women survive. But, even there, men now have the last say. According to Reporters Without Borders, no female journalists work, and over 80% of female journalists are unemployed in half of Afghanistan’s 34 districts. Also, according to RSF, 60% of all media employees lost their jobs after August 2021, and 40% of media outlets ceased to exist. Thus it seems sensible that over a thousand journalists have already left the country.
The root of the issue
In Afghanistan, there are numerous obstacles for those wanting to operate as professional, independent journalists. According to Somaia Walizadeh, “obtaining trustworthy information has never been simple, but it is now practically impossible. This is because journalists on the ground deal with Taliban fighters “who do not know or recognize the necessity of independent media,” said her colleague Abid Ihsas, who is still operating in Afghanistan. But it doesn’t end there, he claims, given the current authorities’ centralized and hierarchical administration. Every time, a higher power must approve and release every little piece of information and data.
However, Ihsas asserts that the purposefully introduced uncertainty is the trustworthy source of the issue. There is no actual media legislation but a 10-point rule that is highly ambiguous. In the eyes of the authorities, what is permitted and what is not is never entirely apparent. Ultimately, it depends on the situation and the person before you. The regulations are typically discussed verbally and on the spot. Due to the ongoing ambiguity, this results in not only excessive self-censorship and a great deal of outright censorship. ‘The fact that comparatively few journalists are in jail is hardly even good news in these circumstances,’ said Rateb Noori, a journalist who is also a refugee. It primarily demonstrates how successful intimidation is.
The uncertainty extends to journalists’ work outside of their official duties. Ahmad Quraishi, the director of the Afghanistan Journalists Centre, claims that forwarding a WhatsApp message or liking a tweet or Facebook message can already land you in trouble. He also notes the following issues: “Very few journalists are invited to press conferences or granted access to decision-makers. Women are hardly ever included in these; when they are, they are further scrutinized and examined.
Fariba Aram says overseas journalists receive far better treatment than their domestic counterparts. In contrast to Afghanistan, where they are hostile to all forms of journalism, it appears that people in charge still try to project a good picture to the rest of the world. According to Hujatullah Mujadidi of the Afghan Independent Journalist Union, they are attempting to split us apart. International versus domestic. A diaspora against the inside. “Good media” versus “bad media”. Because of this, it is essential that journalists and the media continue to speak and bargain with a single voice,’ he says. As accurate as that may be, perhaps Tomas Niklasson’s description of the journalists in the room as “not united, since this is extremely ambitious, but connected” was better.
The long arm of power with a harsh hand
The combination of legal ambiguity, censorship, lack of information access, and economic challenges creates a nearly insurmountable barrier for Afghan journalists. And for the thousands of journalists who continue to work in North America, Pakistan, Australia, and Europe. Moreover, they encounter the same informational obstacles. They must proceed with great caution while writing or bringing anything, as there is always a danger that the family members they leave behind would suffer due to their honesty.
Someone testified about an article he was to write for an international news site about climate change and air pollution. The required information was never provided, but they claimed they knew his family’s residence. Rateb Noori experienced a similar event. His news outlet looked into a report on the de facto elimination of the necessity for women to wear masks when appearing on television. In one instance, local coworkers were threatened rather than the Journalist’s family, even though they believed they were safe at their shifting hiding places.
The program’s analysis of the existing scenario was the most accessible portion. Afghan journalists and their international partners from the EU, Unesco, RsF, and the International Federation of Journalists received little more than flimsy suggestions when asked what could or should be done about it. ‘You cannot tackle problems that are more than 20 years old in a couple of weeks,’ asserted Najib Paikan, who recently had to shut down his TV station. Yet the notion that supporting Afghan journalists fleeing the nation benefits Afghan media is something we should reject. They work as chefs, taxi drivers, or package carriers because the country needs their knowledge, tenacity, and courage.
Paikan received acclaim for it, even though everyone knew the suddenly desperate journalists choosing to leave. In addition, issues do not end when you cross the border, according to media activist and fugitive Wali Rahmani. Several journalists are stranded in Pakistan and only think about staying alive for themselves and their families, food and shelter. They have a claim to foreign assistance as well.
During the awards
On the sidelines of the conference in Brussels, the annual Journalist of the Year Awards were also awarded. The 2023 Awards were given to Marjan Wafa, a reporter for Killid Radio, Mohammad Yousuf Hanif of ToloNews, and Mohammad Arif Yaqoubi of Afghanistan International TV in Washington. Five women were among the 14 journalists who earned the honour over the past ten years.