Freedom of the press is an illusion in today’s Afghanistan

“The road leading to Kabul airport was a one-way street. We could not go back.” Not to take clothes, computers or notebooks, says Afghan journalist Seyar Sirat. Credit: Gie Goris/IPS
  • by Guy Goris (brussels)
  • Inter press 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 more of a blessing 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 when some people cried. That was the moment I left.

Sirat tells his story at the first international gathering of Afghan journalists since the fall of Kabul. Some of the journalists managed to come from Afghanistan, others traveled from various European countries where they now live and try to work. And where they should try to build a second life, “like babies”, as Sirat says. In a new language, in a foreign context, but with strained and family ties to the motherland. And deeply, mentally scarred.

“The road to Kabul airport was a one-way street,” observed Sirat, visibly emotional. ‘We couldn’t go back. Not to take clothes, computer or notebook. Not to return to work or old life. Those three days and nights in and around 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 just a few days ago that on March 11, an attack took place in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif on a meeting of local journalists of various media. The number of casualties was high: three dead and 30 injured, including 16 journalists. The Center of Afghan Journalists confirms. The responsibility for the attack, meanwhile, has been claimed by the local branch of the Islamic State, IS.

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

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

Lost space

Injury does not start on August 15, 2021 for everyone. “Over the past 20 years, at least 120 journalists from home and abroad have been killed in Afghanistan,” Hujatullah Mujadidi, director of the Independent Journalists’ Union of Afghanistan, said in his opening remarks. the meeting. “Until two years ago, Afghanistan had 137 TV stations, 346 radio stations, 49 news agencies and 69 print media. Together, they created 12,000 jobs. There is little left of it. Meanwhile, 224 media platforms closed their doors and at least 8,000 media workers, including 2,374 women, lost their jobs.”

“We finally created a space for ourselves after centuries of restrictions,” said Somaya Valizadeh, a journalist who managed to escape the country. That territory has been taken from us again. Of the few media outlets that were founded, run and nurtured by women, a few still exist. But even there men are now calling the shots. Reporters Without Borders reports that in half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, no female journalists are still employed, and more than eighty percent of female journalists are unemployed. RSF also estimates that 40 percent of media platforms will cease to exist and 60 percent of all media workers will be unemployed after August 2021. Therefore, it is not surprising that about 1000 journalists have already fled abroad.

The heart of the matter

Those who want to do real and independent journalistic work in Afghanistan face one difficulty after another. “It has never been easy to get reliable information,” says Somaya Valizadeh, “but today it is almost impossible.” According to his colleague Abid Ihsas, who continues to be active in Afghanistan, it is related to the fact that journalists are standing still. Taliban militants “who do not know or recognize the importance of independent media”. But it’s not limited to that, he says, because the entire administration under the current government is too centralized and hierarchical: “Each and every detail has to be approved and published by the highest authority every time.”

However, the real root of the problem, according to Ihsas, lies in the intentionally created ambiguity. There is a 10-point regulation that is very vague, but no real media law. “It is never clear what is permissible according to the authorities and what is not. Ultimately, it depends on the moment and the person in front of you. Usually, rules are communicated verbally and ad hoc. This leads not only to overt censorship, but also to excessive self-censorship due to constant uncertainty.” Refugee journalist Rateb Nouri summed it up like this: “The fact that relatively few journalists are in prison is not even good news under these circumstances. It basically shows how effective intimidation is.”

Insecurity also applies to what journalists do outside of their official assignment. “Forwarding a WhatsApp message or liking a tweet or a FB message can already get you in trouble,” said Ahmad Quraishi, director of the Afghanistan Journalists’ Center. Other problems that he points out: “There are very limited lists of journalists who have been invited to press conferences or have been made available to them by those responsible. They almost never involve women, and if they do, they are screened and vetted.”

Fariba Aram adds that foreign journalists are treated much better than their domestic colleagues. “It seems that those in power still want to have a reasonable image around the world, while in Afghanistan they are against anything journalistic,” he says. Hujatullah Mujadidi from the Association of Independent Journalists of Afghanistan confirms that: They are trying to divide us. International vs. National. The diaspora against the insider. “Good media” versus “bad media”. That is why it is very important that journalists and the media continue to speak and negotiate with one voice,” he concludes. Granted, maybe Thomas Niklasson put it better when he described the journalists in the room as “not united because it’s too ambitious, but connected.”

The hard hand and long arm of power

Legal uncertainty, censorship, lack of access to information and economic hardship combine to form an almost insurmountable obstacle for Afghan journalists. And for hundreds of journalists pursuing their profession from Europe, Pakistan, Australia or North America. Indeed, they face the same barriers of information and have to be extremely careful about what they write or bring up, because there is always the possibility that family members will pay the price for telling their truth.

Someone testified about an article he was supposed to write for an international news website about climate change and air pollution. The requested information never came, but the statement that they know where his family lives was. Rateb Nouri also had a similar experience. His news website investigated a story that effectively eliminated the requirement for veiled women to appear on television. In that case, it was not the journalist’s family, but local colleagues who were threatened, even though they thought they were safe in their changing hiding addresses.

What to do?

Analyzing the current situation was a simple part of the plan. 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 received little more than tentative ideas. “You can’t solve problems that are more than 20 years old in a few weeks,” argued Najib Paykan, who recently had to close his own TV station. “But what we have to resist is the idea that Afghan media outlets are helping Afghan journalists flee the country. There they become package deliverymen, taxi drivers or cooks, while the country needs their experience, dedication and courage.”

This earned Paykan applause, although everyone knew that leaving was now the choice of a large section of desperate journalists. Moreover, problems do not disappear when you cross the border, said the fugitive media activist Vali Rahmani. “Hundreds of journalists have remained in Pakistan and are concerned only with survival. Food and shelter for themselves and their families. They also have the right to international support.”

At award ceremonies

The annual “Journalist of the Year” award ceremony was also awarded within the framework of the Brussels conference. The 2023 awards went to Mohammad Yusuf Hanif of ToloNews, Mohammad Arif Yaqubi of Washington-based Afghanistan International Television and Marjan Wafa of Killid Radio. During the last 10 years, a total of 14 journalists, including five women, received the award.

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

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