Brussels (Brussels Morning) Ping, ping – every few seconds the phone sounds, every few seconds another desperate plea for help from Afghan journalists in fear of their lives arrives via WhatsApp, Messenger SMS or email.
Since the Taliban swept to power in August, the International Federation of Journalists has received tens of thousands of increasingly distressed calls for help.
The messages come from journalists in hiding, living in terrible conditions, afraid to go out in the streets, from women news anchors banned from working, with no money and with children to feed, from reporters who have fled their home region and who are now moving from house to house in a strange city, struggling just to survive.
Some say they are contemplating suicide, killing themselves and their family, rather than allowing them to fall in to the hands of the Taliban, others talk of the mental health trauma they are suffering.
An increasing number of journalists report being attacked, detained and threatened by Taliban officials. In a survey last month conducted by Afghanistan’s National Journalists Union, more than 70% said they had received threats in the first month after the Taliban came to power. House-to-house searches have driven journalists critical of the Taliban into hiding.
With the withdrawal of foreign troops, development funding for media dried up and advertising revenues vanished.
A combination of financial hardship, telecommunications shutdowns, staff having fled, women being barred from working and strict Taliban rules on what journalists can cover have forced the closure of 153 media. That’s two-thirds of the country’s media outlets, including all of those that served women’s rights.
Unemployment among journalists is around 75%, but almost 98% for women journalists.
Nafisa’s story is typical. She worked as a reporter for a local TV station which focused on promoting human rights and, in particular, women’s rights in an area which has always had a strong Taliban presence. She received many warnings and death threats from terrorist groups and local Taliban officials.
She told us: “They warned me about kidnapping not only me, but also my family. Besides the threats, I was also attacked. In 2020, bombs were planted at my door, but fortunately it was a failed attempt, but they did not stop. The second time they planted a bomb on the side of the road, where my car was completely destroyed, but I managed to escape death. They haven’t stopped. The Taliban subjected me to sexual harassment, bullying and torture threats.
“Several times my children were not allowed to go to school. They persecuted them and gave them warnings, saying: ‘If we catch your mum and dad, we will kill them’. Because of all these warnings, my children really got scared, cried, worried, and said that we would no longer go to school.”
She listed a litany of other attacks, which have left her suffering mental and physical health issues: “I have become more fearful, depressed. Almost every day I experience nightmares and I am afraid that one day the Taliban would come and kill me and my family. I am really helpless and hopeless. I cannot live like others and am unable to do anything for my family.”
Nafisa has gone in to hiding. “We have to change our location daily. Living such a life is very hard.”
We have been deluged with stories like this.
Faced with this crisis, the solidarity of journalists’ and their unions and associations across the world has been inspiring – lobbying authorities to issue emergency humanitarian visas, helping to organise evacuations, raising funds to help provide safe shelter and funds for those who have had to flee.
We are proud of the work we, along with so many other organisations, have done and the successes we have had. Every single one is incredible. But all our efforts are just a drop in the ocean faced with a humanitarian and media crisis on this scale.
We can’t issue visas, we don’t own the planes that can help those who want to leave. We can’t fund the required number of safe houses or provide the funds necessary to help media survive.
Governments must step up
Governments need to step up. Restrictive visa schemes must be eased, humanitarian funds provided quickly and media development assistance re-targeted to help sustain crucial news outlets.
As if to illustrate the failure of the western powers to adequately address this crisis, applications for emergency visas for Afghans to France may take up to nine months to process. The UK resettlement scheme is not even open yet for applications. The US P2 programme can only be applied for from outside Afghanistan – but no assistance will be given to help people leave. The process can take 9-12 months during which time you cannot work in a third country. Canada has processed just 10% of the much-publicised 40,000 people the government said they would accept.
Neighbouring countries shut borders regularly and have prevented access for those who do not have a visa or a passport. Many Afghans do not own a passport and while these may be legitimate travel requirements in normal times, in this crisis they run the risk of enabling human rights abuses.
Amnesty International refers to the process as being “like an obstacle course”
Putting lives at risk
And it is not just that they are complicated and lack clarity but they are driving people to give up and risk their lives by trying to smuggle themselves out of the country.
That means many journalists and their families are today trapped in Iran, Uzbekistan, Pakistan without legal documents and at risk of being deported back to Afghanistan. And deportations are happening – Iran alone deported 58,000 undocumented Afghans between 27 August and 9 September.
Or they manage to stay but face having to live in intolerable poverty and fear. One woman who managed to get to Pakistan sent us pictures of where she was living – a guest house with rain coming through the roof, a broken window and facing sexual harassment as a woman alone in a foreign country.
Thanks to the funds raised by our International Safety Fund, we were able to help her relocate at least – but she is one of many in need.
And so, every day we continue to receive a flood of messages from frightened individuals asking us if their case has been resolved. And there is a growing anger and frustration at us because people are scared, in poverty, separated from families and they cannot understand why the international community appears to have abandoned them.
Afghan journalists face a real and present danger. They deserve our support.
- Make journalists and media workers a priority category for resettlement
- Expedite humanitarian visas to enable those applying to do so in safety
- End forcible deportations and returns for undocumented refugees
- End visa requirements until the security situation allows for the reopening of embassies in Kabul
- Provide the resources necessary to ensure applications can be dealt with in a timely way
- Retarget development funds to support independent media enabling them to pay wages and to provide support to media in exile.
These are dark days for journalism in Afghanistan. The Taliban accept no dissent from their vision. They want only an official media churning out propaganda.
We believe firmly that independent journalism has the ability to shine a light into that darkness. Despite the threats, there are brave journalists still striving to hold the new power in Afghanistan to account. They desperately need our support.