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A vibrant media landscape had developed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. Since the Taliban takeover, media professionals face immediate danger and even death. Activists are urgently calling for help.
It was an almost clandestine press conference that the organization Reporters Without Borders (Reporter ohne Grenzen in German, or ROG) held this Wednesday at its headquarters in Berlin. Only 20 journalists were allowed in, and unlike the normal routine since the coronavirus pandemic began, there was no live video transmission on the internet. The reason: In the room were journalists from Afghanistan who fear for their lives or for the lives of friends and relatives back home.
That isn't true of Ahmad Wahid Payman, who gives his name and allows himself to be photographed. The journalist, who worked for a major newspaper in Kabul and in the second-largest Afghan city of Herat, has been in Germany for 10 days. He tells of several colleagues who have been threatened and prevented from working since the radical Islamist Taliban came to power.
Payman says many of his colleagues are now hiding at home or have fled to one of Afghanistan's neighboring countries. "The Taliban are pretending to be tolerant in order to be recognized internationally, but there are countless examples of massive attacks," he tells DW.
Afghan journalist Ahmad Wahid Payman (l.), along with Lisa Kretschmer (c.) and Christian Mihr of Reporters Without Borders, say the situation for Afghan human rights defenders, activists and journalists remains dire
Payman describes how, of the 55 newspapers, radio stations, online services and other media outlets that were active in Herat alone just a few weeks ago, only six are still operating. Women are no longer allowed to work in them, and music and entertainment programs have been canceled.
He also points out something that has gone underreported so far: The Taliban have released about a thousand serious criminals from Afghanistan's prisons. Now, he says, the reporters who had written about their crimes are being threatened by the former prisoners.
ROG managing director Christian Mihr is deeply shocked by all this, but there is at least some positive news this morning: The German Interior Ministry has given a residence permit to 2,600 people from Afghanistan who are potentially in danger, which means they do not have to go through the asylum procedure once they arrive in Germany. According to Mihr, these people include human rights activists as well as journalists.
Mihr welcomes the promises of residence, but in an interview with DW and fellow German public broadcaster NDR, he criticizes German authorities for a lack of transparency.
In recent weeks, ROG repeatedly submitted a list of names to the German Foreign Ministry, which was updated several times and most recently included more than 152 media professionals considered at high risk.
ROG does not know who among that list was transferred to the German Interior Ministry's list. "The people that Reporters Without Borders supports, these are people who are getting death threats, who have gotten death threats. They have to get out of the country," Mihr stresses. The list also included dozens of female reporters, who are at especially grave risk.
Mihr says due to the urgency of the situation, it is vital that any normal security clearance procedure take place after the people on the list have left the country.
Despite relief about the promise of residence, Mihr has few good things to say about his organization's cooperation with the two ministries: "The past weeks have been extremely uncoordinated and untransparent," he says, "I have rarely experienced anything like this in my dealings with German authorities."
A German Foreign Office spokeswoman said on Tuesday that the government's Crisis Response Center is working to help Germans, former local staff who helped the German military, and others leave Afghanistan and make their way to Germany.
Mihr also said it was important that the many journalists who wanted to stay in the country and report from Afghanistan not be forgotten either, though he added that it was important to recognize the threats journalists in Afghanistan still face.
"In recent weeks, I have held talks with German ministries in which they have already started to discuss the situation again," he said. "The time for sugarcoating should now be over."
The Taliban initially sent out conciliatory messages after taking power. In their first press conference in mid-August, the Islamists declared that journalists would be able to continue working in Afghanistan.
That statement has since been contradicted by numerous reports of arrests and violence against journalists.
In mid-August, a relative of a DW journalist was killed and another seriously injured in western Afghanistan after the Taliban systematically searched for the journalist, who was already in Germany. Because of the massive danger to its staff, DW has been campaigning for the evacuation of its workers and their families from Afghanistan. Last week, a group of 72 such persons managed to make it into Pakistan.
Mihr has no illusions about the militant Islamists: "We have called the Taliban enemies of press freedom for many years, and they continue to be enemies of press freedom."
Even before the Islamists took power, Afghanistan was already 122nd out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, largely because both the Taliban and the "Islamic State" have repeatedly murdered members of the media.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told DW that 55 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since 1992, two of them this year. According to the CPJ, it is not only female journalists who are in particular danger — but also those of ethnic minorities such as the Hazara, Tajiks and Uzbeks.
The United Nations spoke out last week after journalists were arrested while covering women's protests in Kabul and were then severely maltreated for hours. Last Friday, the spokesperson for the UN Commissioner for Human Rights demanded: "Journalists covering gatherings must not face reprisals or other harassment, even if a gathering is declared unlawful or dispersed."
For ROG, one thing is certain: Media workers should be able to leave Afghanistan or unsafe third countries to which they have fled as quickly and unbureaucratically as possible. For Christian Mihr, Germany's promise of residency is no more than "a first step in the right direction."