Photo courtesy of AFP

“I Left Behind 40 Years of My Life”

A summary of the ReNEWS/AFP conversation about the future of journalism in Afghanistan

On September 30th, ReNEWS partnered with the global news agency AFP to produce a 90-minute conversation, “The Future of Journalism in Afghanistan”. AFP generously sponsored the event, and we jointly agreed to use the program to fundraise in support of mental health care for Afghan journalists. What follows is a summary of the key points, information on the fundraising effort being done in cooperation with The Rory Peck Trust, our charitable organization partner, and ideas for how you might help.

The program was moderated by Phil Chetwynd, Global News Director, AFP.

Our guests were:

Dr. Anthony Feinstein, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto

Mujeeb Khalvatgar, Journalist, founder of Nai (an Afghan NGO)

Lotfullah Najafizada, Director of News, TOLOnews (the largest independent and most watched news source in Afghanistan)

Najiba Noori, Filmmaker and Video Journalist, AFP

Clothilde Redfern, Director, The Rory Peck Trust

Clarissa Ward, Chief International Correspondent, CNN

Phil set out four major areas we would cover in the program:

1. The events of August 15th, the day the Taliban entered Kabul, and the different decisions that people made at that moment and why.

2. Journalism in Afghanistan today — what is happening, how are things changing?

3. Journalism in Afghanistan going forward — what happens when many news organizations go home?

4. The trauma and mental health crises facing Afghan journalists, including those in the Afghan diaspora, and how we can help.

The Taliban Enters Kabul (August 15, 2021)

Clarissa was in Kabul on that morning. She was doing advance work on a story about the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US. She said,

“It was an incredibly chaotic and frightening moment. No one expected this to happen as quickly as it did…in a matter of hours. And suddenly you have a number of decisions you have to make: Do you stay in Afghanistan? How is the Taliban going to respond to journalists? How are we going to protect our colleagues who live here in Afghanistan and who are Afghan? How are we going to continue operating our bureau?

“There were about a thousand questions that every journalistic organization was grappling with in one moment. Having to make the best decisions for people who rely on us for information but also really importantly having to make decisions that were in the best interests of the people who have been working with us on the ground, taking the majority of the risks here in Afghanistan for two decades.”

This was a theme we were to hear repeatedly over the 90 minutes: the fate of Afghan colleagues, and how to help ensure their safety, including safe passage out of Afghanistan in many cases, and their health.

Lotfullah, who was in Uzbekistan when it all happened, echoed Clarissa’s comments about chaos and uncertainty. “We were really worried after provincial capitals started falling and we were planning to move some of our operations to Uzbekistan, weeks and months before that [Taliban takeover]…On the 15th, we had a fundamental question ahead of us: Whether to stay on air or shut it all down?”

“The future is uncertain. To me it looks like it’s going to deteriorate day by day.”

Lotfullah said, “TOLO has 700 people working with us, and they produce 18 hours of content a day — just on the news side…We thought if we stopped, it would be impossible to start broadcasting again.

“The Taliban showed up at our office within 24 hours. And since then we have been receiving messages daily and the Taliban would like to see more concessions from the media, which is really alarming. We still have hundreds of people in Kabul.”

Again echoing Clarissa’s feelings, Lotfullah said, “It’s a different world when you’re an Afghan journalist compared to being a Western journalist in Afghanistan right now. The future is uncertain. To me it looks like it’s going to deteriorate day by day.”

Lotfullah, who had been “stuck in Uzbekistan”, is now running TOLOnews from Istanbul, Turkey.

Phil asked Najiba to share her story of the events of August 15th. She explained that she had had no plan to leave, and that she awoke on the 15th of August to events that would change the course of her life.

On the morning of the 15th she saw the Taliban right outside her door. “I was totally shocked and I was scared. The 15th of August was the day when, hour by hour, everything was changing in Afghanistan…I was terrified and I needed to find a way to leave the country.

“I would say it was the toughest decision that I made in my whole life…I left everything in Kabul. I locked my apartment, and took just those things that are valuable for me, like my camera and some of my hard drives, to go to the embassy.”

Najiba now lives in Paris and continues to work for AFP.

Mujeeb said he always believed he would stay in his country forever, no matter what happened.

“I tried my best to see if it is possible to live here, but I cannot find a sign of life. It was hard. It is hard. I left behind 40 years of my life, and 20 years of the hard work I had done in Kabul during the day and night was gone…

“Sometimes, you have to make a decision. A decision that you never, ever thought about. It is a journey that I have started on now. I’m here.”

Mujeeb is now living in Canada.

Journalism in Afghanistan Today

In the next portion of the program, the guests shared what it is like now to be covering news in Afghanistan and to be working with the Taliban.

Said Lotfullah, “We’ve been talking to the Taliban for years. They were taking advantage of the free press for years. With the change of power, the Taliban are acting differently…

“They started by suggesting changes, and now they’re taking it to a whole different level of issuing decrees and instructions…In the provinces it’s even more serious. They have asked journalists to consult with heads of the cultural department about their stories, their story ideas.”

Things are becoming increasingly restrictive, Lotfullah said.

At the same time, Lotfullah added, there are positive things to consider. “As a result of 20 years of investment and hard work, we had a free press. There are still hundreds of journalists actively contributing to a free press, at least on social media. That is such a success story. They are continuing their fight for free flow of information.”

Clarissa said, “Everything you want access to is pretty much a ‘no’.” Then she noted that she is fully aware of different treatment as a Western journalist working for a global news organization like CNN.

“They will treat you as a Western journalist with a certain basic level of respect,” she said.

When we came on to the specific issue of women journalists and coverage of Afghan women, Lotfullah said, “Women empowerment is real in this country. And this has been proven by the demonstrations. The president of the country left. He fled with his generals and his national security advisors and all. And the women of the country — middle class and lower — — go to the street and protest. That’s the reality of the Afghan woman.”

Clarissa said, “The Afghan women, and particularly the women here in Kabul, are some of the bravest women I have come across in any country I have worked in. We see them engaging in small acts of resistance every single day. Extraordinary acts of resistance.

“But it’s very clear that things are getting much worse in terms of subjugation of women’s rights. Women are slowly being erased from public life…Women’s faces on billboards are being graffitied or covered over. That is an ominous metaphor for women slowly but surely being erased from public life.”

Journalism in Afghanistan going forward

Najiba made a short but impassioned plea to all of us — women journalists of the Afghan diaspora and the international news industry more generally — to work to find ways to support the women journalists of Afghanistan. “Find ways to support them,” she said. “To help them continue to tell the stories.”

She added, “We can continue our work from here. We can work with journalists who are in Afghanistan and telling these stories — especially women’s stories…I think it is very important that we keep our contact and our networks. This is the time when we can work together. We work from here and whatever they can do from there, we will collect these stories and document these stories.”

“Find ways to support them [women journalists in Afghanistan], to help them continue to tell the stories.”

Mujeeb added that the very fact that we are seeing news reports about Afghanistan, including the women’s protests, from our living rooms around the world, is proof that Afghan media is still alive. He said, “It is the bravery of the journalists, it is the culture that started 20 years ago to be alive and now it is alive, and it is the power of free media.”

Lotfullah cautioned, however, that the viability and sustainability of independent media are in grave danger.

“The economy is crumbling…We have no strong hope for economic sustainability in the next few months. That is something that the international community, the world’s journalists, Afghan journalists living abroad, should think about this. How can we save Afghan journalism?”

The ReNEWS team was carefully monitoring the Chat during the conversation. In truth, this conversation was far less “chatty” than it has been during other ReNEWS shows. We believe it is because our audience of 300 participants from 27 countries was listening intently and there was little need or desire to do more than listen and learn. Where there were comments, they were expressions of support and remarks about both the bravery of these four incredible journalists and the need to have more conversations like the one ReNEWS and AFP were producing.

Before moving to the final section, on mental health and trauma, Clarissa made a strong statement about responsibility and the media. She said,

“I firmly believe that we have a real responsibility as international journalists to keep telling the story, to use the position of privilege that we do have, to push people in power, to hold them accountable. We’ve seen the Taliban talk the talk, and we need to make sure that we are around long enough to ensure that they walk the walk.”

Phil thanked Clarissa, Lotfullah, Mujeeb and Najiba for their powerful insights, and then welcomed Dr. Anthony Feinstein and Clothilde Redfern to join Mujeeb for the final portion of the program.

Mental health and trauma in Afghan journalists

Anthony kicked off with a somber presentation about the work he and his team at the University of Toronto have been looking at re: journalists in crisis and conflict — from the Balkans in 2000 to the refugee crisis of 2018.

The report that emerged is entitled, Psychological distress in Afghan journalists: a descriptive study, and it appeared in the Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, authored by Jonas Osmann, Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar and Anthony Feinstein.

“Our guest Mujeeb was a critical force in this detailed study of psychological state of Afghan journalists,” Anthony noted.

The study aims were to quantify exposure to traumatic events, assess perceptions of organizational support, ascertain rates of PTSD and depression and gauge utilization of mental health resources and the effectiveness of the treatments provided.

And the statistics from Afghanistan were nothing short of shocking:

Trauma data for Afghan journalists:

37% have been injured in the line of work

73%. Have had colleagues killed

37% have had family members killed

Anthony said, “These are extraordinary rates of trauma.”

The research further showed that Afghan journalists rated the level of organizational support was a very low 2 out of 10.

Estimated rate of PTSD: 75%

Estimated rate of depression: 61%

Strong association between PTSD and depression

Anthony reminded us that this data and this report pre-date the fall of the previous Afghan government, the Taliban takeover, and the flight of refugees. These additional layers of trauma must therefore be applied to an already deeply traumatized group of individuals.

“…focused mental health intervention can bring about significant improvement in peoples’ lives.”

Anthony completed a 30-minute documentary film, “A Quiet Courage” on the trauma suffered by Afghan journalists. Unfortunately, the film cannot be shown at this time because several of the journalists who agreed to speak are still in Afghanistan and the security risks are too great. However, he was able to show a short clip from his interview with Mujeeb. You will see it in the program (see below for YouTube link). The power of Mujeeb’s words cannot be overstated. His story and his bravery are genuinely extraordinary.

Mental health and crisis support are desperately needed. Mujeeb noted that there are cultural considerations, of course. “Since 1978, 2 million Afghans have been lost to different revolutions and conflicts. And more than 7 million have fled the country…Culturally, it is a challenge to convince Afghans that mental health issues do not equal craziness. It is a taboo in society but, with those people with whom we started working, it is possible to convince people this is not shameful.”

Phil invited Clothilde to then describe the work being done by The Rory Peck Trust (RPT), through its role with Journalists in Distress network (JID), an organization of 23 international media freedom organizations that have collectively assisted in helping 91 journalists to get out of Afghanistan.

Clothilde outlined the newly formed Trauma Fund for Afghan Journalists, part of The Trust’s Resilience program. “Every penny raised through this event with ReNEWS and AFP will go to the Trauma Fund,” she said. The RPT will be working with Anthony to establish Dari-, Farsi- and Pashtun-language mental health services for Afghan journalists.

Anthony reminded us that therapy alone will not address every issue or challenge facing Afghan journalists. However, “We cannot just sit around and do nothing. We need to start somewhere. The need is great. The numbers are many. But focused mental health intervention can bring about significant improvement in peoples’ lives,” Anthony said.

The program ended with a final plea for financial support to help us make sure we help as many Afghan colleagues as possible. As Hans Laroes, Chair of the ReNEWS Editorial Board and former Chief of News for NOS (Netherlands), said in his introduction, No donation is too small…no donation is too large.

ReNEWS is deeply grateful to Phil Chetwynd and to AFP for helping us to make this event happen. We are indebted to our amazing speakers for their time, their insights and their stories. Thank you, as well, to Dr. Anthony Feinstein for his guidance throughout, Hans Laroes, CNN, The Rory Peck Trust, and our audience for this program. A special shout-out to CNN’s Impact Your World, who offered excellent support on the issues of fundraising and of identifying charitable partners.

To watch the program in its entirety, please visit the ReNEWS channel on YouTube: https://youtu.be/o7m60cSe52E

To donate to the Trauma Fund for Afghan Journalists, please go to: https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/18158

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