Our 20 years in Afghanistan and why we aim to be there another 20

Since its founding in 2001, IMS has been engaged in Afghanistan, promoting access to free and independent media alongside the predominant challenge of improving Afghan journalists’ safety. Recent events will not end that engagement because it is precisely in such difficult situations that the people need credible, independent information the most.

In late 2001, three weeks into the war in Afghanistan, IMS concluded its very first mission related to the country. The aim was to assess the general situation of media and freedom of expression and identify specific media-related projects.

That mission was the beginning of an engagement that is now, 20 years later, still ongoing. To this extent, Afghanistan has been a part of IMS since the very beginning, and recent events in the country, with the Taliban’s takeover of power, will not change that.

Safety, always safety

The predominant challenge for Afghan journalists through all these years has been and still is safety. The situation has not improved, and the statistics remain grim with each year making new, devastating records on attacks targeting media outlets and journalists.

From early on, IMS focused on safety and in 2008 was instrumental in the founding of Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), the flagship of IMS’ activities in Afghanistan.

With regional safety coordinators and several volunteers, the AJSC has been successful in establishing a nationwide safety and protection mechanism, providing provincial emergency and rapid response solutions to journalists in danger. Regional hubs have been monitoring and reporting on violations and changing circumstances for media to the AJSC headquarter in Kabul, where monthly – and recently almost daily – updates on the safety situation including threats and violence against journalists have been made.

Before the developments of the last few months, which have required extraordinary rapid response and emergency measures, AJSC has over the years secured aid for more than 1,700 journalists through established mechanisms, including various types of trainings, legal advice, a 24/7 hotline and safe houses.

Making female journalists a priority

In the two decades IMS has been engaged in Afghanistan, the situation of the country’s women journalists has also been a priority. While being a woman in Afghanistan comes with several challenges as regards basic human rights, being a woman journalist is even more dangerous and difficult.

Aside from the insecurity and multiple threats against media workers, women reporters face widespread gender-based harassment and assaults and are subjected to cultural barriers and taboos preventing them from doing their jobs. The main perpetrators against women journalists in Afghanistan are their own colleagues.

One of the ways in which IMS has supported the country’s women reporters is through the development of a comprehensive educational, physical, psychological and legal support programme for women journalists. In recent years, the problem of online harassment has also been addressed through a media campaign and developing the first anti-sexual harassment guidelines for media houses, including a means for filing complaints.

Despite the dangers and plights, the Afghan women journalists are relentless in their wishes to fulfil their call.

As women in Afghanistan have taken to the streets to demonstrate for their rights, most of the world is holding its breath, waiting to see what the Taliban’s new government will look like. Among them is Wahida Faizi, gender coordinator with AJSC and a journalist. In a recent interview with a Danish magazine, she shared her ordeal of having to leave her home country abruptly and how uncertainty continues to reign.

“During the first days of the Taliban, women journalists continued to work, but they have begun to stop out of fear. I do not know what to believe,” she says.

Responsible reporting

As always in warzones, emotional commentary and biased reporting could provoke and incite violence, instead of providing the population with credible and independent media content, which is of vital importance in difficult situations.

Therefore, IMS’ work in Afghanistan has also centred on supporting the media in developing and maintaining a high level of responsibility in their reporting. This has been done through trainings in conflict sensitive reporting, focusing on strengthening content production that adheres to professional criteria and provides unbiased and balanced news reporting.

Those efforts have been complemented by advocacy efforts to influence legal reforms, ranging from having press freedom mentioned in the constitution to the formation of Afghan Journalists Federation and pushing a roadmap for ensuring inclusion of freedom expression in what was once a peace process.

Ready for the next 20 years

Despite the many challenges, by early 2021, Afghanistan had one of the region’s most dynamic media landscapes with close to 1,900 active media outlets.

What happens now and what Taliban’s takeover of power might mean for Afghan media remains uncertain. But a media council has already been established to address media-related issues. Voices have stated that all support for Afghanistan must cease, as one cannot defend supporting a country led by Taliban, but that would be the wrong decision. IMS’ 20 years of experience ­– not only in Afghanistan but also in other conflict-ridden countries – clearly show that it is possible to support and maintain the production of credible and independent media content in extremely difficult situations. And that it is precisely in those situations that people need credible information the most.

The work of IMS in Afghanistan is by no means over. We will continue to support Afghan journalists and work for people’s right to information.