Many of Afghanistan’s journalists have fled. Those who remain face a harsh new world

KABUL, Afghanistan —

It was Zaki Daryabi’s last day in Kabul and there wasn’t much time. He would be boarding a Qatari flight to evacuate him from Afghanistan in a matter of hours.

He got up at 5:45 AM and began to gather his luggage. He was brief in his goodbyes to his parents. He said, “I couldn’t see my dad cry.” His mother told him he would not go if she did not stop crying.

Twenty minutes later, he was at the office of Etilaatroz, the newspaper he founded in 2012, which had grown to become Afghanistan’s second-most-read daily. Only the office staff were present at 8 a.m. As he left, they cried. Daryabi had to make difficult decisions about leaving Afghanistan and bringing his family with him. When the Taliban entered Kabul in mid-August, the 31-year-old father of three refused a seat on an evacuation flight. But then Taliban members brutally beat two Etilaatroz journalists, one of them Daryabi’s own brother. His family continued to plead with him for an escape route from Afghanistan in the weeks that followed.

“They suffered in Kabul while I was there,” he stated. When an evacuation flight opened up in early October, “I couldn’t ignore their request.”

Afghan journalists during a newsroom meeting

Khadim Hersain Karimi (left), editor in chief at the Afghan daily Etilaatroz and staff listen as they discuss the paper’s future during Taliban rule.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Daryabi’s departure was another blow for Afghan journalists struggling to navigate their country’s wholly changed environment. Since the Taliban’s takeover of the capital, mainstays of the media landscape like Etilaatroz — many of them buoyed by Western aid and considered one of the few tangible successes of the U.S.’ 20-year attempt to remake Afghanistan — have been forced to reassess how they can function in the new Islamic Emirate, if at all. Many have decided that they cannot. The last two months have seen the shuttering of more than 150 media organizations — some 70% of the country’s news outlets, according to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee. Like Daryabi, now in a refugee camp in Doha, hundreds of journalists have left, joining an exodus of about 120,000 people — professionals, activists and others from the ranks of Afghanistan’s nascent civil society who see no place for their ideas under the Taliban.

Those who remain must contend with Taliban masters trying to have it both ways: eagerly courting favorable coverage, especially internationally, through unprecedented news conferences and assurances of amnesty for adversaries, while also imposing strict control over what kind of news and programming are allowed in the country.

Last month, the Taliban issued 11 edicts to the media that included proscriptions on publishing or broadcasting reports which are “in conflict with Islam,” insult “national personalities” or “have a negative effect on the public.” Outlets are supposed to prepare their reports “in coordination” with the new government’s media center. The new rules are restricting media freedom in the country,” Patricia Gossman (associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch) stated in a statement. “The Taliban regulations are so sweeping that journalists are self-censoring and fear ending up in prison.”

Defying the Taliban can have a heavy price. On Sept. 8, Daryabi’s brother, Taqi, and Etilaatroz video journalist Nemat Naqdi went to cover a women’s rights protest in Kabul. They were quickly attacked by Taliban enforcers who forced Taqi into a local station and then pushed him to the ground. They grabbed everything they could — the pipes, cables, and butts of their machine guns — and beat Taqi to death.

Video journalist working on his laptop

Taqi daryabi, the video editor for the Afghan daily Etilaatroz backs up the paper’s digital archives to ensure safekeeping.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Naqdi soon received the same treatment. His left eye is still stained with blood and he has lost his hearing in his left ear.

Almost a month after the savage beating, both Taqi and Naqdi were on the same Oct. 3 evacuation flight to Doha, the Qatari capital, with Daryabi. One hour after the passengers boarded the plane, Taliban fighters stormed into the Etilaatroz offices, demanding information about Daryabi and warning staff not to mention the Taliban’s arrival. This week, Taliban enforcers attacked journalists at a women’s rally held in Kabul and threatened to beat protestors for taking part.

Reporters working on laptops

Sakina, center, and other journalists continue to work at Etilaatroz (an investigative newspaper) despite the Taliban takingover of Afghanistan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The situation is now especially difficult for women working in the media, given the Taliban’s suppression of women’s rights. The day Kabul fell to the Taliban, Fatima Roshanian, the 27-year-old editor and publisher of Nimrokh, a feminist magazine, started frantically burning whatever issues she had lying around the office before any fighters could barge in. Now, she’s hiding in the capital. The magazine has been almost shut down.

“During the first week of Taliban rule in Kabul, I would wake up, wash my face, put on my clothes and start to leave home for the office. She said that she would then remember that the Taliban were in Kabul and it was all over.

“One thing is clear: People like me have no place in this country for now.”

Newscast being recorded

An update segment was recorded by Radio Television of Afghanistan in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. It is a national public television channel.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Workers looking up at a bank of TV screens

Employees view a segment of news at Radio Television of Afghanistan, Kabul.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Some have decided to continue. As one of the largest media outlets in the country, Tolo, a private Afghan broadcaster with a staff of some 400 people, still operates its news division, said Khpolwak Sapai, deputy head of the unit. Although dozens of employees left during the U.S.-led airlift in August, the company managed to bring in replacements and turn other positions into remote work from abroad.

Sapai said female staff members were still showing up to work at the station and appearing onscreen in news broadcasts. The new regulations are very vague and difficult to comprehend. But somehow we are still producing news and analysis, at least 20 stories every day,” Sapai said. Sapai acknowledged that it was difficult to cover events not approved by the Taliban, like the protests of women last month.

” But it’s different now. Social media is everywhere. Everybody has a smartphone. He said that we are relying more heavily on citizen journalists.

Those journalists who have left are haunted either by the guilt of fleeing the country they loved or by the nightmares that warp their memories of the life they abandoned. When you’re inside the country, you only live once. “But when you’re outside the country, the people treat you poorly, make you feel sorry for yourself, and look at you differently — that’s how you die,” stated an Afghan journalist, who was evacuated to another country in august. He requested anonymity because of security reasons.

“You die … because you’re a refugee. … You’re just a number, like millions of others, and then who cares about refugees?”

Man playing table tennis with his young son

Zaki Daryabi is the founder of Etilaatroz Afghan daily. He plays table tennis at the paper’s offices with his younger son Azhman.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Daryabi still hopes to salvage what he can of Etilaatroz, which means information of the day in Dari. He is currently coordinating the newspaper’s scattered staff while he lies on his bed in Doha’s refugee camp. Some remain in Kabul, while others were evacuated by U.S. agencies and are now waiting for visas to return home or have reached Europe. Daryabi has been trying to raise funds online. Daryabihas been trying to raise funds online. It now has a daily circulation of 2,000 to 3,000, plus hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. Over the years, it has published hard-hitting exposes of government malfeasance and corruption; one memorable investigation in 2017 showed how former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani brokered land deals in return for election support in 2014.

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Daryabi often describes the paper as his oldest child, whose survival he has always acted to guarantee. He said that now, the survival of independent and fair news in Afghanistan and the development of civil society are at stake.

” If national and local media are closed down, the information being reported from Afghanistan would be insufficient,” Daryabi stated. “Afghanistan should not be without journalists or media again.”

Times staff writer Marcus Yam contributed to this report.

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