Ten years in Afghanistan

For over a decade, IMS has worked to build a safer environment for Afghan media workers. Today, the war-torn country has one of the most comprehensive set-ups for the safety and protection of journalists in South Asia – and because threats to the media have never faded, those safety structures are often put to use

(this article was originally published in our 2019 annual report. Read the full report here.)

In late September 2015, the Taliban overran the city of Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan. The fighting had lasted for months, with the militants taking over several districts around the city. Now, for the first time since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the religious hardliners controlled one of Afghanistan’s major cities.

As the Afghan security forces retreated from Kunduz, to prepare for a counter-attack that would come just a few days later, the Taliban seized the opportunity to destroy some of the key features of the country’s young and striving democracy – including several media houses.

For Kunduz’s sorely tested journalists the escalating violence had now become a matter of life and death. In an unparalleled mass evacuation, organised by IMS partner Afghan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC), more than one hundred journalists and their families were rescued in a very short time.

Most likely, the resolute and well-organised rescue operation saved the media workers from a certain death. A coincidence it was not: the logistically challenging effort was the result of several years of cooperation between international stakeholders like IMS and the local media community, security forces and the government – not only in big cities like Kunduz, but also in many of Afghanistan’s more remote areas.

For IMS and its local partners, this was an unequivocal acknowledgement of the success in building the much needed safety mechanisms for Afghan journalists.

At the same time, the attack on Kunduz was a brutal reminder of how things had been only a decade and a half ago, during the repressive rule of the Taliban – a time when human rights, media freedom, and freedom of expression were basically non-existent.

Where to begin?

In 2007, Susanna Inkinen joined the IMS programme in Afghanistan. At this point, the situation was dire. Almost six years had passed since the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Taliban regime following the US invasion, but after a period of relative calm and progress across much of the country, the conflict was escalating again.

“I had first visited Afghanistan in early 2002, and back then, there were almost no media. When I started working on the IMS programme in 2007, the Afghan media community had expanded rapidly, but it was largely donor-driven, and all the efforts were very uncoordinated,” Inkinen explains.

“There were hundreds of local media outlets, supported by international organisations and donors, but no one was monitoring the content, and there were no systematic mechanisms for local media workers for working together with the military and or the government or to protect the journalists,” Inkinen recalls. “The media community was suffering. Journalists were killed and traumatised.”

Inkinen and the IMS team saw that the first important step would be to identify who was doing what, when and where in the media sector – from international donors to working journalists and fixers. Next step would be to get a better idea of everyone’s needs and perspectives.

Listening to needs of local journalists

In February 2008, IMS started to develop its first safety training course to support journalists. The funding came from Sweden and Norway, and the idea was to gather journalists from southern Afghanistan in Kabul. About 15 local journalists from Helmand and Kandahar came. The weeks leading up to the course had been turbulent, with several violent incidents and deadly attacks on journalists and civilians. The course in Kabul ensured that the journalists got a few days’ break – at least, once they had made the dangerous journey north, some by car, which required passing through several Taliban checkpoints along the way.

The Kabul course was less about traditional safety training than it was an information exchange. “They wanted to learn the basic skills in first aid and conflict reporting, and we wanted to know about their working situation in order to create a training curriculum for the future,” explains Inkinen. “We needed to understand the conflict from their point of view.”

At this early stage, Inkinen and her colleagues already understood that processing the Afghan journalists’ trauma would be an important aspect of IMS’s future activities. “Many of these guys had been harassed and tortured and had seen their colleagues and family members killed,” Inkinen recalls. “They were not able to concentrate, and we had to take breaks constantly during the training courses.”

Another realisation was that the work towards a safety mechanism wasn’t only a matter of providing practical tools, but also of spreading an awareness among Afghan media workers that keeping security measures was more important than a scoop – and that safety was not only about themselves individually, but a solidary effort.

“We worked with the idea that ‘safety starts from me’, which basically means that it is up to the individual journalist to take responsibility for themselves and their colleagues” Inkinen say and exemplifies: “If one person in a group of media workers, say, a tv crew, has the capacity to question the safety of a certain mission or move, it might save the lives of the whole group.

“The media community was suffering. Journalists were killed and traumatised.”

Working together for media security

The ideas of solidarity, collaboration and locally anchored efforts quickly became key concepts in the IMS programme in Afghanistan. In March 2009, at a multi-stakeholder conference arranged by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in Kabul, IMS received an official mandate to develop safety and protection mechanisms for media workers all over Afghanistan.

One groundbreaking outcome of the conference was the so-called Kabul Declaration. Its aim was to provide a platform for dialogue and discussion on ways to enhance the promotion and protection of freedom of expression, including the safety of those working in the media community.

“The Kabul Declaration was the crown pillar for the future work on civil society, media and human rights, based on a large-scale survey. With this unifying document that gathered many stakeholders with a shared set of goals and commitments, we had the starting point for the more coordinated efforts that was so needed,” Inkinen explains.

After the conference, IMS started to carry out training of would-be trainers along with its safety and protection courses for journalists. All of the activities were built on the risk analysis carried out regularly to address the needs of the media community in rapidly changing security environment.
Journalists in Afghanistan faced many threats at the time: the Taliban; the operating style of the national and international security forces in Afghanistan and the dearth of information they provided journalists; the poorly trained and underpaid police force harassing and extorting journalists; and many more challenges. Even more vulnerable were the fixers exposed to kidnappings and deadly attacks in retaliation of their collaboration with international media. Only very rarely did a rescue mission prioritize local media workers.

War reporting training in Kabul (photo: Ilias Alami)

According to Inkinen a first step in local advocacy work was to emphasize that Afghan media workers also had rights: “We engaged in everything from providing body armor and first aid training to the development of a standard contract for the fixers and their employers, stipulating who was responsible if something went wrong.”

The first-ever independent Afghan safety entity

IMS’ ambitions centered on reaching out to the provinces and create local networks and hubs, and those plans became a reality in 2010 when the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) was created, a milestone in IMS’ work in Afghanistan.

Before the committee’s existence, IMS had carried out its activities alone or with local and some international stakeholders. However, to build a nationwide safety protection mechanism — and, in the long run, a national journalist federation, a proper legal framework and governmental support and recognition — IMS had to change tactics. “We understood that IMS would always be seen as an international entity, and that we had to find someone to cooperate with, an organisation that could be registered as an independent Afghan entity,” says Inkinen.

In Kabul, a group of young, well-educated Afghans had formed Afghanistan’s New Generation Organisation. Its members were already working as journalists, translators and fixers when Inkinen persuaded them to cooperate with IMS on media safety issues. “These people wanted to be change makers,” Inkinen says.

Together they began the journey towards their shared dream: a safe media environment in Afghanistan. Since 2010, AJSC has expanded greatly. Through media houses and local hubs, the organisation is now present in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces, providing everything from digital security, first aid and safety training courses to psycho-social support and trauma counselling. Media workers also have access to 24/7 hotlines, updated risk analyses, and online communication groups where journalists in the field share new information with their colleagues.

“In the beginning, IMS’ experiences and support were needed. But our role has evolved from being the orchestrator to more of a supporter and adviser.” Inkinen explains and continues: “Today, it’s the locals who are running the show!”

To Inkinen, this is a source of pride: “Together we’ve created a safety mechanism for and by local media workers, and it is now so strong that we can stay in the background, only supporting with strategy development and guidance as needed.”

“Gender specific safety has been a priority since our first comprehensive strategy for the programme was created in 2009 and I would like to focus even more on this issue going forward.”

Najib Sharifi, AJSC’s director since 2011, expands: “What have been the key ingredients in our collaboration have always been hard work, passion and local decision making – with support and guidance from IMS. Today we have the tools and strategies and are well prepared to continue on our own.”

“- Another ingredient is craziness. I think you have to be a little bit crazy to embark on this mission,” Inkinen chips in, which Sharifi confirms as he laughs.

Future challenges – and means to tackle it

Next year sees the conclusion of IMS’s ten-year-long programme in Afghanistan. IMS is handing the reins and responsibilities to AJSC. “We are not divorcing our Afghan counterpart,” Inkinen underlines. “I hope we can end up in a situation where we can bring them on board, not only as a partner but as an entity to develop and enhance IMS’s other activities in the whole Asia region.”

“I hope we can expand our efforts for women journalists too. Gender specific safety has been a priority since our first comprehensive strategy for the programme was created in 2009 and I would like to focus even more on this issue going forward.”

Today there are about 1,300 women journalists in Afghanistan. In cities such as Kabul, women media workers are common, but in some provinces there are no women journalists at all (photo: AJSC)

When it comes to future challenges for the Afghan media community, there are many uncertainties. According to Najib Sharifi, Afghanistan might lose up to half of the country’s 400 media outlets due to financial problems in the slipstream of Covid-19. Another major challenge to the Afghan media community is the peace talks with the Taliban. While Afghanistan’s constitution is currently very supportive of press freedom, that could change fast if the Taliban were to gain political power.

“We are very worried, mainly because the Taliban disagrees with the very idea of press freedom,” says Sharifi. In fact, he adds, the militants’ hostility to the media is the very reason that AJSC published the roadmap to protect press freedom during the reconciliation process (see Fact Box above) to help create a mechanism to preserve the freedom of press.

Since its launch a decade ago, AJSC has racked up a number of important achievements, Sharifi says, including improved media laws, enhanced safety for media workers and the creation of a strong implementation group for the protection of journalists—jointly handled by the media community and the government.

He also describes the creation of the Joint Committee for the Safety and Security of Journalists—now a powerful nationwide body—as a “significant success”, one that has been copied and implemented in many other countries. “It is probably the most holistic mechanism for journalist safety in the whole world,” Sharifi argues.

Inkinen agrees: “Looking at IMS’ imprint after our first ten years in Afghanistan, I’ll say that we have played a significant part in the development of professional ethical journalistic standards anchored in the local communities. We’ve supported the creation of safety tools and strategies, and opened up for new, cross-sector collaborations. But just as importantly, we’ve raised awareness and contributed to a mindset that puts safety first”

Despite the many lurking obstacles, Sharifi sustains a positive outlook: “An attack like the one in Kunduz in 2015 can definitely happen again. But we’ll be better prepared and build on experience.”


AJSC has driven many of the fundamental achievements made for the media community in Afghanistan.

• In 2013 it led the formation of the Afghanistan Journalists’ Federation (AJF).
• In 2016 it was one of the key players behind the establishment of the Joint Committee for the Safety and Security of Journalists (JCSSJ).
• In 2020, it published “A Roadmap to Protect Press Freedom During the Reconciliation Process”, with the purpose of protecting and preserving press freedom and freedom of expression.

Women journalists in Afghanistan

One group that has witnessed significant change—and fluctuating fortunes—down the years has been Afghanistan’s female media workers.

IMS and Afghan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC) have had a strong focus on gender, with activities ranging from gender-based safety trainings and conflict-sensitive reporting to job fairs tailored to female media workers. AJSC and IMS also developed the first anti-sexual harassment guidelines in Afghanistan.

IMS’ programme in Afghanistan

Current programme: 2017-2020
Donors: Sweden and Norway
Focus areas: Media safety – including training, monitoring and emergency response assistance. Media law – supporting legal framework on media safety.