Unions respond to Afghan media crisis

  • 16 Aug 2021

The NUJ has initiated talks with both the UK’s Foreign Office and the BBC to push for swift exit solutions for all staff based in the BBC’s Kabul office and those working across Afghanistan, bringing them and their families to safety in the UK or other international BBC newsrooms, writes Tim Dawson.

“We are losing everything, I am worried for every single member of our association, in fact for every single journalist in Afghanistan”, says the leader of one of Afghanistan’s journalists’ unions.

“The Taliban are killing civilians and punishing media and civil society activists”, says his colleague from another Afghan journalists’ organisation.

Brave as these men are, the fear in their voices is palpable.

I am listening in on a conference call between leaders of Afghan journalists and representatives of the NUJ and the International Federation of Journalists. It is just one strand of the initiatives to help the thousands of journalists and other media workers caught in what threatens to be a major humanitarian emergency.

The names and unions of the men whose conversation I am listening in on are known to me. I won’t repeat them here lest this places them in greater jeopardy. Both describe the Taliban bringing with them into Kabul voluminous files of stored articles for which they now seek revenge. “Everything has been recorded and now we are facing serious threats”, one says with a quiver in his voice.

Their account is consistent with reports from all over Afghanistan – of media outlets closed down (140 and counting), or forcibly turned over to Taliban control, of threats to staff, many of whom have fled.

Women journalists are being banned from working and are fearful for their lives. Many remaining media outlets have curtailed their reporting due to security concerns – as a result to date over 1,000 journalists and media workers have lost their jobs.

To the world outside, the Taliban promises a government that is liberal, plural and inclusive. Actions thus far appear to be in stark contrast to these undertakings.

One of the union leaders reported that the day after the Taliban arrived in Kabul: "98 per cent of the media is silent. The remaining 2 per cent are dedicated to Taliban policy without women and music. The media is flowing, but not like in the past. Yesterday afternoon, most of Kabul's media programs were broadcast with very few new and live programmes.

Last week, the IFJ established a special fund within its Safety Fund to be directed in its entirety to Afghanistan. It will be used to try and guarantee safety for all media workers in the country, but in such a dynamic situation, no one underestimates the scale of the challenge.

The NUJ has initiated talks with both the UK’s Foreign Office and the BBC to push for swift exit solutions for all staff based in the BBC’s Kabul office and those working across Afghanistan, bringing them and their families to safety in the UK or other international BBC newsrooms.

The NUJ is particularly concerned about the fate of the over 100 BBC staff based in Kabul – colleagues with whom the union is in close contact with. Dialogue has been going on for the past four months with the BBC team in Afghanistan over the likely movement of work from Kabul to Delhi – only for around 26 staff, with the remainder being offered a financial settlement. The rapidly escalating situation means a more substantive and urgent solution is vital.

The union has lobbied the UK government to provide emergency visas to enable those most at threat to leave. Along with a broad coalition of industry stakeholders, the NUJ had called for urgent action earlier this month to bring Afghan journalists who worked for UK media outlets to the UK.

Despite Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab responding positively to this call on 6 August, the government has been slow to implement this scheme and to make good on its commitment. As a result many journalists and media workers with clear and close links to the UK remain in Afghanistan, desperate to have clarity over the support available to them and fearful about what the future holds.

Some initiatives have already born fruit. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, for example, the IFJ affiliate in that country, has persuaded its government to admit up to 300 journalists on short term, but extendable visas.

The fear among many Afghan journalists is that they will be quickly forgotten by the news organisations for whom they have worked for the past 20 years. “You have to help us put pressure on your government and on the newspapers and broadcasters to help us”, pleaded one of the union leaders.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet has made it clear that  the NUJ is committed to do all that it can to safeguard media workers in Afghanistan. “It is easy to be overwhelmed at the enormity of events, but I am determined that the NUJ’s response is as practical as it is generous. We have made clear to the BBC that they must stand by all those staff for whom they are responsible and have a clear duty of care, and I have briefed the NUJ’s cross-party parliamentary group ahead of Wednesday’s debate. Urgent government action is needed.

Michelle Stanistreet also said that she had made a personal donation to the Afghan Safety Fund and encouraged members to follow her lead. “The best journalists have a visceral sense that when fellow journalists are in peril, we support one another. That instinct binds us together in the NUJ – whatever sum you can afford to donate, be assured, you will be in good company”.

Donations can be made via the IFJ safety fund website.

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