“We shouldn’t be gossiping about Afghanistan from afar”: Afghan journalist on how free press affects international aid

Afghanistan’s independent media has suffered a great collapse over the last year, and local journalists in the country need support more than ever.

Why It Matters

Studies show that the international coverage of a humanitarian crisis directly impacts how much global aid goes into the affected region. Passing the one year mark of when the Taliban took power, supporting local journalists in Afghanistan is vital for inclusive coverage of important issues affecting populations within the country, this expert says.

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When Kabul fell to the Taliban in August 2021, Afghanistan’s journalists and media outlets started to disappear like smoke. Just within three months, over 40 percent of the country’s media outlets vanished. By December 2021, more than 6,000 journalists lost their jobs — nearly half of whom being women journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders

Lotfullah Najafizada was a director and journalist at TOLOnews, the first and largest 24/7 news channels in Afghanistan, before the Taliban’s rise to power. He oversaw the massive news operation and reported on issues at a national and international level. 

“We had an industry of about 10,000 media professionals in the country, and we were the freest media in the region, compared to all our immediate neighbors,” says Najafizada. “At the same time we were one of the deadliest countries for journalists. So it was not an easy country but we had constitutional guarantees for a free press.” 

There were hundreds of media outlets at both local and national levels, and Najafizada explains that these outlets were the main source of information in a “very conservative, religious, and traditional society.”

And then the Afghan media industry collapsed. Thousands of journalists, like Najafizada, left the country; but there are still thousands inside the country, trying to tell important stories.

Many studies have shown how international news — particularly the amount of coverage — impacts the flow of global aid to a particular region or country. 

Global media outlets often move on quickly from one humanitarian crisis to the next. And when a country’s journalists are unable to report on the stories and injustices happening within their borders, there is absolutely no documentation and watchdogs to call attention to the human rights issues and injustices happening. 

“[Afghan] journalists are missing a lot of stories because they can’t cover it. You can’t cover  female protests, you can’t cover violence, you can’t cover security incidents, and if you can’t cover these basic, most important stories, then there isn’t much for you to do apart from Taliban propaganda,” says Najafizada.

How the state of journalists in Afghanistan is affecting international aid

“The Taliban are putting a lot of pressure on local media outlets and journalists; over 100 journalists that have been arrested and beaten and tortured in the past year alone,” says Najafizada.

With currently no free and independent media outlet in Afghanistan, censorship is virtually absolute, says Najafizada. “But we have to recognize those who are there and trying to make a difference, trying to tell stories; particularly independent journalists and freelance journalists who are working at a local level.”  

Najafizada says Afghanistan is becoming more dependent than ever on foreign aid, and the nature of this aid has not been widely reported or been scrutinized enough. 

“The UN said [recently] that they have spent a billion dollars in the past year — my question is, how? What do we know about it?” asks Najafizada. “Where’s the aid monitoring mechanism? Where was the role of the media? And how much has the Taliban benefited from that aid?”

The misuse of aid, or even how it’s delivered are not topics that are covered enough according to Najafizada. 

“We’ve had a lot of examples of the Taliban trying to influence particularly humanitarian aid distribution, and I think the international media doesn’t have an interest in those stories,” he says, adding that the local media often doesn’t necessarily have the training to cover issues like global aid in the same way that they cover national politics.

Launching Amu TV as a platform for Afghanistan, by Afghans. 

After fleeing Afghanistan, Najafizada and his friend Sami Mahdi (also an Afghan journalist) regrouped in Turkey and realized almost immediately that the Taliban will not tolerate free press. And so together they tried to make a plan for how they could continue to report on the country. 

Najafizada ended up going to Toronto with his family and Mahdi went to Virginia after getting a U.S. work permit. The plan was to create a media outlet that was based in North America, but still employed many of their journalists from inside Afghanistan. 

“We thought that maybe we should come up with a model that we call a hybrid model, not an exile model — an exile model encourages further detachment and distance from the ground,” says Najafizada. 

Instead, Najafizada and Mahdi wanted to create a platform that was still deeply rooted in Afghanistan and mobilized local journalists. 

“Afghanistan is our audience; Afghanistan is the place we would like to serve. And how we want to serve is to have some support structure outside, but have most of our journalists inside the country,” says Najafizada. 

Amu TV launched August 2022, and within the first 24 hours, they had over 200 job applications flooding in. Now, more than 50 percent of their staff are from inside Afghanistan, and from all corners of the country. 

Within the first two months of existence, Amu TV has 35,000 followers on Twitter, 72,000 followers on Facebook, 180,000 people have visited their website that has published 1,300 articles in three languages, and more than 70 percent of their audience is from Afghanistan.

The overwhelming support shows primarily the need for independent media about Afghanistan, but Najafizada also says it shows that there’s a strong presence of people within Afghanistan who would like to use their pens as a tool to resist and fight back the Taliban’s rule by reporting on their society.

Eventually as the outlet grows, Najafizada says they would like to be a 24/7 TV channel and be on satellite, hopefully within the first year. 

“We shouldn’t be gossiping about Afghanistan from afar. I think it’s very important for Afghan journalists, Afghan influencers, as well as friends of the country in the international community to stay engaged and make sure that when they make Afghanistan policies, Afghans are included,” says Najafizada.

The need for transparency around global aid, and supporting local Afghan journalists

Najafizada explains that there are two main ways that global leaders can help the issue of free press in Afghanistan: improving transparency around aid projects, and building capacity for Afghan journalists.

There has to be a communication component to every aid project that aims to support Afghanistan, says Najafizada. 

For instance, if the Canadian government contributes $100 million to Afghanistan’s health sector that is supposed to build clinics and provide health services around the country, they should be proactively giving information on the project. This includes being transparent around who is distributing the funds, how they are going to be allocated, and the timeline of the project. 

Najafizada explains that the impact of an aid project can be maximized when there’s a local awareness around it, and when the local Afghan media is part of spreading that awareness to the population. 

“I think one thing that’s unique about the Taliban is that every time they come to power, they kill confidence and they kill hope. And then they kill, of course, debate. And that’s why there isn’t much of a discussion happening inside the country, particularly at national level,” says Najafizada.“Hopefully, that’s something that the diaspora could help with.” 

Building capacity for Afghan journalists is another important element of strengthening free press in the country, and something funders should be supporting, according to Najafizada.

“We come from a country where we have been heavily focused on politics for the past 20 years. When the pandemic happened, we were struggling with how to report on health, we didn’t know we didn’t know how to cover it,” says Najafizada. 

He adds that international aid reporting is also part of the training needed for Afghan journalists, both inside and outside the country. This also needs funding, Najafizada says.

“There is an absence of state and government in Afghanistan, particularly a recognized one, but it doesn’t mean that the country doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean that 40 million Afghans don’t exist,” says Najafizada. “And they have to be engaged; I don’t see that happening enough.”