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Taliban

Taliban officials hold a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 17, 2021. (Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

US Urged to Aid Afghan Journalists Seeking Safe Passage Amid Reports of Taliban Beatings

"This is a moral imperative for the United States," said James Risen of the Press Freedom Defense Fund.

Brett Wilkins

As hundreds of Afghan journalists attempt to flee Afghanistan amid the Taliban's reconquest of their nation, two U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday joined international press freedom advocates in calling on the United States to do more to ensure the safety of media workers, and for the Taliban to honor their vow to not harm them.

Reports Wednesday of Afghan journalists being assaulted by Taliban fighters amid deadly repression of dissent heightened the sense of alarm inside and outside Afghanistan.

According to Ariana News, a reporter and photographer covering an anti-Taliban protest in Jalalabad were beaten by Taliban fighters, who opened fire on demonstrators, reportedly killing three people. The outlet—one of the nation's largest—also reported that another journalist was beaten by Taliban forces at Kabul's international airport on Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that "since the Taliban took power in the country earlier this week, militants have searched the homes of at least four journalists and news agency employees."

The state-owned broadcaster Deutsche Welle on Wednesday urged the German government to evacuate its Afghan employees, who network officials said "are under acute threat" and at risk of "torture and death." 

Karl Jüsten, head of DW's broadcasting council, said, "We know reliably that the Taliban have already searched the homes of three of our employees looking for them."

In a Wednesday letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) wrote that Afghan media workers "are in imminent danger."

"Safe passage should be offered to all individuals employed by media organizations," the lawmakers asserted. "We cannot resign those individuals... to violence and death. We must see them to safe harbor."

While some Afghan journalists rushed to destroy as many traces of their professional existence as possible during the Taliban's lightning takeover of their country, others scrambled for elusive safety. CPJ reported Monday that it has "registered and vetted" nearly 300 journalists seeking safe passage, while the cases of hundreds more are under review.

CPJ noted that Afghan journalists working for U.S. media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have been unable to leave Afghanistan.

"For the past 20 years, brave Afghan colleagues have worked tirelessly to help... share news and information from the region with the global public," the publishers of the three papers said Monday in a rare joint plea for U.S. assistance. "Now those colleagues and their families are trapped in Kabul, their lives in peril."

The publishers asked for "facilitated and protected access" to a secure airport, "safe passage through a protected access gate" at the airport, and "facilitated air movement out of the country."

CPJ executive director Joel Simon said Monday that "the United States has a special responsibility to Afghan journalists who created a thriving and vibrant information space and covered events in their country for international media. The Biden administration can and should do all within its power to protect press freedom and stand up for the rights of the vulnerable Afghan reporters, photographers, and media workers."

Since 2001, 53 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, according to CPJ.

Echoing Simon's statement, James Risen, director of First Look Institute's Press Freedom Defense Fund (PFDF), said Wednesday that "the United States must do all in its power to secure the safe exit of Afghans who worked for the U.S. and other Western news media organizations over the past 20 years in Afghanistan."

"Nonprofit organizations are now scrambling to rescue the translators and others who provided critical support to American reporters for the last two decades, but it is critical that the U.S. continues to keep the Hamid Karzai International Airport open to allow for their safe passage," Risen added. "This is a moral imperative for the United States."

"The United States must do all in its power to secure the safe exit of Afghans who worked for the U.S. and other Western news media organizations."
—James Risen, PFDF

Risen's statement followed a Tuesday press conference in Kabul at which Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid vowed to respect press freedom and allow journalists—including women—to continue working.

"We are committed to the media within our cultural frameworks," Mujahid said. "Private media can continue to be free and independent. They can continue their activities."

According to Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) most recent World Press Freedom Index, Afghanistan ranked 122nd out of 180 nations in press freedom in 2021.

Mujahid stressed that while journalists will be free to work, "nothing should be against Islamic values," and that "the media should not work against national values, against national unity."

Separately, Mujahid told RSF that the Taliban "will respect freedom of the press, because media reporting will be useful to society and will be able to help correct the leaders' errors."

During the Taliban's previous rule between 1996 and 2001, all media were banned except Voice of Sharia, which according to RSF "broadcast nothing but propaganda and religious programs."

Women were also barred from media—and nearly all—employment. Asked by RSF what was to become of the more than 1,700 Afghan women who work as journalists and in other media jobs, Mujahid said, "Afghan society is Muslim, as you know... Women journalists are also Muslim."

"We will, of course, establish a legal framework for questions of clothing—the use of the hijab—and so that women are not bothered in the street and at their place of work," he added. "But, until these written provisions are enacted, I ask them to stay at home, without stress and without fear. I assure them they will go back to their jobs."

Mujahid's assurances were met with intense skepticism from Afghan and international observers.

"Right now, the Taliban are doing nothing against us but tomorrow?" one Kabul-based journalist asked RSF. "What will happen when the foreigners are gone and their government is installed?"

Steven Butler, CPJ's Asia program coordinator, said in a statement that "the Taliban needs to stand by its public commitment to allow a free and independent media at a time when Afghanistan's people desperately need accurate news and information."

Butler added that "the Taliban must cease searching the homes of journalists, commit to ending the use of violence against them, and allow them to operate freely and without interference."

In one notable development, women at TOLO News, Afghanistan's first 24/7 news network, returned to work after the Taliban takeover. On Tuesday, TOLO anchor Beheshta Arghand interviewed Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, a Taliban spokesperson, with the network claiming it was the first time an Afghan woman has interviewed a senior Taliban official inside Afghanistan.

"We said to them, look, a female is going to interview you," TOLO News founder Saad Mohseni told The Guardian. "And they said fine. They could have easily have said screw you—they run the country, they can do whatever they want."


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