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As The Taliban Capture More Territory, Afghan Journalists Face More Risks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Twenty years ago, I saw the news media as it then existed in Afghanistan. The Taliban were in retreat soon after the U.S. went to war against them in 2001. After the Taliban fled the city of Kunduz, I visited its radio station. And just as I arrived, a staff member was climbing high on a rusty tower to repair the antenna.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ZABIHULLAH MAJIDI: How are you?

INSKEEP: Doing fine. How are you?

MAJIDI: Fine, thanks. And you?

INSKEEP: Great.

MAJIDI: OK.

INSKEEP: That was Radio Kunduz. In Taliban times, the staff said whatever the Taliban instructed. When the Taliban left, as we reported back in 2001, the same announcer denounced the Taliban on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOHAMMAD YOUSEFI: (Speaking non-English language).

INSKEEP: Later, he read some poetry and played more Afghan music. The programming schedule calls for Radio Kunduz to denounce the Taliban again tonight. Steve Inskeep, NPR News, Kunduz, Afghanistan.

Twenty years later, the Afghan media are vastly more numerous. But what happens now that U.S. troops have left and the war goes on? The Taliban have assassinated Afghan journalists and others wonder what happens next. Najib Sharifi has worked in Afghanistan for NPR and other news organizations for those 20 years and is now president of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee.

NAJIB SHARIFI: Media and press freedom is one of the most notable success stories of Afghanistan in the past two decades. You know, we started in 2001 from basically one radio station and two newspapers that were solely used by the Taliban for the purposes of their propaganda when they were ruling the country. We started from there, and today, we have - based on the rankings of RSF, Reporters Sans Frontieres, Afghanistan has the best press freedom than any other country in the region, even India, which is considered the largest democracy of the world.

INSKEEP: If you're a speaker of one of the main Afghan languages, do you have numerous options, then, today in TV and internet and radio for how to inform yourself about what's going on around the country?

SHARIFI: Absolutely. We have TV stations, radio stations, newspapers in all languages. We have at least two TV stations that's run by women, and, you know, most of their content is dedicated to women and the issues surrounding the life of women. So it's a pretty vibrant media industry here in Afghanistan. However, the escalation of violence, you know, and the onslaught of the Taliban and the fact that they have made tremendous gains in the past couple of weeks, that threatens the very survival of press freedom in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Granting that journalism can be dangerous any time in Afghanistan, how much more dangerous has it grown in the last several months?

SHARIFI: It has grown a lot more dangerous, you know, because the new areas that have been captured by the Taliban - the media outlets have had to close their operation. Some of them have even buried their equipment, you know, for example, their transmitters and then, you know, their - other types of equipment they use to operate their radio stations. So far, at least five media radio stations have fallen in the hands of the Taliban and have forced their, you know, managers to operate the radio stations solely for the purpose of their propaganda, promulgating, you know, jihad and violence. And, you know, they don't allow the voices of women to be aired through those radio stations. They don't want any form of music to be broadcast through those stations. So some people allege, you know, that the Taliban have changed. No, they have not changed even an inch. They have become even more violent and vengeful, actually.

INSKEEP: Are journalists being assassinated the way that other members of civil society are?

SHARIFI: Well, journalists run the greatest risk. There is a lot of attention on, you know, capturing airtime, you know? So basically, journalists have come to the center of the battle, and that's why a lot of self-censorship is developing in the media industry these days. This actually started after the onset of the targeted killing campaign of journalists last year in November. More than a dozen journalists were very brutally killed, and that prompted a lot of workers in media, media managers, to resort to self-censorship - self-censorship in the sense that they don't have that confidence and courage to broadcast content that shows the atrocities of the Taliban.

INSKEEP: How are journalists protecting their physical safety?

SHARIFI: Well, they use a lot of variety of means. One of the TV stations has had to resort to a shift where, for 10 days and nights, journalists not only work in the outlet but also live in the outlet, you know, to eliminate the predictability of the movement of their staff, you know, because if they become predictable, those who attack journalists, you know, they can easily target them. Many journalists who were assassinated during the targeted killings were attacked when they were leaving their house or when they were leaving their media outlets.

INSKEEP: Are there a lot of journalists who are leaving journalism?

SHARIFI: A lot of journalists are leaving journalism. And it was always a heartwarming thing when I would look at Afghanistan's media, and I would go to international conferences overseas and proudly use the gains we have had in the realm of media and press freedom as one of the biggest tokens of pride and achievement for Afghanistan. But now that I see that journalists are leaving the industry and the media outlets are facing very significant challenges, it becomes extremely painful.

INSKEEP: As you may know, numerous U.S. news organizations, including NPR, have this week appealed to the Biden administration to help bring out journalists who worked for American news organizations. Are there a lot of people who would like to get out of the country?

SHARIFI: I believe, you know, the biggest assurance that journalists and media workers need at this stage is that they will not be left behind and beheaded by the Taliban. But I still believe it's not going to be easy for the Taliban to come and take over. But at the same time, this is creating a crazy amount of stress, you know, and that has undermined their morale so much. I mean, any source of support in terms of providing them the assurance that they will not be left behind. And, you know, we really don't want to lose what we have achieved. I mean, there are journalists, you know, who want to keep fighting because what we achieved with - a huge price because more than 100 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. We don't want to lose it. We have to find a way to protect it.

INSKEEP: I think I heard you say you still believe it would be very hard for the Taliban to take over. You have some confidence that the current government can hang on.

SHARIFI: My confidence mainly emanates from the uprisings of the people in the past couple of weeks. People from all walks of life have risen and have taken arms and have declared that they will resist. Such a movement and such mobilization, you know, to resist the onslaught of the Taliban, I don't think we have such extensive and comprehensive mobilization in the past 100 years. That's something that gives me confidence, you know, that the Taliban will not be able to take over Kabul or big cities.

INSKEEP: Najib Sharifi is president of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee and has worked over the years for NPR and other news organizations. Thank you so much.

SHARIFI: You're welcome, Steve. Nice talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.