Dispatch

Taliban Rampage Puts Afghan Journalists in Crosshairs

The last 20 years saw a renaissance in the Afghan media landscape. Now, it’s crumbling.

By , an Australian journalist and author.
Storay Karimi gives directions.
Storay Karimi gives directions as her husband talks on his phone in Herat, Afghanistan, on Aug. 3. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

Leaving Afghanistan

HERAT, Afghanistan—Across Afghanistan, as the Taliban ramp up atrocities in the areas under their control, journalists are fleeing for their lives, terrified the insurgents will make good on threats to kill them and their families unless they start pumping out favorable copy.

The exodus is a potential death knell for one of the true success stories of the last 20 years, when Afghanistan fostered the region’s freest press. But in just the past four months, 51 media outlets have closed, according to Afghan journalism watchdogs, and hundreds of news professionals have left their jobs. In some parts of Afghanistan, newsrooms have been destroyed or looted, and many journalists say they receive messages threatening consequences unless they start reporting about the insurgents positively. Many believe it is only a matter of time before the Taliban make good on those threats.

Storay Karimi—the only Afghan woman working as a war correspondent—left her home in the western city of Herat this week after receiving death threats from the Taliban. Her reports for Pajhwok Afghan News—an agency that publishes in Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s two main languages, as well as in English—illuminated the conflict in Herat, an important and wealthy province bordering Iran that is facing a desperate fight to keep the Taliban out.

HERAT, Afghanistan—Across Afghanistan, as the Taliban ramp up atrocities in the areas under their control, journalists are fleeing for their lives, terrified the insurgents will make good on threats to kill them and their families unless they start pumping out favorable copy.

The exodus is a potential death knell for one of the true success stories of the last 20 years, when Afghanistan fostered the region’s freest press. But in just the past four months, 51 media outlets have closed, according to Afghan journalism watchdogs, and hundreds of news professionals have left their jobs. In some parts of Afghanistan, newsrooms have been destroyed or looted, and many journalists say they receive messages threatening consequences unless they start reporting about the insurgents positively. Many believe it is only a matter of time before the Taliban make good on those threats.

Storay Karimi—the only Afghan woman working as a war correspondent—left her home in the western city of Herat this week after receiving death threats from the Taliban. Her reports for Pajhwok Afghan News—an agency that publishes in Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s two main languages, as well as in English—illuminated the conflict in Herat, an important and wealthy province bordering Iran that is facing a desperate fight to keep the Taliban out.

“I love my job,” she said with tears in her eyes as she prepared to board a plane for Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. In recent weeks, while working on the front lines around Herat, she was captured by Taliban fighters and warned that “if I don’t start doing positive reports about them, they will find me,” she said.

The United States spent $1 billion developing Afghanistan’s media sector after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Much of the funding went to establishing newspapers, news agencies, magazines, and radio and television stations as well as training journalists and technicians. Dominic Medley, who worked in Afghanistan for 16 years, including for U.S.-funded media development programs, noted that Afghanistan—surrounded by Pakistan, China, Iran, and Central Asia—has the freest media in the region. 

“It’s a major success of the last 20 years,” he said. “That’s because Afghans wanted it and embraced the media. Authoritarian terrorist groups like the Taliban have no time or respect for the media. It’s a dangerous time for Afghan journalists. They are some of the bravest journalists I have met.”

As the Taliban intensify their war for control of Afghanistan, their targets include journalists, writers, activists and human rights advocates, government workers, and those who worked with international military forces during their 20-year presence here. The U.S. government has offered resettlement to thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military, government, and media, and it is considering adding women believed to be vulnerable to Taliban retribution. British media outlets this week called for “a special Afghan visa program for Afghan staff who have worked for the British media.” 

The visa programs are welcomed by those who qualify, but singling out select groups is a blow to those who don’t tick the right boxes, said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, managing director of media advocacy group Nai. “It raises questions about what is going to happen here, how dangerous it is going to be,” he said.

The closure of Afghan media outlets has accelerated since May 1, the original deadline former U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. A total of 51 outlets, including a television station, a news agency, and most local radio stations, have closed their doors, Khalvatgar said. At least 1,000 Afghan journalists are now jobless, including 100 women, he said.

“One of the main points of pride is the free media and free expression. What will there be left to be proud of?” Khalvatgar asked. “Much of what has been gained and built over 20 years will be lost forever, difficult to build but so easy to lose.”

Somaia Valizadeh, an investigative journalist at Khillid Radio, talks during an interview at her office in Herat city on Aug. 3.

Somaia Valizadeh, an investigative journalist at Khillid Radio, talks during an interview at her office in Herat on Aug. 3. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

In Herat, the Taliban are on the edges of the city fighting security forces and civilian militias working together to repel the insurgent advance. Journalists still working in the city said they fear a Taliban takeover will see them also closed down. Somaia Valizadeh, an investigative journalist at Khillid Radio, said the Taliban have control of 17 of Herat province’s 19 districts, where women are forced to stay in their homes, girls are banned from school, and media outlets are being shut down. If the Taliban enter the city, she said, “we will definitely lose our jobs, our livelihood.”

She said threats and intimidation, especially of women journalists, come not only from the Taliban but from extremist clerics in the city and, sometimes, from government officials who demand positive reports. “Pressure comes from all sides. Some members of the religious establishment refuse to invite women to press events, to even speak to us,” she said. “Things can only get worse if the insurgents take control here.”

Reporters Without Borders said this year, two journalists and three media assistants have been killed in Afghanistan. The most recent, on July 16, was Reuters photographer and Pulitzer prize winner Danish Siddiqui, who was embedded with Afghan troops when they were ambushed by Taliban fighters in Kandahar province. His body was brutally mutilated, allegedly by the insurgents, before it was returned for transfer to his family.

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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