What the U.S. can do to save the lives of Afghan journalists

Opinion by Joel Simon

Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Candles placed in homage to Reuters journalist Danish Siddiqui in front of his portrait in Kathmandu, Nepal, on July 20. (Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

In early August, the husband and wife reporting team of Shakib Shams and Storai Karimi were covering the Taliban advance in western Afghanistan when their car was struck by gunfire. Taliban fighters immediately surrounded their vehicle and ordered the two journalists, who were uninjured, to get out. Held at gunpoint and interrogated, the pair were released with orders to interview local Taliban fighters and produce a positive story. A high-ranking commander warned that if they failed to do so, “we will know.”

According to U.S. intelligence estimates, Afghanistan could fall to the Taliban within six months of full U.S. military withdrawal. The impending and accelerating collapse of the Afghan government lays bare the failure not only of Washington’s military strategy in the country but also U.S. efforts at democracy — with one notable exception: the media. Over the past 20 years, independent media has proliferated in Afghanistan, producing national outlets as well as top-flight Afghan journalists who do the lion’s share of the reporting for international news organizations, which have shrunk their bureaus as the American presence has diminished. But unless the U.S. government intervenes to bring them to safety, an entire generation of reporters will be lost.

The experience of Shams and Karimi shows what’s at stake. Shams is a reporter with Salam Watandar, a national radio network created by Internews, a U.S. media development organization, and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Karimi works for Pajhwok Afghan News, another independent agency, which was created by Committee to Protect Journalists award winner Danish Karokhel and also received USAID funding. Although the journalists agreed under duress to interview local Taliban fighters, in the end they felt as professionals they could not publish a one-sided story. Now, like just about every independent Afghan journalist, they fear for their lives.

Indeed, as the Taliban has been gaining power across the country, journalists have come under increasing attack. Danish Siddiqui, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for Reuters and an Indian national, was killed in fighting on July 16, under circumstances that are still being investigated. On Aug. 6, Taliban commandos assassinated Dawa Khan Menapal, the head of the Afghan government’s media operations. While Menapal was hardly an independent voice, the murder was still a stark warning to the country’s journalists. On Sunday, suspected Taliban fighters murdered one journalist and kidnapped another. The Taliban cares deeply about the way it is portrayed in international and local media, and as the interaction with Shams and Karimi showed, the group demands positive coverage. Those who defy the Taliban face threats, pressure, kidnapping and murder.

Last month, leading U.S. media organizations, supported by CPJ, wrote to President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and congressional leadership calling on the U.S. government to extend the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to cover Afghans who worked on U.S. media operations. The SIV program currently applies only to Afghans who worked directly for the U.S. government.

On Aug. 2, the State Department announced that Afghan journalists who are or have been employed by U.S. media organizations would receive priority designation for refugee status. In order to qualify, however, the journalists would have to get to a third country and survive for a year or longer while their applications are processed. The priority designation offers a narrow, expensive and difficult path out for those who are employed directly by U.S. media outlets, but it does nothing for freelancers on contract with U.S. news organizations or Afghan journalists working for domestic media outlets.

The easiest way to address the life-or-death threat to Afghan journalists is to make them eligible for the SIV program, which would allow those eligible to travel directly from Afghanistan to the United States. (Often SIV program participants are sent to a third country while they undergo security checks.) Extending the protection to Afghan journalists will require an act of Congress. Getting Congress to react will require presidential leadership.

With so many domestic and global priorities, why should Biden expend political capital on saving Afghan journalists? Quite simply, the success of his foreign policy agenda depends on it.

Biden has stated that the United States must build a global coalition to preserve democracy against a rising autocratic tide. The Biden administration has been outspoken in publicly defending journalists and press freedom as part of its democracy agenda — yet we are now witnessing the failure of the greatest democracy-building project in decades, as the Afghan government staggers and reels. Nothing can be done to reverse that dynamic at this stage, but by saving Afghan journalists the Biden administration can honor its ideals and recognize the sacrifice of journalists who have covered the Afghan saga.

Experience has shown that most exiled Afghan journalists who are able to flee the country will leave the profession, finding other jobs to survive. But a select group will stay engaged, reporting independently on the country, while keeping Afghan journalism alive and documenting the country’s uncertain future.

Half measures — such as the State Department designation — will not get the job done. The United States must go all in for Afghan journalists if it wants to convince the world it stands for press freedom.

What the U.S. can do to save the lives of Afghan journalists