Keeping hope alive : Afghan journalists in exile continue reporting despite an uncertain future
Sonali Dhawan&Waliullah Rahmani
“I lost my family, my job, my identity, and my country,” Afghan journalist Anisa Shaheed told CPJ in a phone interview.
A former Kabul-based reporter for TOLONews, Afghanistan’s largest local broadcaster, Shaheed is one of hundreds of journalists who fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover of the country in August 2021, fearing she would face retaliation for her work.
Despite everything she left behind, Shaheed remains confident that her credibility among millions of Afghans remains intact—and should be put to use. From exile in the United States, she continues to produce critical reporting on Afghanistan for the Independent Farsi news site, focusing on her home province of Panjshir, a historical stronghold of Afghan resistance to the Taliban.
Shaheed became a journalist during Afghanistan’s “media revolution,” which followed the fall of the first Taliban regime in 2001. During that time, the United States and its allies invested heavily in Afghan media development—the United States alone donated more than $150 million by one estimate.
Foreign governments also provided crucial political support, leaning on successive Afghan governments to allow for a relatively high degree of free expression.
The result was “one of the most vibrant media industries in the region,” writes journalist Samiullah Mahdi in a 2021 paper for the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
That once-thriving Afghan media now faces widespread censorship and intimidation under the Taliban. Journalists who remain in Afghanistan have faced imprisonment, alleged torture, beatings, and threats. (Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via messaging app.) Women journalists have largely disappeared from the media, particularly outside of urban areas, and in May 2022, the Taliban ordered female broadcast reporters to cover their faces on air, reflecting their aim to remove women from public life.
‘We do not feel disconnected’
While local reporters in Afghanistan struggle under immense pressure, many exile journalists are working to continue the journalism they were once able to pursue at home. “What is left out of 20 years of investment and sacrifice in the [Afghan] media is the power of freedom of speech,” says Harun Najafizada, director of the U.K.-based Afghanistan International, the first international news broadcaster focused entirely on Afghanistan. “That is enshrined in the exiled media.”
Launched on August 15, 2021, the day that Kabul fell to the Taliban, Afghanistan International broadcasts and streams Dari-language radio and television programs to Afghanistan and around the world. Najafizada and his partners were able to get it up and running so quickly, he says, because they’d been seeking funding for years prior to the Taliban takeover, and increasingly pushed financiers as each province fell to the group in early August 2021.
It is now funded by British-based Volant Media, which also manages Iran International and reportedly has ties to Saudi Arabia. (Najafizada told CPJ that Afghanistan International is not linked to any government.)
Afghanistan International’s 80 media workers are primarily former employees of prominent Afghan news organizations who fled following the Taliban takeover. Despite the thousands of miles that separate them from their country, they’re able to produce reporting on life under the Taliban by relying on extensive networks of contacts they still have within the country. “We do not feel disconnected from Afghanistan,” Najafizada says.
The staff’s high profile and credibility allowed the broadcaster to quickly gain strong engagement numbers on social media, Najafizada says. Although the Taliban banned local stations from re-broadcasting programs from the BBC, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle in March, Najafizada does not fear that his outlet will be cut off. “They would have to ban the digital era,” he says.
Still, internet access remains sparse in many areas of Afghanistan. According to one estimate, Afghanistan had 9.23 million internet users at the start of 2022, including 4.15 million social media users, out of a total population of more than 40 million. As relatively small as those numbers may be, they soared during the two decades following the fall of the first Taliban regime.
In 2001, the Taliban-led government banned the internet to curb the spread of information and images that were “obscene, immoral and against Islam,” thereby cutting off Afghans from the outside world.
Now the Taliban itself uses the internet to amplify its messages on social media. Yet Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel at the digital rights organization Access Now, says her organization has received reports that the Taliban continues to implement internet shutdowns in certain regions to stifle protest and resistance. “Connectivity will also be impacted by the destruction of telecommunications towers [before the Taliban takeover], and the Taliban’s financial and technical ability to keep the internet running,” Maheshwari told CPJ via email.
A struggle for information
The internet is necessary not only to send information into Afghanistan, but also to get information out. Journalists in exile depend heavily on sources inside Afghanistan for fresh information about what’s happening on the ground. Covering Panjshir, where the Taliban has a history of cutting phone and internet access, is particularly difficult when faced with such communications barriers, Shaheed says.
Sources for exile journalists include former colleagues who remained behind after the Taliban takeover, some of whom now find it unsafe to openly continue their work. Still, they are loyal to the profession and want to assist the flow of reliable information, saysBushra Seddique, an editorial fellow at The Atlantic magazine and former reporter for local newspapers in Afghanistan. From 2016 to 2019, Seddique studied journalism at Kabul University, where she began to establish her own network of contacts. She says journalism was a popular specialization: in 2021, 309 students graduated from the school’s journalism program.
As a precautionary measure, Seddique asks her journalist colleagues to delete evidence of their communications. “If [the] Taliban checks your phone and sees you are connected with a journalist in the U.S., it can be dangerous,” she says.
Other avenues of information often are closed off to exile journalists—or anyone else. In 2018, the previous Afghan government established the Access to Information Commission, which created a mechanism for anyone to request public information. Zahra Mousavi, head of the Access to Information Commission from its inception until the Taliban takeover, told CPJ that while it’s encouraging that the commission has not yet been dissolved, its offices remain closed to the public and the media, and its website is inaccessible. Like Mousavi, other former members of the commission have fled Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, she told CPJ via messaging app.
The country’s Access to Information Law, approved under the previous government, “is no longer valued or implemented by the Taliban,” Mousavi said. While the commission might eventually continue its operations as an independent directorate or under the Ministry of Information and Culture, it will not have sufficient funds to operate, she added.
More generally, the Taliban has escalated efforts to curb and censor any information that challenges its narrative of peace, stability, and security across the country. Shafi Karimi, an Afghan freelance journalist now in exile in France, told CPJ that Taliban spokesmen, for instance, had declined to provide information about the number of children who lost their lives during the past harsh winter. Ali Sher Shahir, an Afghan journalist currently living in exile in Germany, says that when an explosion struck a high school in a mostly Shia Hazara neighborhood of western Kabul in April, the Taliban refused to provide any information about the blast or the victims. Taliban spokesmen “call us puppet journalists,” says Shahir. “They accuse us of working for the interests of specific countries and of creating propaganda against them.”
Exile journalists who spoke to CPJ agreed that the rise of citizen journalism has helped them counter the Taliban’s restriction on the free flow of information, particularly on social media platforms. “We have received many messages from people in Afghanistan. They want to report with us,” Zahra Joya, chief editor and founder of the women-focused news website Rukhshana Media, told CPJ via video call from a hotel in central London, where she is lodged with 400 other Afghans. Joya, along with other journalists who spoke to CPJ, believes that challenging extensive misinformation and disinformation—from both inside and outside of Afghanistan—is a large part of her mission now.
Still at risk
While hundreds of Afghan journalists are living in exile, reporting remains a privilege: Only a small fraction have been able to continue their work from abroad. Afghanistan International is privately funded, while Rukshana relies on private donations it received through crowdfunding following Kabul’s fall (some journalists there are volunteers).
Karimi, along with three other journalists in France, has spent the last several months trying to raise funds to establish the Afghan Journalists in Exile Network (AJEN), which seeks to cover human rights, women’s rights, and press-freedom issues—topics that are heavily censored within Afghanistan. In addition to supporting journalists who remain in Afghanistan, AJEN would seek to provide opportunities for those who fled their homeland. Exile Afghan journalists in Pakistan, for example, are in urgent need of financial, psychological, and professional support, according to a May 2022 report by Freedom Network, a press freedom group in Pakistan.
One such journalist—who currently goes by the pseudonym Ahmed—told CPJ that he fled to Pakistan in the fall of 2021 after facing numerous threats and a physical attack from one Taliban member. The attacker recognized himdue to his previous reporting, Ahmed says, and beat and chased him while he was taking his sick baby to a clinic shortly after the takeover. Previously, Ahmed had covered the Afghan war for a local broadcaster, as well as for several U.S. government-funded media projects and foreign publications. As Ahmed awaits approval for a special immigrant visa to the United States, a process that will likely take years, he feels it’s unsafe to work as a freelancer in Pakistan. He gets a small, unstable income from assisting foreign reporters conduct short interviews and other research for their reports.
Since August 2021, CPJ has placed Ahmed’s name on numerous evacuation lists of high-risk Afghan journalists shared with foreign countries and regional bodies, but without result. Meanwhile, his family lives with other Afghan refugees in a small rented house, which loses electricity roughly five hours a day. Private education is too expensive for his children, who cannot attend local government schools. They stay at home instead.
Ahmed’s difficulties echo those of other Afghan journalists struggling to start lives in new countries. The Freedom Network’s “Lives in Limbo” report on Afghan journalists in Pakistan found that 63% of respondents, the majority of them experienced journalists, felt they did not have adequate skills to continue working in the profession outside their home country. Most said they had problems with finances, housing, and healthcare. Many have sought assistance from CPJ, saying they cannot get jobs because they don’t have work authorization. Those in neighboring Pakistan have told CPJ they still feel at risk from the Taliban because of their work in the media.
Those journalists who have resettled in the West and continue reporting also face their own set of challenges. They fear Taliban retaliation against not only their sources, but also their family members who remain in Afghanistan. While journalists who spoke to CPJ said that they had not yet observed a case of retaliation against a family member, the perceived threat still looms.
Shaheed, for example, says she wakes up nightly to check WhatsApp, fearing that family members left behind will be harmed in retaliation for her reporting on alleged Taliban atrocities in Panjshir. She also mourns her previous life as a broadcast journalist in Afghanistan, where her reporting impacted a population with a high level of illiteracy. “People would knock on the doors of Moby Group [the company that owns TOLONews] asking to speak only with me,” she said. Now she’s 7,000 miles away, and the only way they can reach her is through cyberspace.
Sonali Dhawan is an Asia researcher at CPJ. Previously, she served as a program officer with the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights and worked with Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International USA.
Waliullah Rahmani is an Asia researcher at the CPJ. From 2016 to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, he was founder and director of Khabarnama Media, one of the first digital media organizations in Afghanistan.
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