In the five months since the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the situation in Afghanistan remains precarious. Billions of dollars in international aid, including from the U.S., have been suspended amid Taliban rule, placing the donation-dependent country on the brink of an economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have embarked on perilous journeys into neighboring Iran in the hopes of finding refuge. And in most provinces, girls are barred from attending high school and many women are not allowed to work.
The situation remains dire for journalists in Afghanistan, too. As Kabul fell last August, media organizations hurried to evacuate journalists from Afghanistan. Now, in the aftermath, reporters who have covered Afghanistan are learning to adapt to a changing media climate, from the rise of citizen journalism to the risks women reporters face in the field to the new role of social media in exposing the Taliban’s atrocities.
Journalists Abdul Wahid Wafa, NF ’11, and Alissa Johannsen Rubin, NF ’21, are among the journalists who were on the Afghanistan beat. Wafa, an Afghanistan native who previously reported for The New York Times from Kabul, is most recently the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. Rubin is a foreign correspondent and senior writer covering the Middle East at The New York Times, where she also previously served as bureau chief in Kabul, Baghdad and Paris. She was also part of the team that helped more than 35 Afghan families, including Wafa’s, evacuate Afghanistan in a joint effort between The New York Times and the Mexican government.
In October, the Nieman Foundation hosted Wafa and Rubin via Zoom for a conversation moderated by Michael Petrou, NF ’18 on the ongoing threats to journalism in Afghanistan. Edited excerpts:
On the Taliban’s hostility towards Afghanistan’s media boom
Abdul Wahid Wafa: Journalism in Afghanistan, in the last 20 years, was a success story. In the meantime, for the Taliban, it was an American product. It was a Western product. Journalists started to be kidnapped. Journalists started to be killed months before the collapse. In the last two years, we have lost a lot of journalists.
Journalism, in general, and in Afghanistan, journalists were considered the enemy for the Taliban. The Taliban considered them as an enemy. They started killing them. Unfortunately, a lot of us started censoring ourselves two years before the collapse.
Slowly, when the Taliban were moving towards Kabul, every journalist knew that they were at risk. Every journalist knew that they will be questioned by the Taliban for what they wrote, what they broadcast, and what they had done in the last 10, 15 years. Journalism, in general, was an enemy for the Taliban.
As I said, journalism in Afghanistan was a success story, one of the sectors which had a lot of achievements. A country with one TV channel, with one radio, suddenly went to hundreds of … channels. A country with one newspaper had suddenly hundreds of weekly newspapers all over Afghanistan.
There was no doubt that Afghan journalists learned a lot from their international friends and international media outlets who came first in 2001. I’m also a product of that. We learned from the international organizations, mainly American outlets when they made their bureaus in Kabul. They were active, and they trained a lot of Afghans to be journalists.
Overall, the success of journalism [in Afghanistan] is not completely related to any foreign idea. For the Taliban — their symbols are terror, their symbols are creating fear — of course, journalists were the enemy. That’s the only accusation they had: That it’s a product of foreign forces, or the product of U.S.
On the media’s and the U.S.’ roles in the withdrawal
Alissa Johannsen Rubin: Behind the scenes, the publisher [of The New York Times] was involved. What were we going to do to protect our staff? We realized pretty quickly, we couldn’t just protect our staff, or help our staff, because we also had all these former staff. The Taliban don’t look and say, “Oh, I see. You seem to have retired from The New York Times in 2010. Well, you’re fine, then.” No. They’re going to be just as much at risk.
Our commitment was broader than our current staff. At that point, we had people without passports, people without national I.D.s. By now, by 4 a.m. every morning, there were hundreds of people lined up to get passports. They were processing 1,000 passports a day in Kabul.
The New York Times — like other large organizations, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post — had been in Afghanistan since 2001. There were a lot of people who have worked at one time or another for one of us. Then there were people who worked for several of us. Who was going to take responsibility? These were the kinds of questions none of us had really considered before. There began to be, also, a daily call of The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times to discuss some of these overlapping problems.
In the meantime, every 12 hours it seemed, the Taliban advanced. Our time was getting very short. The problem was that the Taliban entered Kabul before we expected. Then [there was] the problem of access to the airport. It didn’t really matter whether you had a visa, it didn’t really matter if you had an airplane ticket, because flights stopped. Everybody was essentially trapped. Then, all you had was the U.S. government.
It was absolute mayhem. The U.S. government was unequipped. They basically had no plan.
Wafa: Our expectation from the United States government was to tackle the issue of this irresponsible withdrawal that they finally announced. It was completely irresponsible. It was hasty. It was without considering all those people who worked with them, all those people who were allies to them, and all those young generations who thrived during the last 20 years.
My expectation was zero from the U.S. government to help me. At the same time, I was not expecting that the withdrawal should be as hasty, as irresponsible as it was. Definitely, I was expecting my colleagues, my friends, and this big family of journalists who met each other a long time ago to help us, and that happened. The solidarity from civilian Americans and also companies like The New York Times was something that I appreciate.
Many Afghan journalists were helped, finally, by these individuals, companies, and the civilian side. Not the American government.
If the individuals, if the companies were leaving this to the U.S. government, I don’t think a lot of journalists who are now in safe places in the U.S., and in other countries, could have been in these places.
On “brain drain” and filling the media gap
Wafa: Do they [the Taliban] care about the brain drain [the departure of Afghanistan’s professional class]? I don’t think so. They might be happy about journalists who leave, and not having the access to cover what they are doing.
Coverage of … the Taliban, and revealing their atrocities, their killings, were something that the Taliban were more scared [of] than the Afghan forces. It’s going to happen. Brain drain is going to happen in Afghanistan.
For the Taliban, if you’re talking specifically about journalists, they want them to be out of Afghanistan. They don’t want those people to reveal more [of] what these guys are doing at the moment. There’s a lot of atrocities happening at the moment. Four mass graves were found in Panjshir Valley, which is a very small place, recently. Of course, there are not a lot of journalists to cover that.
Luckily, now social media in Afghanistan is huge. People can put things into the social media. They might not have Afghan journalists to cover everything about the country. In the future, they face a huge problem with all these citizen journalists who are having their cell phones in their hand and will do whatever they can to reveal the Taliban’s atrocities.
People in Afghanistan are getting good [at] social media. Despite it [being] not as deep and as good as a professional journalist who covers a story, things cannot be hidden forever now in the 21st century. That is what the Taliban realized, the difference they see among the people of the ’90s they faced. In the 1990s, the Taliban had faced a fatigued people from the civil war, a lot of children not in school, a capital with not more than 500,000 people. They thought the fear factor [now] will be the same [as the ’90s], but it’s not happening.
Still, people are writing, people are sending pictures, and whatever they find in their social media. That is something that the Taliban cannot close and cannot stop.
I believe still we can help Afghan journalists, wherever they are, to continue their work. Although it’s not as effective as somebody who is [in] the field, to make these outlets, newspapers and also weeklies, as well as some TV, from outside the country, it’s a big help. Afghan journalism in exile can happen at the moment.
The Taliban can do anything if that voice is shut, and if that voice is muted.
Rubin: Wahid’s made a lot of really important points about the pervasiveness of social media. To the larger brain drain issue, which also, in a way, is linked to the social media point, the Taliban have come back to a country that’s profoundly different from the one they were pushed out of.
They have underestimated what it takes to run the country. They certainly underestimated it back in the ’90s, but it was a different world. Now, the amount that has to be done electronically, the sophistication [of it] … There’s a whole array of areas in which they’re pretty unprepared. The brain drain certainly will affect them. They can’t square that with some of the changes that have taken place in the country. As a result, they will have a very hard time governing. Just as in the realm of something like journalism, there’ll be citizen journalists. There’ll be all kinds of things popping up from below that are going to be difficult for them to control.
On women’s rights under Taliban rule
Rubin: For women, it’s extraordinarily difficult inside Kabul, but especially outside of Kabul.
The people I’ve talked to feel very afraid of leaving their homes. Sometimes they’re afraid, because someone else in their home might have worked in something, or for someone, whom the Taliban view as opposition or as an enemy.
They don’t want to go out, because they don’t want to somehow draw attention to themselves and lead the Taliban to their house. It’s not surprising.
I think women feel very responsible for not [bringing] that home … if that’s going to endanger other family members. In some areas, the Taliban are just plain discouraging women from ever being on the street alone without a man.
That vastly limits your freedom of movement. That was a profound problem before in Afghanistan. It’s a problem if you want to go to the doctor, and your husband, eldest son, or brother isn’t home. It is certainly a problem for a woman trying to collect information in any fashion or go to a workplace.
Many workplaces have discouraged women from going back. That’s supposed to be preliminary and temporary, but that’s what they said the last time [in the 1990s] and it lasted the entire time they were in power. Some women seem to still be on the air on a couple of the TV stations. But many of them feel intimidated. They’ve been threatened. If you receive a couple of threats, you’re not going to go to work. It doesn’t even have to be Taliban policy for it to have an impact.
It is devastating for men in all kinds of ways, and maybe, potentially, more lethal for men. It is completely discouraging for women.
Wafa: Women are under a lot of pressures from different aspects of their life and even from family. I don’t think [an] Afghan woman can continue for a long time to be an active journalist in the community, especially in the big cities like Kabul.
As we see, many of them are already out of these media outlets. Some are in the studio, as you can see, but not as dynamic as it used to be. We had famous Afghan journalists, female Afghan journalists, who were going to the frontlines to report about the war, and report about firefighting in different parts of the country.
It’s unfortunate that for the Afghan woman in general, it will be a long misery and long problem ahead. For the moment, I don’t see any light in this darkness. Hopefully, they find their voice. Hopefully, we can help them somehow find their voice, either inside or outside Afghanistan.