Afghan journalists begin uncertain chapter under Taliban rule
Journalists question whether to stay or leave, after the Afghan Taliban – known for its curbs on media – sweeps to power.
The day after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Farshad Usyan had the option to evacuate from his native Afghanistan with colleagues from a news agency where he works as a photojournalist.
Usyan had little time to mull it over. All he could think about was reaching a safe place so he could later help his family members find safety, too.
He headed to the airport, listening to the sounds of gunfire as they drove by crowds outside embassies and at the gates of the country’s only functioning airport.
After a day waiting inside the airport, and then a long and disorienting trip through Abu Dhabi, he arrived in the French capital, Paris. It is the first time he has ever lived outside his own country.
For a journalist who has spent his entire career covering Afghanistan, the decision to leave was a painful one, he says.
“I was keen to stay back and to try to work more, but it seemed impossible,” Usyan told Al Jazeera by telephone from Paris, where he is staying while he figures out his next move.
The withdrawal of American and NATO troops and subsequent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan have fuelled scenes of chaos and confusion over the past 10 days, as many Afghans desperately look for ways out of the country.
My friends who wanted to stay in Afghanistan and wanted to continue their work, nowadays they’re asking me how they can get out
Among those trying to evacuate are Afghan journalists who fear for their security with the Taliban in control. During the previous Taliban regime (1996-2001), the press was heavily controlled, and independent journalism was almost impossible, journalists and rights groups say.
“My friends who wanted to stay in Afghanistan and wanted to continue their work, nowadays they’re asking me how they can get out,” Usyan said. “They don’t feel safe anymore.”
On Thursday, Ziar Khan Yaad, a journalist from Tolo News, tweeted that he was beaten by the Taliban in Kabul while reporting, and his cameras, technical equipment and mobile phone were taken away by Taliban fighters.
“I still don’t know why they behaved like that and suddenly attacked me.
“The issue has been shared with Taliban leaders. However, the perpetrators have not yet been arrested, which is a serious threat to freedom of expression,” he tweeted.
‘Everyone wants to leave’
The Taliban has a history of targeting journalists and restricting media coverage. Despite recent reassurances from the group that it will respect press freedoms, many in the media are not convinced.
“The Taliban does not inspire a lot of trust among journalists at this point,” said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the US-based media rights watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
CPJ has received more than 5,000 emergency messages from Afghans asking for help. The organisation is working to facilitate evacuations for those at high risk, especially women and journalists from minority communities.
This outflux of media workers encapsulates a fear among journalists that their work will not be possible under Taliban rule.
The Taliban does not inspire a lot of trust among journalists at this point.
The media industry in Afghanistan has flourished despite 20 years of Taliban armed rebellion against the US military occupation, powered by a generation of young Afghans who worked alongside foreign colleagues to facilitate international news coverage.
Afghanistan is considered one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist, with many media workers targeted for their work. At least 85 local journalists have been killed in the past 20 years, according to Reporters Without Borders.
When the Taliban was in control in the 1990s, independent media was non-existent. Television and internet use – for those who could afford it – were curtailed to control the flow of information based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. News that was available to the masses was mostly from Taliban-controlled channels.
This time around, Taliban officials in Kabul have welcomed the initial onslaught of media coverage. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid held a press conference during the group’s first week in control to issue conciliatory messages pardoning rivals and reassuring Afghans that their fundamental rights would be protected.
But journalists on the ground are still trying to understand what is possible, said Ahmed Mengli, whose production company Chinar Media has provided coverage of Afghanistan for the past decade to numerous international media outlets, including Al Jazeera.
Adjusting to the new conditions in Kabul has been a process, Mengli said.
After the Taliban claimed Kabul, he and his team started filming with mobile phone cameras instead of bulky and conspicuous television equipment. Simultaneously, they were trying to make connections inside the Taliban to explain the company’s work.
“We had to communicate, and we had to know them. Because every single fighter in the street will ask you: ‘Who are you and what are you doing?’”
Since then, Mengli has met with Taliban officials who have reassured him he can continue his coverage as long as he reports truthfully. The uncertainty of the Taliban takeover, however, has many members of his 25-person staff looking for ways out.
Most of the people Mengli has trained as journalists are young men who have lived through years of war and would take any opportunity they can for a new start.
“It is a challenge,” he said. “Right now, everyone wants to leave.”
Leaving Afghanistan, though, is also not easy at the moment.
‘This is the time’
Getting to the Kabul airport remains an extremely dangerous task, which requires people to pass through separate checkpoints manned by Taliban and foreign forces. Some international publications were able to evacuate local staff last week by using their networks in governments and on the ground.
Other journalists seeking to leave have had to rely on informal networks of journalists, diplomats, activists and civil society groups who are trying to help.
The disorganisation of evacuation efforts has also led to crowdsourcing among foreign correspondents who have worked alongside Afghan colleagues. Facebook and WhatsApp groups normally reserved for logistics to help reporters inside conflict zones have turned into bulletin boards with information on getting people out.
“It is something personal for me,” said Ruslan Trad, a journalist in Bulgaria who started collecting information of people in Afghanistan for evacuation lists through a colleague in Europe.
Some people involved in evacuation efforts worry that sharing specifics could imperil the security of family members and colleagues of journalists who remain in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, Trad, who has seen the repercussions of war while covering security in Syria and other conflict zones, feels the message of camaraderie behind this teamwork is important. “My opinion is that we need the visibility to show that there are such efforts from people who care.”
Few places have been on the international media’s radar longer than Afghanistan, after decades of foreign intervention there. The effort journalists from around the world have put into helping colleagues in Afghanistan is something the CPJ’s Butler has not seen in other contexts.
“A lot of [international] journalists have rotated in and out of Afghanistan over these 20 years and they’ve had contact with local Afghan media,” he said. “They created a thriving media environment and people react to that. These are our brothers and sisters.”
Still, it is Afghans who have to weigh the risks of continuing to practise journalism in that country. As more international publications evacuate their staff from Afghanistan, local journalists who remain on the ground are more vital than ever.
For some, that adds to a feeling of responsibility.
“We should keep fighting and we should keep trying to do our jobs,” Mengli said. “This is Afghanistan we are talking about. When we started this business, we knew that we would be reporting war, we would be working in hostile environments. This is what we do.”
Mengli has told his staff he will do everything he can to help them leave if they choose to, but he says he will also stand by those who remain.
“If you want to stay, I’ve got a business running, I’m going to pay you. We’re going to do the work,” Mengli said. “This is [the] time to work.”
For Usyan, making peace with the decision to leave the country has been equally difficult.
“If I was alone, I would have stayed back in Afghanistan, but I thought maybe if I come to this side I can help other family members to get out,” he said.
He has also been working with his networks to help people find safe passage as the window for international evacuations closes and an uncertain chapter for journalists in his country begins.
“For Afghans, none of them would be safe,” he said.