Hundreds of Afghan Journalists Facing Uncertainty, Despair

New York, Nov. 17, 2021 – Three months after their evacuation from Kabul, hundreds of Afghan journalists are facing uncertainty about their futures, causing some to consider returning to Afghanistan to be rejoined with their families or resulting in their departures from U.S. military bases before obtaining work permits or housing. Many are trapped in third countries such as North Macedonia, Albania, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Persian Gulf nations, unable to obtain visas to travel to the United States.

A coalition of media support organizations including the Overseas Press Club, the Overseas Press Club Foundation, the GroundTruth Project, the Coalition for Women in Journalism, the North American chapter of the International Press Institute and PEN America met virtually on Nov. 12 to add up the different pieces of the dilemma facing Afghan journalists.

Many of the journalists had to leave Kabul with only the clothes on their backs and others lost their luggage in transit. As a result, many lack cell phones, computers and tape recorders – making it difficult for them to continue working. Javed Hamim Kakar, a senior editor at Pajhwok Afghan News and now in a resettlement village at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, is still editing copy from his colleagues back in Afghanistan – but is doing it on his son’s computer.

Journalists inside Fort McCoy have declined offers to attend virtual workshops on video journalism because of conditions there. “Basir [name altered to protect his identity] said there are no appropriate facilities that he and his colleagues are allowed access to; their WiFi signal is limited and weak; that the barracks where he and others stay are noisy and there is no appropriate space to conduct classes of any kind,” writes Bill Gentile of American University, an OPC Foundation board member. “He and his colleagues are generally depressed and more interested in spending time with their families [back in Afghanistan].”

Conditions are such that some Afghan journalists have “checked out” of the camps without authorization to go live with family or friends. “I checked out from Quantico [the Marine base in Virginia] independently, without housing and I didn’t get my work permit and other benefits either,” Abdul [name altered] wrote to the OPC, which is in direct communication with many Afghan journalists. “So now I am in a very bad financial situation. I don’t have enough money for housing and food.”

A female award-winning journalist, Sedika [name altered], has been discharged from the camps and is living with a friend, but is increasingly frustrated that she cannot get her family out of Afghanistan. “No matter how hard I try to persuade any institution to help get my family out of there, no one will help,” she wrote to the OPC. “My family is in danger there. Life is meaningless to me if one of them is harmed by the Taliban. If I can’t get help to move my family out of Afghanistan, I will have to go back to Afghanistan.”

Different media NGOs have lists of hundreds of Afghan journalists. The OPC has a list of about 60 in the United States and Women in Journalism also has created a list of about 300, which includes some non-journalists. It is not yet known how much overlap exists among the lists. The groups are discussing ways of assisting the Afghan journalists.

The difficulty in obtaining visas is proving crippling to the Afghan journalists in many ways. The editor-in-chief of the Pajhwok agency, Danish Kharkhel, one of the most respected journalists in Afghanistan, is attempting to create an editing hub for his news organization in Atlanta, but he is in France and has been unable so far to get a U.S. visa. The Taliban has allowed Pajhwok and several other Afghan news organizations to continue to operate in Afghanistan, but their future is highly uncertain. OPC President Paula Dwyer introduced Kharkhel’s key business partner, Atlanta-based technology consultant Tom Willard, to CNN, which is based in Atlanta, in hopes that CNN can provide some form of assistance to Pajhwok. Willard participated in the Nov. 12 meeting.

The State Department is perhaps responding to legitimate security concerns, but it has closed its lists of Afghan journalists it is considering visas for, turning away any further journalists who apply for themselves and their families. Several organizations involved in trying to help Afghans depart report that arranging for visas and for aircraft to leave Afghanistan are getting more difficult, forcing them to resort to dangerous departures at land borders.

Other developments revealed during the Nov. 12 meeting:

Vanessa Gezari, national security editor at the Intercept, which is affiliated with the Press Freedom Defense Fund, said the fund is in final stages of granting $30,000 to an Afghan Media Futures non-profit that will fund journalism in Afghanistan beginning in January. It will be aimed at tracking civilian casualties.

Candace Rondeaux, who was the Washington Post bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan and is now with New America and Arizona State University, said New America has launched an initiative to support at-risk Afghan journalists, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists now resettling outside of Afghanistan. New America’s Afghanistan Observatory initiative will support the livelihoods of at-risk Afghans who want to continue reporting on Afghanistan. The goal is to provide a cohort of 5-7 fellows substantial monthly stipends over 6-8 months, intensive training and mentoring, as well as a professional place to call home. The formal call for fellowship applications for the New America program is expected to be announced in December.

CONTACT: Patricia Kranz, OPC Executive Director, 917-971-0746