A free press was trying to take root in Afghanistan. Now journalists are bracing for Taliban rule.

By Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison | Originally published: The Washington Post

When Lotfullah Najafizada, head of Afghanistan’s widely watched Tolo TV news channel, learned that the president had fled the country, he held the story for an hour.

Ashraf Ghani’s shocking departure on Sunday was a huge scoop, but Najafizada had more than the usual concerns about making sure they had their facts right: He knew the government would collapse — and the country would plunge into chaos — the moment the news broke.

Tolo never went off the air. “I knew if we shut down, to restart the channel would have been much more difficult,” Najafizada said. “It was very, very important” to keep going, “even after the president of our country fled and there was no rule of law in the city.”

Over the past 20 years, a vibrant and growing media industry has taken root in Afghanistan, with many independent outlets reporting news from around the country, even in the face of violence and instability. Now its journalists are confronting an even more dangerous and uncertain future under Taliban rule — and meeting the moment with a mixture of anxiety, fear and a sense of duty.

Some are still filing reports from the front lines and interviewing Taliban leaders on air. Others, though, are in hiding as they look for ways out of the country, worried about their own safety and their families’ lives.

The change happened rapidly. On Monday, a dozen Taliban members visited Tolo’s Kabul office and seized several government-issued weapons from the station’s security detail.

The station had initially ordered its female staff to stay home, out of fear for their safety. Some protested. One joked on a WhatsApp group chat that they should dress as men and show up to work anyway. By Tuesday, the women were back, and the Taliban had contacted the network, requesting some airtime.

“Which of course, we welcomed it,” Najafizada said. On Tuesday morning, one of Tolo’s female anchors, Beheshta Arghand, interviewed a Taliban representative. The striking image of a member of the Taliban, responsible for some of the world’s most repressive and violent crackdowns against women, in conversation on a TV broadcast with a professional female journalist encapsulated the tenuous nature of the current media moment in Afghanistan.

“We didn’t stage it to be a female presenter facing the Taliban,” Najafizada said. “That was a genuine reality of the country.” He noted that Arghand was showing up for work the same way she had for years. “That says a lot about how genuine the achievement is.”

Najafizada, 33, was a child when the Taliban was last in power. What he remembers from then is that the group shut down all newspapers — there were no independent TV stations at the time.

“What they take over now,” he said, “is a different reality.”

The Taliban has tried to offer reassurances that it, too, has changed. A representative said during a news conference Tuesday that private media can continue to function so long as they don’t “work against national values, against national unity” or “against Islamic values.”

But many Afghans are deeply skeptical of such assurances. Some journalists, terrified they will be killed, have been frantically trying to find ways to leave the country or are in hiding. Others have taken to social media to say that the Taliban has ordered them to stop working and go home.

One Afghan media worker, who, like others interviewed by The Post spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, said many female journalists are staying inside.

“Now the Taliban is on very good behavior with people just to show they are good, but we cannot believe them,” she said. “They are very dangerous, and we are afraid.”

Another Afghan journalist told The Post on Monday that she heard the Taliban searching homes in her area. She sent digital photos of her personal documents to a contact abroad before destroying them.

“Everybody is scared right now,” she said in Dari. Many Afghans would want to remain — “this is our homeland” — if the situation weren’t so dire.

“The world has abandoned us,” she said. “The least they can do is help the journalists here who are in danger of losing their lives. Not our livelihoods, but our lives.”

Journalists harbor deep uncertainty and concern about “whether the progress that was so difficult to create over 20 years” can be maintained, said a third Afghan journalist. Speaking in Dari from Kabul, he explained that he wants to leave the country, but it seems nearly impossible right now: The embassies have shuttered, getting to the airport is perilous, and all other exit routes seem closed.

He added that journalists “can’t keep their objectivity and freedom of expression if they abide by the strict rules of the Taliban.” Going against such rules “may even threaten their lives.”

The security situation for media workers in Afghanistan — which ranked 122 out of 180 on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index — had been dangerous long before the Western-backed government fell on Sunday. In 2016, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted a van full of people working for Tolo, killing seven. Since then, dozens more media workers have been killed in attacks sometimes claimed by the Taliban or the Islamic State, a distinct extremist group. Last year was one of the deadliest yet; at least 11 media workers were killed, including Mohammad Ilyas Dayee of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which broadcasts throughout the country.

Months ago, RFE/RL stopped identifying its reporters on the ground in its broadcasts, citing safety concerns. Some didn’t even want their voices to air for fear of being targeted.

But with the swift Taliban takeover, a patchwork of free-press groups, media outfits and individual journalists has kicked into high gear, working around-the-clock to find ways to get Afghan media workers out of the country.

The Committee to Protect Journalists — which since January had steadily been hearing from journalists worried about a Taliban takeover — is keeping a priority list of those most at risk. This week, the group received 500 requests for assistance in just a two-day period. By the third day, the list had doubled. The organization has heard four reports from journalists whose homes were searched by the Taliban; CPJ is also investigating reports that the Taliban assaulted journalists at a protest in Jalalabad.

Journalists for RFE/RL, like many other Afghans, have been forced to leave their homes and flee to other parts of the country in recent weeks. But a number are still on the job; some have even apologized for sending stories in late because they were in hiding, said Andres Ilves, the group’s director for the region.

Female journalists from across the country have flocked to safe houses in Kabul, which had been assumed to remain safer for longer and perhaps offer better access for escape, but these places are running out of supplies or becoming less secure.

Advocates abroad are trying to help Afghan journalists get visas and seats on planes, but that may not be enough, said International Women’s Media Foundation executive director Elisa Lees Muñoz. The journey to the airport is rife with danger, from militants asking for various documents to the risk of being robbed or attacked.

“It’s a crazy situation,” Lees Muñoz said. “Getting those planes has become easier than it is getting people to the airport.”

Khushbu Shah, editor in chief of the D.C.-based nonprofit newsroom Fuller Project, has been trying to facilitate the departure of Afghan journalists from afar. One female contributor, who communicated with a Fuller Project editor via Facebook Messenger, had gotten into a taxi last Friday night in an effort to leave the city but was robbed at gunpoint. Her passport, documents and money were taken.

Shah said the woman made it to the airport, boarded a flight and is currently outside Afghanistan. And although Shah’s first priority is securing the physical safety of the journalists, she said there “is a huge feeling of loss” of the future they hoped to build in Afghanistan.

“They’ve worked so hard and for so long to tell their country’s stories,” she said. “All of that is going to be lost.”

That’s the tension confronting Najafizada at Tolo TV as well. He doesn’t know how much longer he can keep women reporting in the country. “My job as an editor is to stop journalists from going to suicide bombings and dangerous places,” he said. “That’s what I care about the most: keeping them safe.”

But for now, he said, “we continue our work.”