“[Media] is very vulnerable, comparing with other things like schools, like universities, even like telecommunication systems and infrastructures. So the main concern is that if the Taliban is coming, what would be the discipline of the freedom of expression and those who are working with it?”
More than a month before the US withdrawal led to the collapse of the country, Center for Media at Risk Postdoctoral Fellow Richard Stupart spoke with media activists Najiba Ayubi and Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar about what the future may hold for Afghan media practitioners. Foreshadowing some of what was to come, they reflect on the dangers of the Taliban as they appeared at the time and the importance of international support if a meaningful public sphere is to survive in Afghanistan post-withdrawal. Overtaken by events as they actually happened, the podcast is a reminder of how unthinkable complete abandonment was to Afghan media leaders only a month before.
Najiba Ayubi is Managing Director of The Killid Group, a non-profit media network that includes two of Afghanistan’s most popular magazines (Killid Weekly and Mursal Weekly) and eight radio stations with a total of 12 million listeners.
Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar is a veteran journalist of 23 years and Managing Director of NAI, one of Afghanistan’s largest media development and journalist training organizations.
Richard Stupart is a postdoctoral fellow working on the practices and normative ethics of journalism of conflict. His current work explores the work of journalists reporting on conflict and its effects in Sudan, where he is interested in the role of affect/emotion and tactics of coping with risk by journalists working in conflict contexts, as well as practical ethical tensions that occur while reporting on the effects of the country’s war. Follow him on Twitter @wheretheroad
Former President George W. Bush: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against Al-Qaeda terrorist training camps, and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
More than two weeks ago, I gave Taliban leaders a series of clear and specific demands. Close terrorist training camps, handover leaders of the Al-Qaeda network and return all foreign nationals, including American citizens, unjustly detained in your country. None of these demands were met and now the Taliban will pay a price.
Richard Stupart: This is Media at Risk, a podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication, at the University of Pennsylvania. My name is Richard Stupart and I’m a post-doctoral fellow at the school.
On the 7th of October 2001, almost 20 years ago, the United States began a war in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. It was a war that would last so long, that in 2018, the first children of 9/11’s America became old enough to fight in that war. The US invasion, rapidly unseen to the country’s Taliban government. The profound effects for journalists and media workers, for which the public’s fear suddenly opened up.
Najiba Ayubi is presently a director at The Killid Group, which operates local radio stations across Afghanistan. She’s received several awards for her media freedom work, including being named as one of Reporters Without Borders, Information Heroes, and receiving the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. This is her reflecting on what changed.
Najiba Ayubi: It was an exciting time for Afghan people, because a lot of pressure from Taliban was on the personal freedom of the people. We had no right to go to schools, especially women, no work for women, no work for journalism, no free media, no work for journalists, no free personal freedom, nothing, and no music, no TV, no photograph. You think you are living 1000 year back, like this. When Taliban went, it was a really excited time for Afghan people, and some people was dancing on the streets. Then when the government announced that the freedom of expression, and a lot of freedom come on the country, a lot of media started work slowly, but a lot.
RS: Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar is presently the managing director of Nai, one of Afghanistan’s largest and most active media development agencies. Now a journalist at 23 years of experience, he was a much greener reporter in Kabul at the time that everything changed. This is his account of naively running into trouble with US military contractors and during one of his early assignments.
Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar: I do remember when I was a journalist here, there was a national program called National Solidarity Program, which was funded by World Bank. And there was an office nearby our Central Bank, and everyone was saying it was the World Bank. So I was covering the National Solidarity Program and I was tasked to go and interview World Bank, Afghanistan, country director regarding the National Solidarity Program. And I went that place, I learned to be the old one. I entered to the premises and it was [inaudible 00:03:38], just nearby our bank. So I was the first journalist faced with violence and it was not because all the problem was of that dying, poor people. That was my problem, too, that whatever kind of research I went and unanswered to a military organization. So we started this way. It was hard. It was new.
RS: With military forces in the US coalition, pushing Taliban out of many of the countries, major cities and districts. A free media flourished in many parts of Afghanistan, assisted along the way with several international partners. So a natural alliance with the country’s media creators.
NA: In a country, which we experienced for more than 40 years war, and now we and our international partners reach to some conclusion that we need peace. And we have to do peace.
Media of Afghanistan is an agent of peace. Each corner of Afghanistan, if you want to broadcast your peace message, you have to use Afghan media because Afghan people doesn’t know English or Russia for some other languages. No?
AMK: What else, international community, especially very honestly United States, it was not possible to have the success story of… Maybe it was hard for us, but we tried our best. Of course, we packed out the problems and issues, but the path was paved by international community, through their support.
RS: Over the two decades that the US fought in the country, it’s true presence would frequently be adjusted up and down as the political winds in Washington changed. In early 2021, however, major US involvement finally came to an end.
President Joe Biden: I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan, two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth. After consulting closely with our allies and partners, with our military leaders and intelligence personnel, with our diplomats and our development experts, with the Congress and the Vice President, as well as Mr. Ghani and many others around the world. I concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war, it’s time for American troops to come home.
RS: For the media in Afghanistan. Biden’s announcement was an unhappy, if not unexpected, addition to an already fraught situation for journalists. One, which pose real threats to building an open public sphere.
NA: But we have to first talk about the threats, which it was increased with the Afghan journalists. Even before of that, from one year back up to now, we lost 16 people, 16 men and women journalists, and a lot of other threats to the others. A number of journalists leave Afghanistan because of threats, and number of women journalists leave their job because of security issues. And these are all things we face, and we was very happy that there is some support from internationals. We are living in a city that a lot of internationals are here, and this and that.
Finally, we hear that they are leaving and their job is not complete yet. In 2004, 2005, I went to Herat. I traveled to Herat like this, with this dress. I sat in the airplane, went to Herat. I sat in the car and I went to Khost Province, which is 300 kilometers. But now I can’t walk in my city. I can’t walk to a shop in my city.
And 2020, I am a 21. I am using armed car, which I hate that, because it is a war between me and my people. And I doesn’t like it, but I have to do this, otherwise, they will kill me in two days.
RS:In the months, since the withdrawal announcement, Taliban forces have gained an alarming amount of ground. Captured coalition military assets and accepted scores of defections from the Afghan National Army. Their rapid battlefield progress has sparked concerns that the US withdrawal may come to resemble the country’s disastrous departure from Saigon, at the end of the Vietnam War. From Najiba and Abdul Mujeeb, the effects of Taliban control in many of the countries’ districts are already being acutely felt.
AMK: Taliban is closing in, if it does not day by day, monthly, and to controlling more places. For example, I have seen a report. They just captured, or got the control of 19 districts last month in May. So if it is going on like this, then I think that lots of achievements would be destroyed and we’ll be going into the wind.
But one of the main thing that is a success story is media and freedom of expression, which Taliban indeed is against. It is very vulnerable comparing with other things like schools, like university, even like telecommunication system and infrastructures.
They are against media, they are against journalists. I’m sure, Taliban is getting the control, be the journalist, either hidden to yourself at home, if they are not having the opportunity to escape, or escape from the places. So the main concern is that, if Taliban is coming, what would be the discipline of the freedom of expression and those who are working with?
NA: I ask, and in one of the woman meeting, I asked from one American agent that, “Do you feel like you succeeded in Afghanistan? Or you fail here?” But for me, as a woman journalist, they really failed in Afghanistan. Their strategy was not work.
AMK: In Kabul, for example, places like south that we have more incidents, but the stories are less. It means that limitation and pressure is more on that area. We have more, kind of seemingly Taliban countries. It is not only in south or in west and east, but some places in central area, like Ghazni, some places in central area like Parwan or Badghis, north of Kabul.
So I think, as much as we are going forward from the center, that’s much, we are more limited regarding the freedom of expression. Not only with the central, with the capital city of Kabul, it is the same with the central cities of the other provinces, like Balkh, in Mazar-i-Sharif, like Herat, in Herat like Kandahar in, in the Kandahar city itself.
You can report that this somehow from Kandahar city, but it is not possible to report from Daman, one of the district. Or, you can report from Balkh, from Mazar-i-Sharif, that’s the capital city, the central city or the provincial capital, but it is not possible to report from [foreign language 00:12:34]. It is plus 20 kilo mile from the city, out of sight of the city. So the capitol of the country is likely to be experiencing freedom of expression, some not free, but in a rural area, now these are the spot.
NA: Actually a few months back, we had experienced, when the threats in the Helmand Province increased. The journalists committee bring all Helmand journalist to Kabul, because their life was in danger. And two journalist was killed here, because of that, others received threats and the Afghan Safety Journalist Organization bring all the journalists to Kabul.
Then we had no reporting place in Afghanistan. At that place, when journalist is not here, they can’t do anything to report off the war. Government and Taliban can do anything, any crime, anything, and no one is there to report this.
RS: Nevertheless, as the withdrawal date approaches, Najiba and Abdul Mujeeb retain a cautious optimism that a more open society once discovered. Maybe more resilient than pessimists assume, provided that a military withdrawal is not an abandonment of the country.
AMK: Yeah, I think first of all, we need a kind of, guarantees that the international community could get, because a guarantee that Taliban will respect any achievement regarding human rights, infrastructures, including women rights, and so on and so forth. A kind of commitment that, if they are not accountable for that commitment, there would be a power to force them to be accountable.
NA: We have some strategy for different situation. If A happened, we do this. If B happened, we do that. If C, we do that. For all of these, we have our discussion internally and we have something written, but I think, I myself, I think ABC will not happen. Something else will happen, which is, we are not prepared for that, because I know the nature of Afghanistan.
Maybe it go very smart, with a little bit difficulties and for few months, or for one or two years that the issues will solve, and we will come back to this stage. No? Maybe we have to leave Afghanistan far away. And we are prepared for all of them to operate from outside. This generation grew up. If we have a 20 years old man, he, from the beginning of his time, he had at the home TV and radio. And these radio and TV talking about different issues about corruption, about a lot of complaints, many things.
They grew with this situation and nobody can stop it for a long time. Maybe for two, three months, at least. They kind of stop everything, but often, something happened, which they are not expecting, because nobody can keep up a dish with a lot of power on the fire. It will explode someday.
And that’s why I’m very hopeful for our future, because I never expect that I did, and my friends did in Afghanistan, and my colleagues did in Afghanistan, it be free and we put all these things to the water. We paid for that. We paid energy. We paid our life. I paid, my youngest time, the best years of my life, and I didn’t want all these things to waste it.
RS: This episode of Media at Risk is recorded and edited by Richard Stupart. Barbie Zelizer is the Director of the Center for Media at Risk, learn more at www.ascmediarisk.org
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