Kabul – dark “new normal” for journalists and freedom

by William Horsley, AEJ Media Freedom Representative

Afghan journalists and other media workers are among those in greatest danger of violent reprisals as the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan continues without hindrance. Especially at risk are those who have worked with western media or have for 18 years benefitted from foreign financial support for an (up till now) lively media and information sector.

Right now, hundreds of journalists and their close family members are among countless thousands of Afghans scrambling to obtain safe passage on flights out of the country, amid scenes of chaos and sometimes violence. The shocking lack of foresight or preparation by the USA, the UK, and other governments in the US-led coalition is having dire consequences for many of our colleagues.

So far Western governments have been unequal to the tasks of issuing large numbers of foreign visas all at once, securing the airport, or safely evacuating those approved for travel. The West, as has now become painfully apparent, failed the crucial challenge of establishing a stable and lasting democratic form of government in Afghanistan. That failure risks being compounded by a many-sided humanitarian disaster.

Multiple reports speak of journalists and broadcasters around the country being attacked or going into hiding. Women media workers are in special need of protection against dire punishments and sexual crimes.  The International Federation of Journalists estimates that forced closures of media outlets have already left over 1000 Afghan media workers jobless. (See VOA report.)

Reporters Without Borders has called on the UN Security Council to meet in extraordinary session to address the crisis resulting from the fall of Kabul and the situation of journalists in particular.

Taliban officials arrange a Taliban flag, before a press conference by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, at the Government Media Information Center, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, August 17, 2021 [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]
Taliban put up new flags before press conference. (Photo courtesy of AP)

The Taliban’s televised press conference yesterday announced that media freedom and independence will be respected, an assurance met with widespread scepticism or simple disbelief.

Despite numerous killings and other targeted attacks against journalists in recent years, the combined efforts of Western NGOs and Afghan journalists have resulted in what Freedom House in its Freedom in the World 2021 survey called a “vibrant media sector”, with many TV, radio, and newspaper outlets largely uncensored and capable of carrying a broad range of views. Almost overnight, all that is at risk of being snuffed out.

Now is not the time for recriminations, but for turning solidarity and expressions of goodwill into practical help for Afghan journalists who showed their own society the incalculable value of independent and diverse media, and of exercising free speech even in the face of intolerance and threats.

The AEJ fully supports the IFJ’s initiative to set up an Afghanistan Solidarity Fund to channel urgent support to those journalists by all means possible, and back UK media support for evacuation of both journalists and those who have worked with them.

It also urges European governments to act immediately to provide emergency humanitarian visas, refugee status, and new opportunities abroad to Afghan journalists at a time of extreme need, both for themselves and their familes. That is especially true for women, whose plight was reported in the London Guardian this week: “We see silence filled with fear.” 

An open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called on him to honour his promise to evacuate them.

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