The rapid withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan, two decades after the conflict there began, has left citizens and journalists concerned about their future, journalism experts said Wednesday.
The Committee to Protect Journalists is receiving hundreds of appeals from journalists in Afghanistan every day, uncertain about their futures and worried about their safety, CPJ Asian Program Director Steven Butler said.
Veteran Arab News columnist Zahid Hussain said “chaos and uncertainty” had gripped the country, but that the situation could end well if the Taliban kept its promises.
But during an interview on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show,” broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News, Butler said his organization was being inundated with desperate appeals from journalists in fear for their lives.
“It has been in the thousands of requests for help … thousands. The media industry was one of the great successes of the last 20 years. You cannot say they created a successful democracy but there was a thriving media industry, and profitable too,” Butler said.
“In the morning I get up and we have this inbox, and it is filled with journalists saying ‘please help me, they are going to kill me if you don’t help me get out.’ It is really hard to read through it to be honest. We just hope and pray that it turns out the Taliban leaders mean what they say when they say they want to have a free press.”
The CPJ has brought in more staff to handle the daily appeals for help.
“This number is out of date but at least 50 news operations have been shut down across the country, in the provinces … some of the journalists see it coming and they flee. The Taliban has a history of brutality and many journalists have been assassinated over these past few years, and there is a high level of distrust,” said Butler, who worked throughout Asia including for the Financial Times and The Christian Science Monitor in the mid-1980s..
Hussain, who writes opinion commentary for Arab News and has published several books on the region, said that many people thought the transition would have taken far longer than the few weeks it did.
“It is a very chaotic situation. It is largely because of the way the Americans decided to leave Afghanistan, so that is one of the major reasons for the chaos. The other thing is that it was expected, or foretold, that the Taliban would be able to take over but no one expected things to move that fast,” he said.
“What happened is unimaginable … it caught everyone by surprise.”
Butler said that how the Taliban treats journalists during the coming months will define the country’s future.
“It is a very uncertain environment right now, and we don’t really understand the degree to which there is coordination between the Taliban leadership, which says they are in favor of a free press — and whether they mean it — and the Taliban on the ground,” Butler said.
“The Taliban have gone searching for certain journalists. They have gone through houses. We have had others, one incident where the Taliban knocked on the door and pushed their way in and the journalist escaped out the back and they were firing their weapons at him. It is very concerning. We just don’t know how far they are going to stay on this path, but it is very worrisome.
“Certainly, people who worked for foreign news outlets are in jeopardy. The people we are dealing with for the most part are Afghans working for Afghan news outlets who often made critical reports on the Taliban. They have been scrubbing their social media accounts trying to get rid of that, but people remember. People know the history of some of these people. They are well known in Afghanistan.”
Hussain said that “more of a fear of the unknown” was the biggest factor driving the growing concern.
“The Taliban are trying hard to assure them that they are not going back to that aggressive system. It will take time even if they show some sincerity.
“It is very difficult for insurgents who have been fighting for 20 years, and suddenly they find themselves in this different role and go into this country which is basically so divided … obviously the fighters who have been there, the fighters on the ground, and that will be challenging for a Taliban government,” Hussain said, noting there seemed to be less concern in the north of Afghanistan, which has always been more liberal. “The situation is normal in many of the country’s other cities.”
Butler and Hussain made their comments during an appearance on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show” sponsored by Arab News on the US Arab Radio Network, broadcast on live radio Wednesday morning in Detroit and in Washington DC.
For more information on the radio show visit Arab News at ArabNews.com.