After the Afghan Taliban, who are infamous for their restrictions on the media, swept to power, journalists are debating whether to stay or flee.
Farshad Usyan had the option of fleeing his native Afghanistan with colleagues from a news agency where he works as a photojournalist the day after the Taliban seized control of Kabul.
Usyan didn’t have much time to think about it. All he could think about was getting to a safe location so he could later assist his family members in getting to a safe location.
He drove to the airport, hearing gunshots as they passed through crowds outside embassies and at the gates of the country’s only functional airport.
He arrived at the French city, Paris, after a day of waiting inside the airport and a long and disorienting flight through Abu Dhabi. It is his first time living outside of his home nation.
The decision to leave was difficult for a journalist who had spent his entire career covering Afghanistan, he adds.
“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.” FARSHAD USYAN, JOURNALIST
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.” STEVEN BUTLER, ASIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR, CPJ
Despite 20 years of Taliban armed struggle against the US military occupation, Afghanistan’s media business has thrived, thanks to a generation of young Afghans who worked alongside foreign colleagues to permit worldwide news coverage.
Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist, with numerous journalists being targeted for their profession. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 85 local journalists have been assassinated in the last 20 years.
In the 1990s, while the Taliban ruled, there was no independent media. For those who could afford it, access to television and the internet was restricted in order to control the flow of information based on a rigid interpretation of Islamic law. The majority of the news that was available to the general public came from Taliban-controlled stations.
Taliban officials in Kabul have welcomed the initial barrage of media attention this time around. During the Taliban’s first week in power, Zabihullah Mujahid held a press conference to give conciliatory messages pardoning rivals and assuring Afghans that their fundamental rights would be safeguarded.
However, journalists on the ground are still trying to figure out what is doable, according to Ahmed Mengli, whose production business Chinar Media has given coverage of Afghanistan to a number of major news organizations, including Al Jazeera, over the past decade.
Mengli explained that adjusting to the new environment in Kabul has taken time.
He and his colleagues began filming with cell phone cameras instead of heavy and visible television equipment when the Taliban captured Kabul. Simultaneously, they were attempting to establish contacts within the Taliban in order to explain the company’s operations.
“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 is still a risky proposition, since it entails passing through separate checkpoints staffed by Taliban and foreign forces. Using their networks in governments and on the ground, some multinational media were able to evacuate local workers last week.
Others who have tried to flee have had to rely on informal networks of journalists, diplomats, activists, and civil society organizations.
As a result of the disorganized evacuation attempts, Western correspondents who have worked alongside Afghan colleagues have turned to crowdsourcing. Normally intended for logistics to assist reporters inside conflict zones, Facebook and WhatsApp groups have become bulletin boards with information on how to get 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.
Source: AL JAZEERA