The Killid Group, Afghanistan.
Threats and danger are all in a day’s work for Afghan journalist.
Afghan journalist Najiba Ayubi is passionate about independent media in her country. But earlier this year, voicing that passion came with a cost. In February, Ayubi questioned the Afghan Ministry of Culture about why it had not created a strategy for supporting independent media.
Ayubi, 45, was subsequently defamed for her question; negative and false reports were published about her in state-run media. Though her reputation was bruised, Ayubi’s passion for journalism remains intact. “In journalism, the struggles and its up-and-down issues are sweet to me,” she said. “The fear and anxiety of the work is even interesting to experience.”
Ayubi has confronted numerous fearful experiences in her 25 years as a journalist in Afghanistan.
In July 2012, Ayubi was embroiled in a scandal concerning two well-known members of Afghan parliament, whose bodyguards opened fire in a hospital in Pol-e-charki, Afghanistan. After reporting live at the scene and continuing to investigate the issue, Ayubi was threatened with phone calls and messages from the members of parliament – and also from the secretary of the Ministry of Information and Culture – to stop questioning their actions.
Gunmen came to Ayubi’s home, where she pretended to be someone else through the locked door. She was summoned by the attorney general’s office on accusations of false reporting, and formal charges were filed against her. Though Ayubi was able to provide evidence in her own defense, including the threatening messages, the case against her is still open.
In 2009, Ayubi received a series of phone calls from NDS, the Afghan secret service, warning her to “be careful” because someone might be after her. The source of the threats was not specified, and Ayubi was not able to get more details.
Ayubi was directly threatened and shoved in 2008 by a regional official, who brought gunmen to Ayubi’s office. The official told Ayubi that he would not accept criticism from a woman and that she should stop her work if she wanted to remain safe.
In 2007, following Ayubi’s controversial radio programs, a stone was thrown at Ayubi’s family home with a letter attached. It instructed Ayubi to stop her reports or “you can imagine what we will do to you.”
After receiving the note, Ayubi traveled with a bodyguard for a month, but generally she doesn’t take any special security precautions when she works. Occasionally several radio and television stations publish “risky” news, such as a story about corruption, at the same time to shield one another, Ayubi said.
“It is a protection to the community of journalists and our work,” she said. “It is a struggle every time we publish controversial news.”
Still, “most of the time there are dangers,” Ayubi said. Recently, when Killid published government-related news, “I could not sleep all night and was concerned about reprisals,” she said.
She recalled a separate incident involving a radio broadcast. A warlord mentioned on air came to the station and asked to speak with Ayubi.
“When he entered the meeting room,” she said, “he just screamed at me, accusing our radio of broadcasting programs against him.”
Ayubi told the man that it was not her desire to target him and that he should deal with the people featured in the radio program directly. Luckily, after Ayubi played the radio clip for the man, he left.
“I was scared because I didn’t have any way to defend myself,” she said.
But fear has never led Ayubi to limit her work, and neither has her gender.
Now the managing director for The Killid Group, a nonprofit public media initiative in Afghanistan, Ayubi has worked under anonymous threats and attacks from government entities for her reporting on politics and women’s rights. She leads a team of reporters working in print, broadcast and online media and has refused calls for censorship.
Ayubi “has always been keen on covering sensitive news in order to report the reality of Afghanistan,” said Francesca Cioni, Ayubi’s colleague.
Although violence against journalists in Afghanistan has diminished since the height of conflict, the reality is that the country remains a dangerous place for reporters, according to the Committee to Project Journalists. Journalists both foreign and domestic continue to receive threats.
“Observing the government’s behavior, we journalists believe it is not interested in strengthening or protecting the media, rather in limiting media scrutiny and free expression,” Ayubi said.
Nevertheless, Ayubi acknowledges that media industry has made great strides since the restrictive Taliban era, when there were “pressures and obligations that forced journalists into silence.”
“When the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, all journalists … raised their voices and created a new Afghanistan media,” she said, “and with the support of the international community Afghanistan media has become as extensive as it is today.”
Now, a wide array of news sources exist and the media industry as a whole has improved, said Ayubi.
“We have never experienced as much free expression as we do today,” she said. “That being said, there remain many limitations and sacrifices. … There have been more threats, more beatings of journalists and other dangers.”
As the military prepares for a drawdown next year and international funding decreases, the number of Afghan media outlets has begun to decline. The Killid Group, however, still has a presence in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. Ayubi has refused to yield to the government’s restrictions on media; she does not censor the stories that are published and broadcast on her watch.
“The life of a journalist in Afghanistan is very dangerous and difficult,” said Cioni, manager of projects for The Killid Group, “especially when the journalist is a very strong woman like Ms. Ayubi.”
“In Afghanistan, a woman working, even in the city, is controversial,” she said. “If a woman is a journalist, a man’s objection towards her doubles.”
As a female in a leadership role in her newsroom, Ayubi said she found her colleagues struggled “to accept the fact of a woman being a leader and guiding men.” But she worked hard to reduce their doubts and over time, “I noticed the men recognizing my skills and communicating with me with more respect.”
Ayubi’s dedication and patience stem from her devotion to her chosen career. “One of the reasons I was attracted to a professional life as a journalist is my deep interest in and love for my work,” she said.
Ayubi always dreamt of being a writer and working for a newspaper so that others could read her writing, but she feared achieving that goal might be impossible. “The idea was always in my heart,” she said, “but I couldn’t tell anyone because I thought it might be unattainable.”
With the support of her family, Ayubi eventually landed a job at Killid, expanding the radio station’s reach throughout Afghanistan. “She believes that information, data and analysis serve to build a nation, enhance a constructive dialogue between its people and their representatives, and ultimately foster good governance,” said Cioni, Ayubi’s colleague and Courage Award nominator.
Ayubi co-founded the Afghan Independent Media Consortium and the Freedom of Expression Initiative, both with the intention of providing resources and support for independent journalists in her country.
Throughout her career, Ayubi has stood for journalism ethics and press freedom. She has dedicated herself to reporting on politics, human rights and corruption while challenging authorities and defending the value of independent journalism.
She has never thought about leaving her job, despite its challenges. “Every time I confront a threat in journalism, I feel some sort of satisfaction in my heart,” she said, “and I recognize I am doing something very important that I am being threatened for.”
In an exclusive interview with the IWMF (see embedded video on the right), Ayubi talked about her start in journalism, press freedom in Afghanistan, and her concerns for the future of the Afghan media after the NATO troops withdrawal in 2014.
Ayubi is the third IWMF Courage in Journalism Award winner from Afghanistan, following Farida Nekzad (2008) and Sharifa Akhlas (1999).
This article was written by Lindsey Wray, based on an interview conducted by Gaisu Yari.