How to protect Afghanistan's media. Global Journalism Seminar with Sami Mahdi, Fellows, Shorenstein Center, Harvard
11:30AM Oct 6, 2021
Hello, and welcome to the global journalism seminar series at the Reuters Institute for the Study of journalism. This is a first seminar of the new term, we're still doing these online, but we also have our journalist fellows with us in the room, from all parts of the world. We return to Oxford after an extraordinary summer. And we remember the scenes from mid August when US and British troops left Afghanistan, leaving the country in the hands of the Taliban. The consequences of this will be felt for years to come. Today we want to start with a small tentative look at what it means for Afghan journalists in particular, since the Taliban took control Tolo media reports and 153 media outlets have closed in the country. Hundreds of journalists have fled. But it's important to remember about at least 1300 journalists remember remain in the country, of which 220 are women, most of them in couple. Some like Samiullah Mahdi have already been targeted for persecution. I know this is a fast complex story in any one hour seminar can only begin to touch the surface of what this means. But we want to try to help. I'm really pleased to have with us today, Samiullah Mahdi, Sammy has years of experience for journalism in Afghanistan. He founded the PAYK investigative journalism center, and he is also held senior roles at one TV color media and radio Saudi. This year somebody became a fellow at Harvard University Shorenstein Center on media, politics and public policy. And last month, he published his paper on the rise of the Afghan press and how it can be protected in the current transition of power. He joins us today from Turkey where his family fled to talk to us about the future of journalists there. Sami, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you so much. Meera, it's a pleasure to be here and talking to you and your audience.
Thank you. Will you tell us what's happened to you in the last few weeks.
I have lost the country. I have lost my home and I have lost everything that we had dreamed for for two decades, we worked very hard for our country. And unfortunately, we have lost our country now. That's what has happened to me and the millions of my people.
I'm very very very sorry for your loss and for this disruption of home I know from personal experience of heartbreaking disease. Do you see yourself as a journalist and what do you see as the future of journalism for the country, how could we bless after the big question, you know, how can it survive, what do you need.
Well, as you mentioned in the introduction about 153 media outlets are shut down now. I mean, after the arrival of Taliban in Kabul. Hundreds of journalists have fled the country. And, of course, more than 1000 journalists are still inside the country. But most experienced journalists have fled the country, and those who are remaining are looking for, you know, for ways to get out of the country. It means that environment of terror and fear is there in Cabo, and the provinces, we witnessed journalists being tortured being beaten up and taken into custody by the Taliban, being imprisoned for several weeks with no prosecutions, and I mean no legal prosecutions. So that's happening right now they're in Kabul, and also we see a wave of censorship, being implemented on media outlets in Afghanistan. And we have a very few and harmful media outlets who is still there, to stand against the Taliban and tell the truth. Most media outlets are now, you know, avoiding reporting on critical issues, which could make the Taliban upset.
What do you think is kind of the level of functioning journalism in the country is there still journalism that you think is worthwhile and is still being able to report openly.
Of course yes I think there are still journals, who are daring to stand for their principles, and for their values, and we see it in carbon and we see it in some other provinces. Cloth rules could be an example. You know, it's altroz is one of two most read than most popular newspapers in Afghanistan, and they paid the, the, I mean the price for the standing, their grounds and standing for their values of being impartial, independent, objective, reporters. Their reporters were tortured by the Taliban, but still, when I'm monitoring media, I can see that a cloud rose stands out, compared to so many other outlets, but of course there are, there are other other news media, who are trying to stand their ground, but it is like when you try to stand for your values, and continue reporting, impartially independently and being objective and report on stories which matter to the, to your audience, the most. At the same time, it means you're risking the lives of your your reporters and yourself.
What do you get the feelings, the reaction of the Afghan population, it's kind of overnight shutdown of much of the media, is there an awareness of what's happening is there support for journalists on the ground.
I think there is support for journalists and there is awareness of what what is happening in Afghanistan, and how media has been shut down by the Taliban. And I think the new generation of Afghanistan is supporting media. You know the new generation. Afghanistan is a very very young country over 75% I mean, under 35 or 30 years old, which makes us one of the most, and the youngest countries in the world. So, this new generation has grown up watching media following me.
Sammy we've lost you that moment.
Do you hear me now,
yes we can hear you again.
Oh yeah, sorry for that. I was saying that this new generation has grown up watching media and experiencing this freedom of expression, and the media revolution in Afghanistan which is very unique in our history, and also in our region. None of our neighboring countries have this level of freedom of expression. So, there is a there is emotional attachment between the new generation of Afghanistan, and media, I see that kind of support for media.
That's a really interesting point about Afghanistan being the one of the youngest countries in the world and can you stay on that a little bit and talk about about social media and the role it's played in the past and the role we think it can continue to play in the future in this space is the space through which people can access information is it a space where journalists feel they're able to operate.
Absolutely. I think we have about 15 million internet users in Afghanistan, millions of accounts on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, YouTube, you know, all these social media outlets are very popular in Afghanistan among the youngsters. And to be fair I think many people now receive their daily news from social media, from YouTube, from YouTube, from mostly Facebook and Twitter people people receive their daily news, and we see a revolution of citizens journalism. People start reporting on incidents, especially, they break the news on daily basis. And, you know, media outlets, they just follow the citizens. Most of the time. So, yes, social media plays a very important role. Now in Afghanistan, but also, as you know, similar to other parts of the world misinformed information. This information and distorted news. Also, you know circulates on social media, which makes the, the work very very hard for professional journalists to, you know, separate between the reality and distorted information.
And you talked about the climate of censorship in the country do you see that same level of censorship again on social media and in the digital space?
Not yet. Not yet. I can see self censorship among people on social media, because the, I mean, those people who are still in Afghanistan, still in Kabul or other provinces, and they are afraid of being you know, no noticed by the authorities Taliban authorities, so maybe people try to avoid, you know, being stopped touching sensitive matters, but that's kind of that's kind of self censorship. I don't see, you know, government, or Taliban regime censorship on social media so far.
Thank you. I'm going to go to some of the questions and if people do have questions please type in the q&a box but I'll go to our journalist fellows first question from Alex Mara who worked for the BBC asking about RTA, and the credibility of RPA in Afghanistan. And do you believe it was too close to the government, before to be held to hold your property accountable.
Unfortunately, RT has never been a credible source of information, credible research shows that RT had only two to 3% viewership in Afghanistan, even in the past 20 years. So, even in the past 20 years, the government always refused to make RT, RT. A real national broadcast channel, and independent of the government and government propaganda. So, it was never been a great source of information, especially for for news and I think it continues to be now in the hands of the Taliban.
Okay. I mean it's an interesting point that, especially combined with our media earlier about social media that to gain trust, and to be viable you need independence, And it's just not possible to create a kind of viable, respected media outlet without that political independence, whether.
Absolutely, absolutely political independence and impartiality of media as you know is the foundation of trust between any outlet and the audience's so because RT has never been politically independent, it has been always the mouthpiece of the government during the, I mean the communist regime then during the Mujahideen, and the Taliban during 90s, and in the past 20 years.
Thank you. Good question from Emily Chang, who is a journalist from Hong Kong and journalists in Hong Kong are operating under can very very change political environment to the one they were used to as well. Sammy Are you still there. semies in Turkey, and on a kind of erratic internet connections we just need to wait for see, wait a few moments to see if you can be patched in, as I said, I've noticed a few people raising their hands, which would you please type questions into the q&a box and then I will put them to him when he, when he returns. Thank you.
Can you hear me mirror,
yes we can send me Hello, I'm so sorry for this worry at all. We completely understand and it's the nature of getting people from all around the world to dial in. Okay, thank you. Welcome back, and thanks, I will spend two hours some questions about the safety of journalism so you talked about citizen journalists and social media and we have Emily Chang from Hong Kong. And again, journalists from Hong Kong about operating in a political environment that has changed dramatically in the last few years, and worsened considerably. How would you and you have an idea of setting up social media outside your country and, you know, getting reporters to work on the ground, how would you protect your safety in these circumstances, because you have a similar situation in Hong Kong where many journalists want to leave, but then they just don't know how to protect their colleagues who they work with backup back on the ground, own.
Well, I think that's a very important question. First of all, especially now that a lot of journalists have fled the country. And there is still a very good, you know relationship between those colleagues who have gotten out of the country and those who are still inside. So, what we are experiencing is that we get reports and leaks from our colleagues who are on the ground. And these leaks, you know, become reports and stories by those editors and reporters who are outside the country. So, using anonymous names, not putting the names of our colleagues on the stories, and not revealing their information is very very important. And I see money outlets have already started doing that pike investigative journalism center that you mentioned at the beginning, is using this, you know, approach. It has been very, very productive. This way we can continue reporting about and using reliable sources, and at the same time, we protect our colleagues there in Afghanistan.
The reliable sources is an important point because essentially have a situation where you're getting on the ground reports but then the editors and fact checks essentially out of the country.
Absolutely, absolutely. We use I mean leaks from reporters who are reliable, who are experienced, but because of the security situation and the concerns about their safety, they cannot put these kinds of stories out so they send these stories and leaks to editors who are abroad, and they, you know it's a lot of back and forth between editors and reporters on the ground, but it's very important to have a grasp of what's happening on the ground without the help of reporters who are on the ground. I think the reliability of news outlets, you know, that will not be, you know, that will not adapt will be under question.
And we've seen some examples this question from mera chelonae is a journalist from India who reports from Kashmir another contested space. And there's been quite a few incidences where news that was carried by big international media outlets in those chaotic days of the summer, turned out to be false. So stories about the Taliban, for example, burning alive and woman who was cooking and there's one about, you know the status of women and some, some of it is true and some of it has been an exaggerated. And these stories have often been based on either on the ground, social media, so tweets from people who purport to be citizens, or from people who claim to be Afghan journalists, and the question here is why is this happening what past is coming about and what can the Afghan journalistic community the kind of the one that is trying to report accurately do about these scenarios, because it's undermines trust in journalism but also undermines trust in the information space generally
that's, that's right. Unfortunately, fact checking this moment, under this circumstances is very, very hard when you're not on the ground, and when journalists are afraid of going out and reporting openly and getting in touch with sources, and introducing themselves as with their real names. All of these are challenges for us, for fact checking and making sure that what we are reporting is the reality, not fiction or not distorted story. It's hard, but at the same time, because we have been working in hostile environment for so long. So, these tactics have become part of what we have doing in the past two decades, making sure the safety of our colleagues at the same time, making sure that we report the reality. And we keep the, I mean information of our sources, anonymous, and at the same time, gaining even more credibility and trust of our audiences, it's very hard, but it has become part of our our job in the past two decades, Because of the stability of the environment. Examples. Oh,
it is from all over the world but it's from getting himself on him, Donna, how do you kind of verify stories when they're often based quite understandably on a single source in a, in a remote location you know what, what kind of structures, processes have been put in place in the past years.
Well, single sources stories are very dangerous and tricky, always. So, we try our best to avoid single source stories, especially when it is related to politics. When someone leaks story to you, and political motivation is always there. So we always try to avoid single sources, but sometimes it depends how credible your sources, and how you can go around it and verify with other sources, and check the facts. I mean independently. So it is it is hard, but sometimes you have no choice but to depends on your single source. But we have always tried to, I mean from my personal experience, try to limit the single sources, and always question, question the motivation behind the leaks.
Thank you. And we turned out the issue of Women Journalists again from outside the country. This has been covered the status of women in Afghanistan, more widely. But can you explain a little bit more about the impact of the new regime on Women Journalists and most don't seem to be working publicly. Other newsrooms or organizations are actively trying to encourage female journalists back into the newsroom. And in this, what kind of support or pressure from the international community would help.
Well, first of all, one of the first steps. Steps pahlawan took was to, you know, forbidden all female journalists from RTA, the state run TV. That was the first thing that. So, that send the message of fear among other female colleagues all around Afghanistan. It means that we are ever thought about half full control, they are against female journalists and women woman's appearance on on TV. That's the first thing. Second thing, we have some of our best journals are female journals. I can give you some names like Anisa Shahid is an icon Hasib Ataqbal is another icon. Feroza, my colleague from radio Azadi is very trustworthy journalists or noisy pharma will be some others I can give you dozens of names. These are some of the most trusted faces of journalism in Afghanistan, not only because they are female journalists, but because they are journalists. Most of these names have fled the country. They cannot continue their work. For example, on Tolo news. I can say, maybe 30% of the report anchors on daily basis, presenters of news were female. Now, I think, only one has left the remaining has, as you know flipped the country. No one is there. So, I think it has the Taliban's Taliban taking control of Kabul and collapse a former government has left a devastating impact on female journalism in Afghanistan.
What can be done about this, can anything be done about this.
Of course, I think the international community as you asked. Has a still a leverage over the Taliban Taliban are seeking for international recognition and Taliban are seeking for international aid. These two things shouldn't get shouldn't be given to the Taliban, as gifts. Any international recognition of the Taliban should be dependent on their recognition of freedom of expression, women's rights, human rights and democratic system in Afghanistan. Otherwise it will be just a gift, you know, Taliban announced their interim government, there, there are 33 members in this government in this cabinet, and 17 of them are on the blacklist of United Nations Security Council, because of your association and affiliations with terrorist groups or terrorism. So, if these values are not recognized by your solid on and not taken seriously by international community. This will be for the first time that cabinet full of mean people with association or direct association and affiliation with terrorist groups or is recognized internationally.
Do you think sanctions international sanctions by the UN or elsewhere would have any effect. Yeah,
I think, yes, the sanctions will be helpful on the Taliban, and their regime, because they will not be able to pay the salaries of their staff or the civil service members, and so the sanctions on their movements outside Afghanistan is very important and it has been impacting them, and they have been asking for, you know, an end to the sanctions. So, that gives our leverage to international community and those who still support democracy and other human basic rights in Afghanistan.
And let's talk about journalism and journalists. Journalists in particular, what we have in our audiences groups of journalists and senior editors. What would you like from this community, to protect journalism in Afghanistan, is it solidarity is it reporting is it hiring Afghan journalists in exile, what what do you need
all of these. We need all of these. First of all, we need international journalists to continue their support for Afghan journalists
returned to Sami again.
I'm sorry, again, something happened tomorrow. So I was think first of all what we need is support for international journalists, and continue working with their Afghan counterparts in Afghanistan and abroad. Second, I know that some of these Afghan journalists who are abroad now trying to continue working from abroad. So they may start new outlets here. Mostly nonprofits or for profits. Some of them are looking for opportunities to work with international media outlets, and also what we need is the continued pressure on international community, to not let this single achievements of achievement of Afghanistan, an international community and the past 20 years to die. I mean, Look after the flee of President Ashraf Ghani and his team. Our national army collapsed, our national police collapsed, our parliament collapsed, our government and its institutions collapsed. But media is that they're, They're working, and they have continued reporting, and for that I feel you know, honored to be part of this community, although I was not privileged to remain in the country. But I see my colleagues are so brave. So carriages that they are reporting from the country under. Unbelievable, unbelievable circumstances. So, I think, international community and international reporters and journalism community could help and support media in Afghanistan still
a complaint. Yeah, somebody could you turn yourself around. We're seeing you on your side, your camera be changed. There we go. Thank you. That's perfect. Thank you. It's a really moving and very obvious very striking point that the media in Afghanistan, journalists in Afghanistan have carried on with the rest of the status collapsed around them, it's, it's actually thought of it like that. But you're absolutely right and the journalists ability to keep on reporting is it's breathtaking question again from Alex from the BBC, what can the international news agencies and international reporters with their relative safety and resources, and stability. What can they do in how they report to Afghanistan, like what can they you know what kind of reporting. Do you want to see
going forward. Well international media has always done a wonderful job on reporting on Afghanistan, but at the same time, I would suggest to focus more on day to day life in Afghanistan, real life stories in Afghanistan, for example, when these all of these things were happening around Kabul airport all international media outlets were focused just on Kabul airport. Almost everyone forgot what was happening in the rest of the country, people were being killed, door to door, search for opposition, or the civil society activists and media activists and journalists started almost no media, no international media reported on these issues, because the focus was still international community itself. And it's, I mean, evacuating its last troops from Afghanistan. That was the center of attention, not the lives of those Afghans who were there. And, I mean, another example is when that explosion happened. And, you know, dozens of ordinary citizens were killed there. That was not the headline. The headline was the death of American soldiers, which is also very tragic, but it says a lot. When 12 lives matters more than hundreds. So, I think, putting the lives of citizens of Afghanistan, giving it a priority, and reporting from different corners of the country and not trying to whitewash this group or another group is very important. You,
quite rightly said lots of International Bureau said and invested very heavily in Afghanistan open significant bureaus there in the last two decades now that they've had to evacuate or have decided to evacuate for the safety of their staff. How easy, are you, what do you see so far do you see this kind of do you see a kind of pulling back of reporting on the ground in Afghanistan, that are you concerned that once the drama of the airport scenes, pass that the reporting levels will go right down.
It has gone down already. Yeah. So, as international athletes are evacuating have evacuated already, many of them from Afghanistan. So, Afghanistan is not in the center of news. For that reason anymore. But people more than 35 million people live there. And people have Ganesan, ordinary people of Afghanistan, and especially the new generation has been the partner of international community there. And we, you know, took pride, to say the international community took pride to say that we have educated African people, millions of children are going to school, four or 5 million girls who are going to school for the first time in the history of the country. So what will happen to these people. Now, when Taliban have decided to, you know, block, girls from going to school and universities. What will happen to them. We took pride in saying that journalism and media is a wonderful achievement in Afghanistan. So what will happen to that. I think there are, there is still life going on. And there is still misery, misery, and tragedy going on in Afghanistan, we should continue reporting on Afghanistan, and telling the stories of ordinary people. For The World.
Nice stories fall off the news list when they become unremitting despair when it becomes a story of, nothing can be done, and I can see from outside that that ends up being what the Afghans narrative is and you're absolutely right that that's not the case. Could you tell us some areas where you kind of, you see a sense of possibility, or of optimism for Afghan journalism, and for life in Afghanistan?
absolutely when I saw first woman, demonstrating against the Taliban and demanding their rights, their basic rights of education work. And, you know, civil freedoms and independence. I, for the first time, after months of being so depressed. I felt happy. And I thought, no Afghanistan has changed. Afghanistan has changed, and media has been part of this change in mentalities. So if women now. Dare to stand against the Taliban and demonstrate for their rights. It means, Afghanistan has changed forever. So that gives me hope for the for the future. it means. Yeah, we understand that Tata one has not changed, they are the same group the same ideology, if they change, they will not be the Taliban anymore, they will lose their brand, and they will lose their ideology, but Afghanistan the country that population has changed. This change will not let the Taliban to continue ruling like this forever. It will be impossible for Taliban to rule like this forever. And the first to stand against them are women. The, I mean, they were able to suppress, women in 1990s, and we never had any demonstrations against them. Now, people, women are out on the streets and demanding their rights, it's, for me it's a very big change and it is a result of education and the revolution of information and access to information in the in the country.
Last year was going to be my next question. Where are people organizing, I don't want you to tell me the exact WhatsApp groups or whatever but which platforms. Are you aware that people are using to organize these demonstrations and where is civil society operating in Afghanistan. And related to that you talked about censorship on social media and the Taliban, don't get to censor social media in the same way they censor more legacy media is that because they can't, or they just decided it's not worth trying.
Will about the first question, all these social media, you know, they are the platforms that people are using for organizing demonstrations and I was some somebody added me on a WhatsApp group. And I realized that all women who are organizing demonstrations, one of them, I don't know from where she got my number and she knew that I'm a journalist, and she added me to that group. And I was receiving lots of video footage, you know, and sound records and messages from them, from, from I mean live on the ground, so they know how to do it, they are informed they're very skilled and equipped. And I think Taliban understand this, because they have been using social media, and WhatsApp for the operations. Yeah, facebook, whatsapp Twitter, and YouTube, they have been doing this. Maybe they, they didn't have the time to start censoring social media, or maybe because they have been using it as well for their own interest and benefit. So, they have not started censoring yet, but that is one of my, my, my fears for future, because when Taliban started attacking the Panjshir Valley. One of the last provinces, actually the last Province, which was, select standing against the Taliban Bay, you know, turned off electricity, And they turn off all telecommunication. So for weeks. Nobody knew what was happening inside the valley. So they have used that tactic. If they start using that for the whole country. That will be very very dangerous, because there will be no eyes to monitor what toleriane doing to document what Taliban are doing, especially atrocities against human rights and violation of human rights. And when we cannot document, we and we cannot monitor, nobody will be able to keep the Taliban accountable leader.
The, the weaponization of the Internet and Internet blackouts is a very blunt, but effective tool to keep the population in the dark is is growing fragmented common you're absolutely right. I think it's going back to the idea of Afghanistan was very young country, but again this is crucially, I think one area of optimism. What do these young people need from us, from journalists abroad, and from the international community we've talked more widely about sanctions, and, you know, conditions, linked to aid and international recognition, but what do, what what do the younger people need very specifically do you think,
from international media I think they need that their stories should be told to grab the attention of international community, and media is I think the single tube and medium, which could do that for, for our youngsters. Second, international community should continue providing our youngsters with scholarships, with fellowships and opportunities to go abroad and study. That's, that's very very important, and that has been part of this revolution of the new generation in Afghanistan. And by continuing telling their stories that will, you know, provide a kind of pressure on the Taliban to not suppress the new generation of Afghanistan, because the conflict of values between the new generation of the Afghanistan and the Taliban is very very high because the population. I mean, you know, 40 years ago, even 20 years ago, the proportion of population who resided in our cities, was very small compared to those. I mean, people who resided in rural areas. Now, that has changed only couple city has over 6 million population. The same is true about Kandahar, Hara mazari Sharif Nangarhar and other smaller cities around the country. So, these people in major cities, and even smaller cities, they have grown up with different values in the past 20 years, they have experienced for the first time democracy, they have experienced going and voting, no matter how fraudulent the elections was. But still, it was the first experience they have experienced access to information and freedom of expression, Taliban, do not believe in any of these. I don't see that all rural people support the Taliban. But of course, support for the Taliban in rural areas compared to the urban city or urban areas, is of course higher. So, I think this is very very important to this story should be told to the international community. and this kind of support should continued.
Thank you. Thank you very much, and some of what about you. What will you do next and how are you and your family going to
be. Well, I, I'm busy writing a book. Now, on how our national security and defense forces collapsed, and to trying to find the answer for the question, why they didn't fight. What was the reality behind that. That's on my priority list. Second, I continue my work as a journalist. We spoke about pike investigative journalism center. I continue my work there. We produce investigative reports, we produce fact check, reports, and a number of other activities we do there. And the only thing that I can not continue doing is teaching at Kabul University. After the attack on Kabul University last November, which we lost 18 students, and 16 of them were my students, I had taught them for two years after that attack, I was not able to go back to university and to my class to teach, that's very unfortunate. But I continue to do these things from abroad.
Sorry, I'm so sorry for all that you, we've lost and that you are continuing to lose it's it's it's beyond heartbreaking that sounds trite to me. Your thoughts are with us, and all our sympathies and there are lots of questions here about what can we do to support you and after you've answered some of this and you're absolutely right that support Afghanistan. Afghan journalists both with their initiatives with the news outlets they've tried to create at home and abroad, help them in their careers and you're absolutely right about scholarships, fellowships and trying to find ways to continue a dialogue with the people still inside the country because it's absolutely important that the international eye remains on the people as well it doesn't get forgotten. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
Thank you so much Meera, thank you so much. The last point I want to make is that Afghan people, like any people on the world, have a right to live and have a right to have access to education, security, safety, and their basic human rights. So the first thing that international community could do is pressure the Taliban and their supporters, why in the 21st century, Afghans should live like this, why in the 21st century Afghan girls are not allowed to go to schools, why other than women are not allowed to go to work and why we shouldn't have our freedom of expression in Afghanistan. I mean, these are the basic things that the whole humanity should address it for us. We have been a partner for international community, and we now demand to not forget about our people there.
Absolutely and we will amplify that message, maybe we can send me thank you so much feed and thank you all for joining and for all your questions and your very moving comments, it's very clear that all our thoughts are with you. Thank you.