Reporters in this troubled land have always faced a tough task. But the return of the Taliban has crushed free speech and the work of the media
Anthony Feinstein is a South African-Canadian psychiatrist who studies journalists that cover war. He finds us fascinating. For more than 20 years, he has been conducting groundbreaking research into the impact of long-term exposure to violence on those who cover it for a living. He uses the word “resilience” a lot.
War correspondents, he says, have much greater exposure to the horror of war than do soldiers. Veterans mostly have one or two tours of duty, of around six to 12 months, “and then they go home,” Feinstein told me. “But your profession has been doing it for 15 to 20 years.”
Last year, Feinstein made a documentary about Afghanistan’s journalists and found them to be the most traumatised newsmen and newswomen on the planet. Off the scale amongst a small cohort of people who dedicate their lives and careers to covering the worst things that human beings can do to each other.
The documentary is called A Quiet Courage: Afghan Journalists in a Time of Terror. Feinstein, who is a professor of psychiatry at the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Toronto, says he’d hoped to use the film, which includes interviews with six journalists and some truly gruesome footage of the aftermath of insurgent attacks, to raise money “to provide them with some very basic mental health therapy to address their psychological distress”.
“I saw that as a moral imperative,” says Feinstein. “I didn’t want the data to languish in a journal somewhere, where it could be read with interest and that’s where it stops. I thought, let me show what it’s really like to people, and maybe we can use that to raise money.”
Before he’d had a chance to do that, the Taliban returned to power, on 15 August. International news organisations and others who had considered airing the documentary thought better of it, fearing that doing so could endanger the lives of the journalists appearing in it.
It was a reasonable anxiety. Under this new regime, journalists have been savagely beaten, detained while covering increasingly rare protests (mainly mounted by women demanding, at great personal risk, that their human rights be respected), and held incommunicado, sometimes for days.
Reporters, photographers and video-journalists are chased in the street by men with guns and other weapons. Taliban “officials” visit newsrooms to intimidate reporters and editors, and demand favourable coverage. They turn up to interviews flanked by armed and masked bodyguards – even on television.
The Taliban, yet to be recognised as the legitimate government of Afghanistan by any country, have suppressed journalism to ensure they are neither criticised nor held accountable for their brutality and incompetence. They have issued orders that “news” must not insult Islam or high-profile people, and must be published with the approval of their own media office. The Taliban control whatever information is produced by Afghanistan’s previously respectable news outlets.
It has always been hard, of course. Feinstein’s film is an extraordinary adjunct to earlier research he did in 2019 which examined, for the first time, how Afghanistan’s journalists were affected by their work covering the war against the Taliban that was then being waged on their doorsteps every day. The events of the last three months are unlikely to change the findings of his study, which were published last year in the Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research.
Along with his colleague, Jonas Osmann, and Mujeeb Khalvatgar, who heads the Afghan journalism support group NAI, Feinstein found that the majority of Afghan journalists “exceeded cut off scores for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and major depression, and reported high rates for exposure to traumatic events”. Whether they had received treatment for their trauma or not made no difference. None of the journalists surveyed (a total of 71 working for five major Afghan news organisations) believed that their employers were supportive.
Feinstein is reluctant to compare the experience of Afghanistan’s journalists to that of their counterparts in other countries – even Iraq, Syria or Mexico where the violence has been horrific and long-term. “While your profession is very resilient and most journalists will never get PTSD or depression,” he said, “there is a substantial minority who do get these problems. And these difficulties can bring them down very hard indeed.” Among Afghan journalists, he found some exceptional differences that tipped their trauma into the “extremely high” category.
“So many Afghan journalists have colleagues that have been killed. That’s a very severe trauma. Their level of exposure to suicide bombings or attacks or being actually targeted by the Taliban, in particular, was extremely high. When you look at the objective quantification of trauma in this group, it is very high. It was also very high in Iraq in the war, and it has certainly been extremely high in Syria. So there are lots of places where journalists are being targeted very severely by terrible things.
“I am cautious in saying that the Afghan data is much worse than what you would see elsewhere. I don’t think it is a competition between countries [as to] who is the worst. But when I look back at the studies I have completed, I think the Afghan trauma is at the very top of the severity scale,” Feinstein said.
Waliullah Rahmani is in no doubt about the negative impact on his mental and physical health of six years spent running a newsroom in Kabul. Some days, he said, his journalists would cover up to six explosions in a matter of hours in areas of Kabul dominated by Shia-Hazara people who were and still are a particular target of the Sunni Taliban. “I felt that time had stopped, and the world is a dark place, and I couldn’t see any bright angles in it,” he said. “I think such incidents, or mass killings that occurred through sophisticated attacks, traumatized me to a level that has impacted my life, my health, and my short-term memory.”
As a prominent Hazara journalist and media entrepreneur, Rahmani was under immense pressure, often changing his location to avoid the constant threats to his life. After the Taliban took Kabul, he spent more than a month on the run, often in disguise. He paid people smugglers to get him out of the country, experiencing the humiliation and exploitation that desperate people are forced into.
“I could see first-hand how Afghan citizens feel the pain of life stuck in a cycle of violence and struggle for their lives. I could see how they are abused, traumatized and risk their lives while trying to cross borders illegally. Some were even injured by gun fire from border security check posts,” he said. “I watched a child die in his father’s arms while waiting to cross a border. This all pushed me to a new level of depression.”
Rahmani is now living in northern Europe, trying to avoid the pressure Western governments are exerting on Afghans who fled the Taliban to apply for asylum and spend, potentially, years as refugees denied the right to work or live freely. Like all other Afghans, he cannot access his own funds as the country’s banking sector remains frozen. He still employs a dozen people in Afghanistan, though he now depends on the kindness of others to keep his businesses alive and his staff, and himself, fed and housed.
He is not alone. Hundreds of journalists have fled Afghanistan in recent years, after being threatened by the Taliban while they were still insurgents. A campaign of targeted killing began immediately after the Taliban leadership based in Doha, the capital of Qatar, signed a deal in February 2020 with Donald Trump. The then president pledged to withdraw the American military by 1 May this year, effectively ensuring the Taliban’s return to power.
By killing journalists – as well as rights advocates, working women, members of parliament, people who had worked with the international military and NGOs – the Taliban made clear what was in store once their victory was complete.
It’s all come true, of course. Women are suppressed, girls kept out of school, journalists censored, minority nationalities and religionists driven off their land or killed or both, resistance quashed. Nobody doubted that the new regime would be repressive. But it as turned out to be much, much worse than was generally feared.
Joe Biden stuck to the guts of the Trump-Taliban deal, while extending the pull-out date to 31 August. Enraged, the Taliban began a rapid military advance, taking border crossings, then districts around provincial capitals, then the provincial capitals, culminating in Kabul. Along the way, they closed or took over media outlets, and many journalists headed for Kabul, hoping they would be safe there, or could get out of the country before the Taliban arrived.
Some were able to flee, and now live as refugees in places as far-flung as Mexico, Albania, Britain and the United States. Having buckled to pressure to apply for asylum, they have largely rescinded their rights and risk languishing in the refugee bureaucracy for years. Many will be lost to journalism forever.
Many more, possibly hundreds, are still in hiding, hoping for evacuation before their identities and locations become known to the Taliban. I am in close contact with some of them, and receive messages almost every day from others who reach out in the hope of finding a lifeline. Their chances of making it to freedom are slim: it is almost impossible to leave Afghanistan, as evacuation flights have slowed to a trickle, most embassies are closed, and Western countries, including Britain, are not issuing normal visas to people from Afghanistan.
Massoud Hossaini, a Pulitzer-prize winning war photographer, is trapped in the Netherlands. He and I have worked together for more than a decade, and spent the last three months of the war reporting from front lines across the country.
We left together on the last commercial flight to exit Kabul on 15 August before the Taliban arrived. They would surely have killed him – a high-profile photojournalist, an outspoken advocate of free speech and media, a severe critic of corruption and violence, and a Shiite.
The Dutch authorities issued Massoud a single-entry visa, which was extended soon after we arrived in the Netherlands. He is now under pressure either to leave the country or apply for refugee status, which he has been told would mean moving to a refugee camp, and relying on government handouts, barred from earning his own living while being laboriously processed by the global refugee system. He has had three job offers in London – but the Arts Council rejected his application for a “Talent Visa”.
“I would rather go back to Afghanistan than become a refugee,” Massoud told me. Only after a British newspaper contacted the Dutch immigration authorities to ask why they had refused to renew Massoud’s visa when it expires this month did they concede one final three-month extension. A world-beating photographer who this month won a prestigious freedom of speech award from an American university, Massoud cannot understand why Britain does not want him.
The light that was journalism in Afghanistan has been extinguished. The keepers of that light now cower in the Taliban’s darkness, terrified of being flushed from their hiding places and killed; or they languish in the no-man’s land of asylum, forced out of their country by strategy decided by the West; and then abandoned, pushed into poverty, penury and anonymity.
All they ever wanted to do was their job. For 20 years we encouraged them. Until we betrayed them.
The journalists of Afghanistan were among the bravest and most dedicated to their craft of any I met anywhere. They took nothing for granted. Their country was an island of free speech and democratic idealism in a sea of autocratic suppression, surrounded by China, Pakistan, Iran and Moscow’s satellite “stans”.
Now Afghanistan is just another place where freedom of speech and the media, guaranteed by the former republic’s constitution, are prey to the grotesque actions of liars, killers, bigots, misogynists, drug dealers, religious fantasists, and terrorists. Rest in peace.
Lynne O’Donnell is a journalist, author, and analyst. She was Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.
Anthony Feinstein’s not-for-profit initiative can be found here.
Photograph by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times