‘My Job is for Humanity’: Afghan Journalists Keep the News Flowing

Journalists receive photojournalism training in Farah, Afghanistan, in 2013. Prior to the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan had a vibrant media sector. Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

For years, independent Afghan newspaper Etilaatroz has published hard-hitting investigations into corruption, discrimination, and nepotism.  

In 2017, the Afghan parliament stopped the sale of government land due to an investigation by the paper, which showed that then-President Ashraf Ghani sold the land to an election supporter at a deeply discounted rate. Later that same year, the newspaper published a leaked document showing that Afghan government officials had encouraged promotion of Pashtuns over other ethnic groups. These investigations earned Etilaatroz a reputation for holding Afghanistan’s most powerful to account. 

But in August of 2021, the Taliban swiftly regained control of Kabul, marking the end of an era for independent media like Etilaatroz in Afghanistan. For 20 years, Afghan media flourished. The sector was vibrant, with dozens of TV stations, over 150 radio stations, and hundreds of small newspapers and magazines spread across the country. A 2019 survey found that the media was one of the most trusted institutions in Afghanistan, second only to religious leaders. 

The new Taliban regime quickly made it clear that there would be no space for freedom of the press or expression. Since returning to power, the Taliban has violently cracked down on independent media by assaulting, arresting, and censoring journalists. As a result, the sector is shattered. A survey done by Reporters Without Borders and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association in December of 2021 showed that just a few months into Taliban rule, over 40 percent of media outlets had closed and over 60 percent of journalists had lost their jobs. Over 80 percent of women journalists were no longer working.

Despite being forced to choose either the isolation of exile or to work in secrecy in a climate of fear and hostility, Afghan journalists are still working tirelessly to keep news flowing. In recognition of these efforts, the independent journalism sector of Afghanistan has been awarded the 2023 Democracy Award, given annually by the National Endowment for Democracy’s board of directors to recognize the work of individuals and organizations that have advanced the cause of human rights and democracy around the world.  

The Challenges Facing Hybrid Media in Exile 

Zaki Daryabi, founding director and publisher of Etilaatroz, moved the paper’s headquarters from Kabul to Silver Spring, Maryland, after the Taliban takeover. Daryabi said that media in exile are the main source of independent information for Afghans living inside the country and estimates that about half of the outlet’s staff are in Afghanistan, while the other half are spread across the world. Since 2021, many Afghan news organizations have moved to hybrid journalism where they are headquartered abroad, but work with staff and freelancers in-country to produce news. 

According to Daryabi, between 70 and 80 percent of the outlet’s audience is in Afghanistan. Audience members are increasingly sending tips and story pitches to help ensure information on a range of topics, including corruption and security, reaches the news outlet.  

“The collaboration between the citizens and independent media is getting deeper,” Daryabi said. “The content they are providing for exile media is increasing.” 

Daryabi said that with very few experienced reporters left in Afghanistan, it is taking Etilaatroz far more time to churn out stories. Etilaatroz staff abroad mentor less-experienced reporters that are located in-country and work with them to verify information and edit their writing, which can take days across different time zones. But these are necessary steps, he said, to make sure that each story is true.  

Sanjar Sohail is the founder and publisher of Hasht-e-Subh Daily, also known as 8 AM Media, which relocated its headquarters outside of Afghanistan and went entirely digital after the Taliban takeover. Hasht-e-Subh is one of the most widely read newspapers in the country. Sohail agreed that fact-checking, verifying information, and editing is taking far longer these days than it did before.  

Since the Taliban takeover, the workload has doubled and tripled,” Sohail said.  

Until there is an opening to improve press freedom in Afghanistan, Daryabi said, this hybrid model is the only option independent media have.  

Women on the Ground 

Women journalists in Afghanistan are facing unprecedented challenges, and many are leaving the professional altogether. Women working as news anchors are required to cover their faces on air, and, in some provinces, women are banned entirely from working in newsrooms. Additionally, the Taliban has barred women and girls from traveling very far without a male chaperone and receiving formal education, making reporting extremely difficult and professional development hard to come by.  

S. and B. are both women based in Afghanistan, reporting on issues facing women in the country for Hasht-e-Subh Daily. To stay safe, they publish their work under different names, use Canadian or US phone numbers, and keep their affiliation with the organization private. When S. leaves the house, she leaves her phone and computer at home. If she must bring them, she deletes all work applications. 

“Everyone who works with 8 AM—they are not safe,” S. said. “I have mental stress. I am afraid when anonymous numbers call me.” 

Sources are often reluctant to speak with independent media for fear of reprisal, and similarly, S. is afraid of her affiliation with the paper becoming public. 

“I speak with the women that I know won’t cause any danger for me, S. said. 

B. said she cannot produce as many reports as she would like to each week because of how difficult it is to find sources. To find women she can speak with, she’ll ask friends and relatives if they know anyone willing to talk about their experiences. 

“Sometimes the people are not happy to be interviewed because they are also afraid of the Taliban, B. said. 

What the International Community Can Do 

While the future of press freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule remains uncertain, support for the emerging network of independent Afghan hybrid media outlets is critical for ensuring the free flow of information into and outside of the country. 

Daryabi said there must be greater international pressure on the Taliban to allow journalists to report the news freely in Afghanistan. He also said that long-term, practical support for news organizations in exile, such as legal support and insurance, is critical for the future of independent Afghan media.  

B. said that she would like media support organizations to emphasize the plight of women journalists in Afghanistan. Similarly, Sohail emphasized the need for training programs and educational opportunities, particularly for women, to build the next generation of Afghan journalists. He also said that journalists need digital infrastructure, such as satellite phones and internet, to keep the news flowing. 

As S. spoke, her electricity cut out. She continued speaking in the dark. 

“My job is for humanity, it’s for my people,” S. said. “If I don’t write, what situation will women have? No one will know what happens here, what the reality of our lives is under the Taliban regime.” 

Sasha Schroeder is CIMA’s program and communications assistant. In this role, she manages CIMA’s communications and assists in the organization of events and roundtables. 

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