Twenty years ago, Afghanistan was an information desert. Under the Taliban, there were no independent media outlets. There were no female journalists. There was no public debate. The voices of ordinary people were silenced and sidelined. Taliban edicts served as “news.”
Over the next two decades, that completely changed. Today, vibrant networks of radio, television and online media reach all 34 provinces. Female journalists, in a country that previously barred women from education, number over 1,100. Local media, according to a 2019 survey, is the second most-trusted public institution in Afghanistan, behind only religious leaders.
Now the withdrawal of United States forces from the country threatens to upend the progress Afghans have made toward a more open and inclusive society. As the Taliban surround major cities, spreading violence and destruction, the prospects for independent media are dire.
Yet all is not lost. In the next weeks and months, there’s a chance to protect one of Afghanistan’s greatest achievements in the past two decades: a thriving, dynamic press. It must not be missed.
We met just after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. One of us, Mr. Rashid, had recently published the book “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia” and was keen to give back to the courageous Afghans who supported his research and reporting. For Ms. Bourgault, then the vice president of Internews, a global nonprofit that supports independent media, the moment felt equally urgent. We were determined to support a free press where it had never before truly existed.
With the generous support of a handful of philanthropists, we joined resources and expertise to provide modest support to the journalists who were starting the first local independent newspapers and radio stations. It was an exhilarating time. Major foreign aid donors — including the United States and European governments — also provided, in the form of funds and training, sustained support over the years to a growing media sector. Within two decades, the fruits of that approach are plain for all to see.
In a country marked by years of conflict, the growth of independent media is more than a bright spot or an abstract victory for democracy. It’s something that tangibly improves people’s lives. In rural areas, radio dramas are exploring how violence against women hurts everyone in society. An army of fact checkers is debunking myths about Covid-19 and delivering lifesaving health information. Journalists are shining a light on police abuse of detainees and exposing public corruption.
This new openness could be slammed shut in a matter of months. The Taliban have already launched a major offensive, capturing rural districts and encircling provincial cities. In its wake, journalists have been systematically threatened and killed, media outlets shuttered and studios repurposed to broadcast Taliban propaganda. In the past three months, 51 media outlets have closed. The Taliban commandeered six media stations, replacing independent journalists with lackeys. One thousand reporters and staff members have lost their jobs. Two journalists have been killed.
It’s a distressing situation. But if we act fast, the international community can help Afghans preserve their media, keeping as many independent outlets open as possible and saving the lives of hundreds of journalists.
The first priority is to protect journalists. Many are in imminent danger and need emergency assistance to help them move to safer parts of the country immediately, not in a matter of months. Private foundations or individual philanthropists, who can offer flexible funds quickly, are best placed to help.
What’s more, it should be made much easier for those seeking asylum. Visa restrictions for all Afghan journalists, not just those who worked for international outlets, should be eased. Right now, journalists seeking asylum in the United States must leave Afghanistan and wait in a third country for at least a year while their applications are processed. For many, that is simply not an option.
Media outlets must be supported, too. As journalists move to safer locations in Kabul and other areas, they will be cut off from local advertisers and community supporters. International financial and material support can help them broadcast remotely — and continue to reach the people in areas now under Taliban control, who will most need credible information.
Then there are those who may soon become citizen journalists. Afghan youth are major users of social media — roughly 80 percent of those on social media in the country are under 30 — and we expect an outpouring of digital activism and reporting. But knowledge of digital security is relatively low. They need the tools and the training, best offered by Afghan and international human rights defenders, to protect themselves.
As international forces withdraw from Afghanistan, we have a moral obligation to stand with those who worked toward a more open and inclusive country. For 20 years, Afghan journalists were among the West’s greatest allies. We cannot be bystanders to their undoing.
Jeanne Bourgault (@InternewsJeanne) is the president and chief executive of Internews. Ahmed Rashid is a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the author of, among other books, “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.”
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