Dozens of journalists have moved to safe houses across Afghanistan, and others have been sent abroad, as threats against media workers continue to rise.
New safe houses have been set up in several Afghan cities as evacuations increase, offering some security for targeted journalists.
Last year, 132 journalists registered having received direct threats, a 26% increase on the previous year. The UN reports that more than 30 media workers have been killed in the country since 2018.
The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) – a country-wide network dedicated to creating a safe environment for media workers – is worried that press freedom will continue to be undermined by the threat to Afghanistan’s 10,000 media workers, 20% of whom are women.
“Journalists are at the forefront of violence in Afghanistan,” said the group’s head, Najib Sharifi. “With the rise of targeted killings, we’ve seen a lot of self-censorship. The number of female journalists has already declined by 18% in the past six months.”
Fatima Ahmadi (who asked for her real name not to be used), a 27-year-old broadcast journalist, had to be evacuated from Ghazni province by helicopter with only a few minutes’ warning after discovering she had been at the top of the local Taliban’s hitlist.
Speaking from a safe house in Kabul, Ahmadi said that she first received threats in 2019, but the number of phone calls and text messages with warnings increased towards the end of last year. Pulling out her phone, she showed several to the Guardian.
Ahmadi remembers the last phone conversation when a man called, and urgently said: “They have finally decided to kill you. There will be no more warnings. You need to leave.” Within minutes, Ahmadi, “shaking with fear”, had her bags packed.
She now lives in a house that has been set up by International Media Support (IMS), an organisation helping journalists worldwide.
“We worry that the situation could get worse. We don’t think targeted killings by the Taliban and other terrorist organisations will stop,” Susanna Inkinen, an adviser at IMS, said, adding that the Taliban wasn’t always to blame. “There are other entities who benefit – even people in the government who want to get rid of investigative journalists,” she said.
Safe houses offer local solutions, but Inkinen said that about a dozen journalists have been temporarily taken out of the country to ensure their protection.
Afghans require visas for most countries they want to visit, making spontaneous trips – even if the security situation in the country escalates – almost impossible.
With US and other Nato forces having started their troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, many fear a resurgent Taliban or even a civil war.
The annual threat assessment of the US intelligence community, published in April, warned that the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said “problems will certainly be compounded” in response to the US announcing troop withdrawals on 11 September, months after the initially pledged 1 May deadline.
Abdul Wakil, 30, who works for the national broadcaster RTA, temporarily left his home in Ghazni’s provincial capital several months ago. “I received phone calls demanding that I don’t broadcast certain topics, including Taliban battlefield losses,” he said. “I received personal threats to my life.”
Wakil doesn’t know when he will be able to return home. More than 30 journalists have relocated in recent months alone, some bringing their entire families. Most come from southern Helmand and Kandahar, as well as central Ghazni and eastern Nangarhar.
“Relocation is a traumatic experience. That’s why – besides physical safety – we also offer counselling services, classes and training to media workers who were forced to leave their homes,” Inkinen said.
Ahmadi is worried about the future, uncertain how she might be able to raise her voice under a resurgent Taliban. “I want to be able to share stories and show others what women can do here in Afghanistan,” she said. “Being a journalist is more than a job. It’s my identity.”