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Hollow words save no-one

By the time western media wrote in support of journalists in Afghanistan, the Taliban was already hunting them down

By: Lynne O’Donnell

December 9, 2021 (British Journalism Review)—Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, journalism has been destroyed and journalists forced into hiding or exile. Hundreds of media organisations have been closed down, and the extremists now in control of the country have imposed draconian rules killing free speech.

For 20 years, the western alliance poured money into Afghanistan’s media sector, making it one of the brightest spots in the country’s development after the Taliban’s horrendous five-year regime ended in 2001 with the US invasion.

In recent years, the jihadists’ campaign to snuff out free speech and its advocates has been well documented. The exodus of journalists from their jobs and from their country was acknowledged in early August when British media organisations signed a joint letter calling for the government to issue refugee visas to Afghan people who had worked with them in the preceding 20 years.

They didn’t offer jobs or any other form of support that would have cost the companies money and shown a genuine level of care. But the letters were at least a recognition of their existence and role in making the news for two decades. The letter, which was not signed by the BBC, came a month after American media outlets made the same request to the US administration. It came far too late to save the lives of the dozens of journalists who were killed or maimed by the Taliban.

It took so long for the established media to take any action on behalf of people they had relied on for so long for their coverage that by the time the letter was signed and delivered to No 10 and the Foreign Office, the Taliban had already taken control of most of Afghanistan. The collapse of the entire country was less than two weeks away.

Along the way – as they advanced across Afghanistan at an alarming rate and according to a tight strategy that few seemed to recognise at the time – the Taliban closed or took over media organisations and forced journalists to flee. Many went to Kabul, where they were accommodated in hotels and guest houses that served as safe houses. Their plight was well known and well publicised. The narrow effort of the international media to help their people escape the country was late in coming, and often patchy and grudging when it finally did happen.

Many of Afghanistan’s news professionals have been beggared in exile, forced to apply for asylum as a condition of assistance from organisations that purport to assist journalists in need. Others have been offered conditional help by their employers. An evacuated BBC reporter said the human resources department told her that now she is in the UK she cannot say she is a BBC employee, despite her staff contract, only that she used to be. Her Sim card and laptop will be confiscated before the end of the year, she said. And then she is on her own. Literally.

Hundreds of journalists who worked for international media organisations, from the BBC to The New York Times, are now outside Afghanistan, away from the vengeful Taliban who are still looking for their colleagues. They languish in a no-man’s-land in Albania, Mexico, the UAE, the United States and Britain, among other countries, pressured to apply for asylum so governments don’t have to take responsibility for them. They cannot work, or even access their bank accounts as all Afghanistan’s financial assets have been frozen. Many hundreds more, mostly those who worked for domestic media outlets, are trapped inside Afghanistan, in hiding, hoping that they will be able to escape before the Taliban find them.

Tolo News, hailed as the leading media voice of Afghanistan, funded by the United States and led by a man dubbed the “Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan”, summarily sacked all staff who left under threat. Some say they have yet to be paid their August salary. Sources close to Saad Mohseni, the company’s boss, say he is seeking further funding from the public purse to move his operations offshore.

Khushnood Nabizada knew the moment he entered journalism that he was risking his life. He set up the Khaama Press News Agency in 2010 as an independent source of domestic and international news.

Like many journalists and news professionals, Nabizada and his staff were repeatedly targeted by the then-insurgents. Just this year, on February 1, his car was blown up. “I and my two kids who were inside the car survived, narrowly,” he said.

The National Directorate of Security, the former government intelligence arm, “confirmed that the Haqqani network were behind this explosion”, he said, referring to the listed terrorist organisation that is so closely affiliated with the Taliban that its leader, Siraj Haqqani, is their deputy leader and, now, the acting minister of the interior.

“My office was targeted by a suicide bomber in 2014, (killing) the security guard who sacrificed himself by grabbing the suicide bomber in his arms to save his colleagues,” Nabizada wrote to me. “In 2016, we received a threat letter from the Taliban warning us to stop covering security stories or otherwise they will target our staff.

“Following the receipt of the threat letter, our deputy editor-in-chief, who was one of the key and important individuals within our organisation, fled and left the country. He now lives in Calgary, Canada.

The lucky few got on a plane out

“In 2020, we received another threat letter from the Taliban, and had to move the office to another location in order to be hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Nabizada said.

When the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, completing their rout of the country, Nabizada knew it was time for him to go, “as I was the primary target for them, they had failed to kill me in their past attempts”.

He and his family joined the horrific clamour at Kabul’s airport, given protection by the American military there for three days while they waited to board flights out. On August 19, they flew to Doha, the Qatari capital where, ironically, the Taliban had negotiated their deal with former US president Donald Trump that handed them victory. Then on to Germany and their final destination in Wisconsin, where they now stay on a US military base awaiting resettlement.

“There were 12,500 Afghan refugees in this camp and, according to officials, around 2,000 of them have been resettled so far,” Nabizada said.

From his safe haven, Nabizada watches his staff being detained and beaten by the Taliban, who have introduced rules severely limiting the media by ordering all coverage is coordinated with their own media office.

The Afghan Journalist Safety Committee has expressed concern about the Taliban’s ongoing brutality towards journalists. In a press release on October 31, it said: “On October 28, Mr Abdul Khaliq Hussaini, a journalist working for Khaama Press, was beaten by armed individuals in broad daylight in Kabul city. On October 29, Zahudullah Husainkhil, director of Radio Mhaal in Logar province, was arrested and beaten by IEA [Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the self-designation of the Taliban].

“On October 30, Mr Ali Reza, the cameraman of Iran Sada and Sima news agency, was shot at and wounded by unknown gunmen in Kabul province.”

Nabizada might be safe in the United States, one of the lucky few. Many hundreds have been unable to escape the horror that has engulfed Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power. Farshad Fattahi has been in hiding since the Taliban took over Herat city and closed the private television station where he was an investigative journalist.

Fattahi told me that he was in Kabul when Herat fell and hasn’t been able to return to the city, or his family, since. I met him in Kabul on August 11, when I was a guest at a seminar for investigative journalists from provincial news organisations across Afghanistan.

I had just returned from Herat. Along with the Pulitzer-winning photographer Massoud Hossaini, I had planned to go for two days, but stayed for five. We were trapped in the city as the Taliban rocketed the airport, and took and retook the airport road. We’d watched citizen militiamen and the armed wing of the intelligence agency battle with the Taliban inside the city. We saw the militia capture and beat two Taliban to death and throw their remains in the road, where they were pumped full of bullets and left for the dogs. When we got back to Kabul, we booked our tickets out of the country for August 15, convinced we were watching Herat fall and that Kabul would not be far behind.

On August 13, Herat fell to the Taliban. Massoud and I were on the last commercial flight to leave Kabul before the Taliban entered the city and declared victory after 20 years of insurgency. Their hunt for enemies, including journalists, began immediately. (Massoud’s application for a talent visa to come to the UK, so he can continue working as one of the world’s best photojournalists and avoid the refugee trap the Netherlands is trying to push him into, was rejected by the Arts Council, which decided that he did not qualify.)

Within a couple of weeks, all pretence that the Taliban had changed – that they could prove the “reasonable” face of extremism and terrorism, as the British Army’s chief of the general staff General Sir Nick Carter said – had evaporated. Taliban 2.0 is far worse than their earlier incarnation as this time they came with lists of people they wanted to kill. Those lists are long, and the killing continues.

Their plans for the media became clear on September 8. Two journalists from the crusading anti-corruption daily newspaper Etilaatroz were detained while covering a march by women demanding their rights be respected by the misogynists of the new-old regime. Zaki Daryabi, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said that Nemat Naqdi and Taghi Daryabi (his younger brother) were tortured for hours, beaten unconscious, and suffered severe lasting injuries. When Zaki and a couple of other reporters went to find them and demand their release, they were also held.

Zaki Daryabi said: “They were tortured by about 10 fighters and lost consciousness several times. The Taliban brought them round by throwing water on them. We tried repeatedly to speak with Taliban officials, including spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, but Mr Mujahid did not respond to our calls.

$1bn investment destroyed overnight

“When our colleagues were released, we took them to the hospital and they were examined for a few hours. The doctors prescribed medicine for them for about two weeks.

“Two weeks later, when they returned to visit a doctor at a French hospital, doctors said that Naqdi’s eardrum has been burst during the Taliban’s torture and needs surgery. They said he lost about 40 per cent of his eyesight and now needs to wear glasses,” he said.

Photographs of the injuries sustained by Naqdi and Daryabi were published around the world, evidence of the brutality of the Taliban. With Naqdi and Daryabi, they were, as the Chinese saying goes, killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.

Since then, Nabizada said, “almost all media organisations are at risk of collapsing. And this means the closure of the doors of democracy and freedom of speech”.

Like many other journalists who are watching the gains of 20 years and more than $1billion in development investment in media alone disappearing before their eyes, Nabizada and Daryabi say that the time for international news and media-support organisations to step up is now.

“Freedom of speech, access to information and development of the media sector during the past 20 years in Afghanistan were the biggest achievements in the history of Afghanistan’s democracy. Unfortunately, all these achievements and successes are being destroyed in front of the eyes of the world,” Nabizada said.

The Taliban are disregarding Afghanistan’s constitutional guarantees of free speech and media platforms. No surprise – they have never recognised the constitution. “The Taliban have not clarified what law the media should follow, which laws regulate freedom of expression or free media activity. Their only announcement has been of 11 regulations that strictly, and irrationally, seek to restrict the media,” Daryabi said.

There are, in effect, no media laws in Afghanistan. The Taliban are incapable of governing, law and order has broken down, there is no money, no food, no work. In these circumstances, it is only natural that the media sector crumbles.

And that’s what is happening. Many organisations have collapsed. Some have cut their activities. Etilaatroz and Daryabi won the 2020 Transparency International anti-corruption award. After the beating of the two reporters drew the attention of the world, the paper launched a crowdfunding site in a last-ditch, and probably doomed, effort to stay alive. Daryabi has left the country amid threats to his life.

Other organisations have morphed into Taliban mouthpieces to survive. Journalists report that Taliban representatives regularly visit media offices, intimidating staff and pressuring editors about content. Daryabi calls it the “Islamisation” of the media.

Across the country, reporters say they are searched, their phones taken from them and the contents, especially contacts, checked. Cameras and other equipment are taken or smashed. Social media regularly carry video of Taliban men whipping journalists covering the small demonstrations by brave women that still take place in Kabul and other cities.

As the Taliban are tyrannical, violent and unaccountable, the best way to survive is to keep put of their way. Many news journalists have “stopped producing lengthy and investigative reports”, Daryabi said, as the Taliban ignore requests for information on the economic collapse, the humanitarian crisis, the abuse of minority Hazara people, disappearances, beheadings, and public hangings. As a result, he said, “journalists are reluctant to take risks to produce reports and risk security and violence and imprisonment for serious reporting”.

The disappearance of the free media and the departure of its guardians has plunged Afghanistan into darkness. The Taliban is, unbelievably, not listed as a terrorist organisation, but many of its leaders are blacklisted as terrorists, including about half the men appointed as “ministers” to their interim cabinet. They are close to al-Qaida. They are the biggest drugs-producing and trafficking gang in the world. They are killers and liars. As Taliban factions fight among themselves for supremacy, the war looks very much like it did during the 20 years they fought the internationally-supported government.

Now, Afghanistan has no friends. It is now a concept where a country used to be. Global media organisations wrote a nice letter and then turned away. Our colleagues are dying and no one can hear them scream.

About Author:

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist for Foreign Policy and contributor to Tortoise. She was bureau chief in Kabul for Associated Press and AFP between 2009 and 2017. She was in Afghanistan to cover the US invasion in 2001, and the return of the Taliban in 2021. @lynnekodonnell

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