Friday, 17 March 2023 14:08

Press Freedom Is an Illusion in Today’s Afghanistan

‘The road to Kabul airport was a one-way street, — We couldn’t go back. Not to pick up clothes, computer or notebooks, says Afghan journalist Seyar Sirat. Credit: Gie Goris/IPS

BRUSSELS, Mar 17 (IPS) — Every year, Afghan journalists celebrate their national day on 18 March. This year, there is little reason to party, because of general restrictions, increasing intimidation and a recent attack on journalists. However, at a unique gathering in Brussels, Afghan journalists showed resilience.

’I have always felt good at my desk,’ says Seyar Sirat. ‘I am rather introverted by nature, and so spending hours in front of my screen for TOLO News was a blessing rather than a curse. Until 15 August 2021, when the world of Afghanistan began to crumble. But even that morning, I continued to work with concentration until the moment the news arrived 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 travelled 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 babies", as Sirat puts it. In a new language, in a foreign context, but with intense and family ties to the homeland. And with deep, mental scars.

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

Dead and injured

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

After the attack in Mazar-e-Sharif, a number of journalists ended up in hospital. Even there, they were not reassured 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 address to the meeting of Afghan journalists in Brussels on 15 March, EU Special Envoy for Afghanistan Tomas Niklasson also referred to that recent tragedy and put it in the broader context of a dramatic deterioration of human rights and rule of law since the Taliban took power. He cited the recent report by UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett, who was able to document 245 cases of press freedom violations since August 2021. These include not only attacks, but also arrests, arbitrary detention, physical violence, beatings and torture. ‘Most of you will say that this figure is an underestimate,’ Niklasson said. All the journalists present nodded.

Lost space

The trauma does not begin for everyone on 15 August 2021. ‘At least 120 journalists from home and abroad have been killed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years,’ Hujatullah Mujadidi, director of the Afghan Independent Journalist Union, noted 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 that remains. 224 media platforms meanwhile 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,’ says 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, a few still exist. But even there, men now call the shots.’ Reporters Without Borders states 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 per cent of media platforms have ceased to exist and 60 per cent of all media workers became unemployed after August 2021. No wonder, then, that some 1,000 journalists have already fled abroad.

The heart of the problem

Those who want to do real and independent journalistic work in Afghanistan come up against one difficulty after another. "It was never easy to get reliable information," says Somaia Walizadeh, "but today it is quasi-impossible. According to her colleague Abid Ihsas, who remains active in Afghanistan, this has to do with the fact that journalists on the ground face Taliban fighters ‘who do not know or recognise the importance of independent media.’ But it doesn’t stop there, he says, because the entire administration under the current authorities is extremely centralised and hierarchised. ‘Every detail and every shred of information has to be approved and released by a higher authority every time.’

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 allowed according to the authorities and what is not. Ultimately, it depends on the moment and the person in front of you. Usually, the rules are communicated verbally and ad hoc. This not only leads to a lot of outright censorship, but also too much self-censorship due to the constant uncertainty.’ Rateb Noori, a refugee journalist, summed it up this way: ‘The fact that relatively few journalists are in jail is not even good news in these circumstances. It mainly shows how effective the intimidation is.’

The insecurity also applies to what journalists do outside their formal assignment. ‘Forwarding a WhatsApp message or liking a tweet or FB message can already get you in trouble,’ says Ahmad Quraishi, director of the Afghanistan Journalists Centre. Other problems he identifies: ‘There are very limited lists of journalists 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 averse to anything journalistic,’ she says. Hujatullah Mujadidi of the Afghan Independent Journalist Union confirms that: They are trying to divide us. International against national. Diaspora against interior. "Good media" against "bad media". That is why it is crucial that journalists and media continue to speak and negotiate with one voice,’ he concludes. True as that be, maybe Tomas Niklasson put it better when he described the journalists in the room as ‘not united, as this is overly ambitious, but connected’.

The hard hand and the long arm of power

Legal uncertainty, censorship, lack of access to information and economic difficulties combine to form an almost insurmountable obstacle for Afghan journalists. And for the hundreds of journalists who continue to practise their profession from Europe, Pakistan, Australia or North America. Indeed, they face the same barriers to information and have to navigate with extreme caution what they write or bring, 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 to write for an international news site on climate change and air pollution. The requested information never came, but the statement that they knew where his family lived, did. Rateb Noori also had a similar experience. His news site investigated a story on the de facto lifting of the requirement for women to appear on TV wearing a face mask. In that case, it was not the journalist’s family that was threatened, but local colleagues — even though they thought they were safe at their changing hiding addresses.

What to do?

Analysing the current situation proved to be the simple part of the programme. 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 got little beyond tentative ideas. ‘You cannot solve problems that are more than 20 years old in a matter of weeks,’ argued Najib Paikan, who recently had to shut down his own TV station. ‘But what we should resist is the idea that Afghan media is helped by helping Afghan journalists flee the country. There they become package deliverers, taxi drivers or cooks, while the country needs their expertise, commitment and courage.’

That earned Paikan applause, even though everyone knew that leaving is the choice of a large section of now desperate journalists. Moreover, the problems do not disappear when you cross the border, Wali Rahmani, a fugitive media activist, noted. ‘Hundreds of journalists are stuck in Pakistan and are only concerned with survival. Food and shelter for themselves and for their families. They too are entitled to international support.’

At the awards

On the sidelines of the conference in Brussels, the annual Journalist of the Year Awards were also presented. 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. Over the past 10 years, a total of 14 journalists received the award, including five women.