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We must stand up for the reporters

Volume 32, Number 2, June 2021

Lynne O’Donnell

Journalism was helping to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Now they are killing journalists and the future looks bleak again

Afghan journalists are not just covering the front line of their country’s existential war with the Taliban – they are the front line. As they die, as they are threatened and murdered by the insurgents, as they pack up and flee the fear of their own premature deaths, the very essence of what they represent is leaving Afghanistan with them: freedom.

Already in 2021, five journalists have been murdered, three of them women working in broadcasting who were shot dead on the same day. Five were killed last year. Many others have quit their jobs, left the country or are planning to go.

Those still working as news professionals do so in the knowledge that each day, each minute, could be their last. One friend checks his car for magnetic “sticky” bombs, he says, five or six times a day. Another says he is afraid to open his front door for fear he will be shot dead by insurgent assassins. Others send messages to foreign friends pleading for help, either to get out of Afghanistan or to make ends meet once they do.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported recently on a woman who was sped out of the country by Afghanistan’s secret service after she was stalked for weeks by a female death squad. She wouldn’t allow RFA to publish her name or that of her employer. She now lives far away from family, friends and colleagues, enduring the trauma of her experience alone.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the allied military engagement in Afghanistan. The fall of the Taliban ended a brutal blip in history that spawned clichés of Islamist extremism: the burqa that strips women of identity; the madrassas that deny boys access to critical thought, and girls any education at all; severed hands hanging in market squares; women beaten in public by “vice” police; farmers forced to grow poppy to earn millions, even billions, of dollars for the mullahs.

Now, as Afghanistan enters the endgame of four decades of conflict following US president Joe Biden’s decision to follow through on his predecessor’s deal to bring American troops home, political power and personal pain are intertwined. The Taliban, who gained the upper hand in a zero-sum game with former president Donald Trump and his ambitious adviser Zalmay Khalilzad, have raised the stakes with a campaign of ‘targeted assassinations’ that appears aimed at killing anyone who stands against their tyranny. Silence is their aim, terror is their game plan.

The Taliban do not recognise Afghanistan’s internationally supported government, nor the country’s constitution. Their notion of women’s rights, civil rights, freedom of speech – freedoms in general – has not changed. They are murderers, thieves, liars and drug dealers. They kill women and children indiscriminately. They kill the educated and erudite with shocking precision and regularity.

Yet they have gained a political legitimacy that would have been unimaginable two decades ago, when they were driven over the Hindu Kush into the embrace of Pakistan’s secret service to become proxy warriors in Islamabad’s war with India. Now the insurgents have a ‘political office’ in the Qatari capital, Doha; their names are taken off sanctions lists so they can rack up air miles and hotel bills; they are feted from Beijing to Moscow, Tehran to Istanbul. They receive support from Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia. The credibility they’ve yearned for as a party of power in Afghanistan is being offered to them by governments, multilateral organisations and publicly funded bodies like the United Nations, which is overseeing what is likely to be a slow-motion coup.

The New York Times last year published an op-ed by-lined Sirajuddin Haqqani, identifying him as the “deputy leader of the Taliban” but not as the scion of their most brutal terrorist affiliate the Haqqani network, sanctioned by the UN Security Council and responsible for some of the most heinous crimes against the Afghan people. The BBC has interviewed other senior Taliban figures without critical questioning of their views, ambitions or actions.

The United States spent a billion dollars in just five years, 2010-15, to develop Afghanistan’s post-Taliban media, with hundreds of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, and innovative digital outlets across the country. Television offers 24-hour news, live Question Time-style debate shows, soaps and crazy-popular talent quests, just like we have. The international community has helped create a news sector that stands alone in Central Asia as a beacon of ethical journalism. In my thesis for a war studies MA at King’s College London in 2019, I asked the question: has freedom of the press been instrumental in advancing liberal democratic values in post-Taliban Afghanistan? I devised a survey which I sent to a couple of hundred Afghan and foreign journalists, diplomats and NGOs, who came back with a resoundingly positive response. That investment, they all agreed, had been worth it. But the payoff is now under threat.

Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar runs an organisation in Kabul called Nai: Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan. Its slogan is “Violence against journalists should stop”. He lobbies Afghan authorities, international governments and multilateral organisations, and holds press conferences, to raise awareness of the threats against journalists in his country and the consequences of silencing them.

Many groups with one goal – to overthrow Kabul

It hasn’t always been the Taliban, Mujeeb says. Sometimes it’s criminals, politicians, military, police or warlords, rivals in family feuds, or other extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State. The war has provided cover for all sorts. The Afghan state’s lack of capacity for bringing perpetrators to justice means it can be difficult to know who is behind each murder – even if they were routinely investigated. Afghan journalists have been so desperate that they have called on their government and even the UN to protect them. Few governments will take on that responsibility, and the UN is incapable of doing much beyond collating statistics and organising conferences. The Taliban don’t often take responsibility for their attacks; sometimes they leave that to the local franchise of the Islamic State group, known as IS-KP. It’s all the same – the insurgent groups are symbiotically linked, as vice-president Amrullah Saleh said in a recent interview with Indian television. The Taliban, al-Qaida, the Haqqani, IS-KP … they all share the goal of overthrowing the Kabul government and re-establishing an ‘Islamic emirate’ to consolidate and expand a powerbase built on fear, ignorance, smuggling of drugs and minerals, extortion, and money-laundering.

In the past year, as the violence spiked in the wake of the Trump Doha deal, it has mostly been perpetrated by the Taliban, first in an urban crime wave, then attacks against people working for the government, judiciary, and human, women’s and civil rights organisations, then professional women and journalists. The campaign has been a huge success, Mujeeb says.

“Those who are leaving a job or the country are those who are the most experienced and talented people. They leave their jobs because they can find another job through the talent they have, outside the media sector. They leave the country because they can afford to, and because they will find a good life outside Afghanistan,” he said. “It means the sector is losing its best assets.”

By targeting journalists, he said, the Taliban aim to spread fear among the public, and distrust of a corrupt and inept government. “I do believe the Taliban are delegitimising the Afghan government by perpetrating these incidents. They attack soft targets to create headlines and dominate the news and talk shows. The consequence is that fear is escalating in the media sector and prominent journalists are leaving. Families do not want their relatives, especially women, to work in media.” And so, the sector dies.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that between January 1, 2018, and January 31, 2021, a total of 33 journalists and media workers, and 32 human rights defenders, were killed. It noted a “concerning shift” from being caught up indirectly in insurgent attacks “to the intentional, premeditated and deliberate targeting of individuals after the start of the Afghanistan peace negotiations” in September 2020.

UNAMA’s Special Report: Killing of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists and Media Workers in Afghanistan 2018-2021was released to coincide with the February meeting of NATO foreign ministers, in the hope, one source at the organisation said, of drawing attention to the tactics of the Taliban as they purported to talk peace with the Kabul government.

Reporters Sans Frontières describes 2018 as the deadliest year for Afghan journalists since the fall of the Taliban. “A total of 15 journalists and media workers were killed in a series of bombings that began early in the year, nine of them in a single day,” it says.

For many of us in the relatively safe and secular West, the inability to imagine living and working in this environment, with this constant terror, renders the reality of life for our Afghan colleagues incomprehensible. And so we turn away. Yet these journalists are members of our tribe, and their life-and-death reality must be taken seriously.

I understand, as I felt this way about the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan before I spent time there as a correspondent and saw for myself just what it means to be treated as a medieval chattel with less value than a dog or a thumb-sized blob of opium. (Ironically, I was driven out of a job in Kabul with a French news agency after being threatened by a man who worked as a casual fixer in my bureau. But not until I’d won an award for reporting on the plight of Afghan women. I sued the agency for sex discrimination and won. I guess that makes me lucky; there are no #MeToo moments for Afghan women.)

In Afghanistan, to be a journalist is to, literally, put one’s life on the line. Not the way our TV news heroes do, travelling with security teams, a tonne of equipment, state-of-the-art body armour, insurance policies, and return plane tickets. Afghan journalists are targeted in their offices, in their cars, in their homes. Their families are killed, too. Bismillah Adel Aimaq, the editor-in-chief of a radio station in Ghor province, was shot dead on January 1. The following month, three members of his family were murdered in an attack on his father’s house, four others were wounded and three were abducted. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said the Taliban were to blame.

When journalism is destroyed – all else follows

Journalism in Afghanistan has been withering for some time – television fixates on cheap, live, breaking-news coverage of attacks, neglecting in-depth and investigative work as too difficult, too expensive or too dangerous. Soon, the sector may resemble what passes for journalism in neighbouring Iran, Pakistan, China and the states of the former Soviet Union. Afghan journalists who 20 years ago wanted to be like us, today are like us, and they are being killed for it. We can’t say we weren’t warned when the Taliban waltz back into Kabul, hand in hand with al-Qaida, and finish the job of dismantling everything that has been built for Afghan people in the 20 years since the Islamists were toppled. The destruction of journalism enables the destruction of all else. There is no holding to account once the journalists have gone.

We all know that. Yet Afghan journalists see little support among their international colleagues. They look at the outcry over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian who wrote for The Washington Post and was butchered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents, allegedly at the behest of the Saudi crown prince. His murder rightly became an international incident that still reverberates. The murders of Afghan journalists make headlines on the day. Then the news cycle moves on. And our colleagues continue to check their cars, their front doors, their visa applications.

The invasion of Afghanistan that was meant to punish the Taliban for enabling al-Qaida’s September 11 attacks on the United States morphed into a war than no one has won. The biggest losers are the Afghan people. It is clear now, as the endgame plays out, that all the gains, and losses, of the past 20 years might, after all, have been for nothing.

Everyone knows it but few say it out loud. Words these days are not only unnecessary, they are dangerous. And so, many Afghans keep quiet, pack their bags and get out, just the latest generation to step on the carousel of exile as they join the swelling populations of the “Little Afghanistans” in Istanbul, Islamabad, Delhi, and lament their shrinking options as these and other countries slowly close their doors. Soon they will be knocking on our doors, too. Among their denizens are the country’s best hope, the young professionals with a vested interest in the democratic experiment that appeared, until recently, to be the true legacy of the 9/11 attacks. The aspirations of a population – almost 70 per cent of whom are younger than

30 years old – that has grown up in war clutching at the possibilities dangled tantalisingly by smartphones and social media appear to have been incinerated as cruelly as the Twin Towers were on that dreadful day 20 years ago.

And as their hopes die, we stand by, tut-tutting the sad waste of it all, yet doing nothing to stand up for those who make their living as we do, as journalists. For unlike most of us, they do it knowing that any moment could be their last.

Lynne O’Donnell is a journalist and author. Between 2009 and 2017, she was bureau chief in Afghanistan for the Associated Press and AFP.

@lynnekodonnell

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