Fri, 14 June 2024

Those we must not leave behind

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The UK government has failed in its task to rescue Afghans. Here MARTIN BRIGHT, Index on Censorship’s editor-at-large, speaks to members of a new network aiming to help those whose lives are in imminent danger.

Ali Bezhad, alias AEJ correspondent in Kabul Faisal Bardot. His family was exfiltrated in August 2022. The AEJ helped fundraise the evacuation of his family of six to Germany. They are now prospering (and struggling valiantly with a new language).

ALI BEHZAD first contacted Index in September 2021. He was writing from Kabul, where the Taliban had been in power for a month, and he was desperate. He had been working for a refugee news agency and Tamadon TV, a station that broadcast to the minority Shia population of Afghanistan. With the arrival of the new regime, he faced a bleak future.

His message was grim: “I have opted to approach you in order to seek protection from security threats against me. By consideration of increasing danger and as the result of death threats that I have received, my life is in jeopardy.”

He explained he was in danger because of his journalism and human rights activism, but also because he was from the minority Hazara community, which was facing a potential genocide by the incoming regime. In his email, Behzad called for solidarity from those who, like him, “seek the truth and advocate for free speech”.

In the early weeks of the Taliban takeover – in common with many other free expression, human rights and media organisations – Index was deluged by requests for help from journalists-at-risk who were trapped in Afghanistan. 

Index initially set up a small support group on the secure messaging app Signal to help co-ordinate support, though we explained that we were in no position to exfiltrate people from the country. Verification was a serious problem. An open letter published by the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) in October 2021 claimed that wealthy individuals in Afghanistan were posing as journalists while genuine reporters were being left behind.

“This is great persecution for Afghanistan’s well known journalists, who have spent many years in the most difficult of conditions, feeling responsible for their country and its people, for institutionalising freedom of expression,” it said.

This is a genocide, but no one knows, so we have to raise our voice

Even organisations which specialised in working directly with journalists-at-risk, such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and PEN International, were struggling with the sheer volume of requests for help. Another problem was the risk of raising false hope. After the initial evacuation mission, it became increasingly clear that it was near impossible for Afghan journalists to get out of the country, and press freedom organisations were forced to send out standard email responses directing people to international humanitarian assistance programmes.

To this day, the advice from RSF, one of the most effective organisations during this crisis, is stark: “Unfortunately, the needs of Afghan journalists far outweigh the international assistance programmes currently available… We regret that because of the incredibly high number of assistance requests from Afghanistan, our team cannot offer individual consultations. Inquiries via email, phone, social media channels or Messenger will NOT be answered. Requests or documents that you email to RSF will not be processed.”

And yet, thanks to the efforts of some committed individuals and dedicated organisations, a handful of journalists have managed to get out of Afghanistan – mainly to Germany and Canada, as well as to Spain, France and Kosovo.

Ali Behzad is one of them. The AEJ took up his case and worked closely with the Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), an NGO based in Bonn and sponsored by the German Ministry for Economic Development. In August 2022, almost exactly a year after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, he and his wife – a TV camerawoman – and his two small children were relocated to Bavaria via Pakistan. Since arriving in Germany, his wife has given birth to a daughter. Behzad spoke to Index from his new home near Schweinfurt, where he and his family are living in a castle as guests of the German government. He knows it will not be easy finding work in Germany – although he has already begun taking intensive German lessons – and he has no illusions about what he has left behind.

“The situation has not changed. The Taliban didn’t change,” he said. “They are not allowing journalists, especially women journalists, to work, and any output is censored by the Taliban. Most people lost their jobs and cannot support their families.”

Sparked by his story, we decided to reactivate Index’s Signal support group and find out what had happened to the other members. The stories could not be more contrasting.

Freshta Hemmati, a young female journalist not long out of university, had just received news that she had won a scholarship for a master’s degree in Astana, Kazakhstan, when the Taliban swept into Kabul. Aged just 25, she seized an opportunity to leave the country, but it meant leaving her family behind. While in Astana, she wrote her thesis comparing the situation for women journalists during two decades of democracy with life under the Taliban. In 2022, she was granted asylum in Canada and now works as the CEO of the Afghan Journalists Support Organisation to help colleagues still at risk and alert the world to the deteriorating situation.

“If we don’t get the international community united over this, we will not be able to stand against terrorism. This is a genocide, but no one knows, so we have to raise our voice. There is lots of condemnation, but no action. Just do something.”

While Hemmati and Behzad are building new lives in exile, others have not been so fortunate. Hasib (not his real name) was working for a scientific publication that also promoted the rights of women prior to August 2021. The arrival of the Taliban meant he immediately lost his job and he is now in hiding from the authorities. He told Index: “In order to continue living, and because of threats against journalists, I buy and collect old iron, plastic and used water and Pepsi bottles in the back alleys of Kabul and sell them again.” He has applied to evacuation schemes with various Western institutions, but with no success.

“Afghanistan has no future”

One female TV presenter in the group, a familiar face on Afghan TV, was determined to stay and fight for the rights of women journalists. In the autumn of 2021, Saira sent us regular footage of demonstrations against the regime, with protesters demanding that women be permitted to go to school and university and not banned from the workplace. By February 2023, the tone of her messages had changed. “I can’t work,” she said. “The restrictions for us ladies are increasing every day. Afghanistan has no future. There is a lot of oppression.” A sad face emoji followed and then three simple words: “I lost hope.”

Publishing her real name would put her life at risk. Even for journalists who have escaped to neighbouring countries, the situation can be perilous. In January, we were contacted by another female news anchor, Mahtab, who had fled to Islamabad in October 2021. She wrote: “During this period, I have gone through hell – Pakistan is little different to Afghanistan. Here, too, there are Taliban sympathisers. There is no safety, no job opportunities, inflation is high. There is much discrimination, racism and prejudice in the society and there is hostility towards Afghan people in general – and women in particular.”

A month later, we heard from a reporter and women’s rights activist who had also fled to Pakistan, where she was living in destitution with a tiny baby. As a journalist she had covered Taliban war crimes and violations of women’s rights, and as a women’s rights activist she had publicly criticised the Taliban on public platforms. After a series of death threats, Sahar had no option other than fleeing Kabul. She told us: “Now it’s more than one year that I’m without any work and any income with my five-month-old baby boy. My economic situation is too bad, I really need your help and kindness.”

Around the time we heard from Mahtab and Sahar, we also received news from the Afghan Journalists Support Organisation that the Pakistani authorities had arrested a number of Afghan journalists in Islamabad. Although they were later released, there remains a concern that exiles may face deportation back to Kabul when their visas expire. The very fact that they have left the country would put them at risk on their return. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the crackdown on independent news outlets continues.

84% of women journalists have lost their jobs

In February, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the Taliban was restricting Afghan access to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In the same month, Tamadon TV – where Behzad used to work – was raided by armed men who beat reporters and security staff. Taliban officials in Helmand province also banned all media outlets from distributing videos and photographs, and independent media in Parwan province was ordered to fall in line with the Taliban’s Bakhtar News Agency.

The Nai-Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, a free expression NGO, has reported that half of all radio stations in the country have closed. The outlook is grim for anyone who cares about a free media for Afghanistan, and especially so for women. RSF has reported that 84% of women journalists have lost their jobs and that there could be as few as 39 journalists in total now working in Kabul.

But all is not yet completely lost. Salma Niazi, who fled Afghanistan last year, set up The Afghan Times in September 2022 in Islamabad, using her personal savings. She runs a team of five female journalists, writing in Pashtun and English, three of whom are still working undercover in Afghanistan.

Recent stories included a report on the arrest of women’s rights activist Narges Sadat in Kabul, a feature on child marriage and a news story about the mental health problems among female students unable to attend university.

Another, Rukhshana Media, was set up in November 2020 by Hazara journalist Zahra Joya, who now runs the organisation from exile in London. Rukhshana Media received the Marie Colvin Award at the British Journalism Awards in 2021 and Joya was named as one of Time’s 12 Women of the Year in 2022. Writing in Index just after the fall of Kabul, Joya’s colleague Zahra Nader spoke of her nightmare watching the events of 15 August unfold, but also of her determination to report “what women have lost – and what they continue to lose – as the new regime expands its power”.

Afghan-Canadian journalist Zahra Nader, editor-in-chief of Zan Times, which covers human rights violations in Afghanistan, speaks at UN Security Council Open Debate, October 2022

She has been as good as her word. Based in Toronto, Nader set up her own publication, Zan Times, in August 2022 to report on human rights in Afghanistan. Speaking at a recent Canadian Journalists for Free Expression gala, where she received the Kathy Gannon Legacy Award from the Coalition for Women in Journalism, she said: “The truth that we cover these days is brutal. It burns to the bone. It traumatises you. It is a nightmare that haunts us even in daylight. Yet some refuse to accept loss at the hands of the Taliban.”

She went on to pay tribute to her female colleagues on the ground in Afghanistan, saying: “They endure the brutal and traumatising reality of life under Taliban rule, knowing that if the Taliban caught them then they would be tortured, imprisoned, and god knows what would happen to them.”

Since the Taliban entered Kabul, Index has been campaigning for safe passage of Afghan writers and artists. In September 2021, we organised an open letter to The Times with our friends from Good Chance Theatre to urge the UK government to provide refuge for those under direct threat. This plea was signed by more than 80 prominent figures from the arts and media. 

The letter recognised that the past two decades had been a golden age of creativity in Afghanistan and a period of political dissent and relative freedom for the media. “With the Taliban takeover of the country, this rich legacy is in imminent peril,” the letter stated. “We now have a duty to those artists, writers and film-makers who will be silenced if we do not act immediately.”

At the time, it was felt that simply offering refuge would not be enough, and the letter went on: “We also call on those in positions of influence in the creative industries to help those who have escaped to continue their vital work and safeguard the culture of Afghanistan for future generations.” Little did those signing the letter know that so few journalists, let alone writers and artists, would find refuge in the UK. And that’s despite the UK government pledging that they would.

Under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in August 2021, the UK government committed itself to resettling up to 20,000 people at risk. A priority was given to those who stood up for the values of democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law – including a specific reference to journalists.

Until the UK government gets its act together, they will continue to suffer a half-life of fear and desperation

The scheme was formally opened in January 2022 and was initially designed for those who were evacuated in 2021. A second “pathway” was opened in June 2022 for those who had escaped to neighbouring countries. A third pathway is planned to open fully this year.

Index, RSF, PEN and the National Union of Journalists have urged ministers to clarify how the scheme will help journalists-at-risk and have offered their assistance in referring and verifying journalists hoping to come to the UK. We now know that RSF has succeeded in helping more than 200 journalists to leave Afghanistan.

The German government announced a federal assistance programme in October 2022, which has already been swamped with applications. Even tiny Kosovo has a scheme to help journalists-at risk in collaboration with the European Federation of Journalists and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.

It is not known how many journalists have reached the UK’s shores, but it is not likely to be more than a handful as most international media support organisations have given up on the country as a viable option. The failure to live up to their pledge is not lost on those such as Hemmati and Niazi, impatient to support Afghan journalists on the ground. Both told Index they did not understand the UK government’s attitude.

“We are… shocked that the UK government has not yet fulfilled its promises,” said Niazi. The UK parades its proud history of welcoming dissident writers from authoritarian regimes. Indeed, this magazine is founded on that tradition. But that history appears to have stalled when it comes to Afghanistan.

There is little doubt that when Ali Behzad learns the language, he will make an important contribution to Germany. Canada is already rightly proud of Freshta Hemmati and Zahra Nader. What of Hasib and Saira, Mahtab and Sahar? Until the UK government gets its act together, they will continue to suffer a half-life of fear and desperation. And we will never know what they might have brought to the intellectual life of this country. 

Martin Bright is editor-at-large at Index and this article will appear in the Spring edition of Index

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