KABUL — The U.S.-funded media development institute is located in a large two-story house behind an armored steel door, guarded by armed security guards who gain access only through a computerized fingerprint scanner. The safety measures were installed in the spring after the Nai Institute was accused by the Taliban of being “the center of the American cultural invasion”
Since the fall of the fundamentalist regime in 2001, the United States has spent at least $110.7 million to develop and promote an open media in Afghanistan where none before existed, according to an analysis of contracts on USAspending.gov. In that time, at least 43 local and foreign journalists have been killed, and scores more have been injured. With the United States about to depart, the future of the press hangs in doubt in one of the most hostile environments for journalism in the world.
On a recent afternoon at the institute — where on one wall hung portraits of some of the slain Afghan reporters — Sameera Hamta, 33, was teaching the basics of journalism to 17 students, all but one male. They discussed the role of journalists in Afghan society. One student lamented the attacks on reporters.
“Most of our people are uneducated,” he said. “They need journalists to provide them the news. That’s why it’s a high position.”
Hamta smiled. The former TV and radio journalist had also entered the profession to make a difference in people’s lives, earning a journalism degree from Kabul University and later honing her skills at workshops backed by the U.S. government.
“The weapon of a soldier is a gun,” she said. “The weapon of a journalist is the pen.”
Since the collapse of the Taliban regime, independent media outlets have mushroomed in the war-torn nation, largely cultivated by U.S. funding and mentoring. Media and speech freedom remain core goals of the U.S. intervention.
But the fear is that the gun is now overtaking the pen.
Reporters face physical attacks and intimidation from the Taliban, warlords, criminals and the country’s own U.S.-backed government, which has imprisoned at least 60 journalists, according to media watchdog groups. Last year was the most violent on record for journalists since 2001. And the funding from the United States and other Western governments, which gave rise to hundreds of media outlets, is dwindling.
“It’s the biggest achievement the U.S. has had in Afghanistan,” Najib Sharifi, a founding member of the Afghan Journalists Federation, said of the press. “We’ve got to preserve it.”
The rise of independent media outlets in the post-Taliban era was driven by Afghans “thirsty” to express themselves after decades of oppression and a new generation that craves information, he said.
“They have been raised with freedom of expression,” said Lotfullah Najafizada, director of news and current affairs at Tolo TV, noting that two-thirds of all Afghans are younger than 25. “It’s in their blood. It has been institutionalized.”
The free flow of information in the country, which is home to about 31 million people and is about the size of Texas, has been transformed. Under the Taliban for more than five years, there was no independent media.
Today, the landscape includes roughly 100 TV channels and about 250 radio stations, according to a U.S.-funded survey of the Afghan media this year. There are more than 200 newspapers and magazines. Most outlets are in private hands. Collectively, they employ about 7,200 journalists.
There are also 34 news agencies, as well as 17 journalism training centers registered with the Ministry of Information and Culture. The centers include the Nai Institute, which works to promote an independent media and receives its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development through the nonprofit Internews Network.
There have been successes: A story in December by the Pajhwok Afghan News agency about corruption by officials in Farah province involving fuel imports led to the sacking of the governor, and the case is now at the attorney general’s office. In Laghman province, an investigation by Zarkamar magazine into graft by customs agents on highways led to the firing of several officials.
The question on many minds now is what happens after the United States ends its mission and the last U.S. troops leave, which is expected by the end of 2016.
Big news outlets in urban areas could survive, analysts said. But many observers fear that small radio stations and newspapers in rural areas that largely depend on donor funds will go out of business or become tools of warlords, political figures or insurgents.
“They can either die, or they can become propaganda machines for regional interests or the Taliban,” Sharifi said.
The infusion of U.S. funding that forged the media market also threatens to undo it: There are too many journalists.
“It’s not sustainable to have this many media outlets for a country this size,” said Sharmini Boyle of Internews. “The advertising revenue possibilities are slim.”
About $2.8 million in USAID funding for equipment helped start Tolo News, the leading television network by far. It is known for trustworthy and fast-breaking news, but it broadcasts little accountability reporting.
Much of Afghanistan’s radio was developed through Internews, funded largely by a $21 million USAID grant. The money built stations and installed transmitters around the country.
Of those, the largest independent radio network is Salam Watandar, established in 2003. With 67 stations, it provides four hours of programming a day, including news and shows that deal with women’s issues, youth, good governance and agriculture.
About $5.2 million in USAID money was also used to launch and build the Pajhwok News Agency, the nation’s largest independent news agency. It has a staff of 120 scattered throughout all 34 provinces. Pajhwok still receives about $10,000 a month from the U.S. government.
Unlike most media outlets, Pajhwok is making money from some of the 16 different news services it offers. “Our aim this year is to become self-sustainable,” said editor in chief Danish Karokhel.
But the most profitable media outlets are those that run Turkish soap operas and other entertainment.
Much of the serious public- service programming — focusing on women, youth and elections — is currently being funded by Western donors, mostly governments and foundations. As those funds shrink, wealthy businessmen and warlords could change this equation because they don’t need to worry about generating an audience or seeking advertising dollars. Already, some own TV stations and newspapers to promote their own political agendas and ethnic groups.
“Nobody is going to bother about professional standards,” Boyle said.
Najibullah Amiri, chief editor of Salam Watandar, is concerned about the radio network’s future. Several projects funded by USAID are coming to an end this year or in early 2016. Dozens of stations have already lost much of their staff and are working on a shoestring budget. “More than 80 percent of our radio stations are not in a good financial situation,” Amiri said.
Critics say the U.S. post-
Taliban media development program was ill-conceived and poorly coordinated, with overlap between aid agencies.
“There was no business planning, no efforts to make them more sustainable,” said Susanna Inkinen, a media adviser for International Media Support, a European nongovernmental organization working with media in Afghanistan. “There’s been success stories, but also a lot of failures.” Perhaps, she added, the focus should have been on quality over quantity.
The majority of U.S. funding was awarded through media-
development initiatives that handed out contracts and grants to build up the sector. In addition to creating the current media constellation, funds went toward training programs, technical support, equipment upgrades and efforts to strengthen media laws and institutions.
“It is really one of the successes we often point to in Afghanistan,” said Joe Brinker, senior democracy and governance adviser at USAID. “When you look at where things were in 2001, at any point between then and now, it’s a pretty positive trend.”
The official acknowledged the concerns over the media’s future as donor funds shift and attention moves away from Afghanistan. But he said U.S. efforts have been comprehensive enough to allow many outlets to sustain themselves. “We want media to be strong in Afghanistan, but at the same time we want it to stand on its own,” Brinker said.
Today, the relatively new profession in Afghanistan also faces deeper problems from within.
Female journalists continue to face hurdles on the job, mirroring the general plight of women in the country. This is despite massive efforts — and hundreds of millions of dollars spent — by the United States and Western governments to engineer gender equality.
Many female journalists can’t stay too late in the newsroom or arrive too early because of cultural perceptions, limiting their ability for advancement. Sexual harassment is rife. Some conservative mullahs have denounced female reporters as prostitutes or Western stooges.
“Threats, fear, humiliation are parts of our daily lives,” said Farida Amini, a correspondent with Ariana TV in Jowzjan province. “It’s demoralizing.”
Marzia Adil, of the BBC’s Dari service, said that she came from a liberal family and that both her parents were proud of her job. But her brother disapproved. “When you read the news, it embarrasses me,” he told her. “Why are you using our last name?”
Several journalists have been killed in disputes in which family members disapproved of the journalist’s job or lifestyle.
And, because pay is so poor, journalists are susceptible to corruption, news officials say.
For outlets to survive, many believe that it’s critical to wean Afghanistan’s media away from dependence on international assistance. Many media outlets, directly or indirectly, are still supported by financial aid from the United States and other Western governments.
Ghafoor Lewal, director of the Institute for Regional Studies, a think tank in Kabul, said the financial support undermines media credibility. “Nobody gives you money for nothing,” Lewal said.
“If our media works on having financial independence, they can reach ideological independence.”
On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, about 200 journalists were gathered at the Kabul Star Hotel. Behind the podium, a large banner read: “Let Journalism Thrive! Better Reporting, Gender Equality in the Digital Age.” But soon the chatter in the room died down, as the female master of ceremonies delivered a somber observation.
“There’s not a single day without violations committed against journalists,” she told the audience, as photographers snapped away. “And it is increasing day by day.”
Moments later, she introduced Sediqullah Tauhidi, the head of Media Watch at the Nai Institute, who delivered even worse news: From March 2014 to March 2015, there had been 105 attacks — largely by the Taliban, but also by local authorities and warlords — against local journalists. During the same period the previous year, there were 78 attacks. Eight journalists were killed last year, the highest annual death toll since 2001. Casualties included Sardar Ahmad, a journalist with Agence France-Presse who died with his wife and two children when gunmen attacked the five-star Serena Hotel in March 2014.
“This is a very dark reality you here all face,” Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive, a role equivalent to prime minister in the power-sharing government, told reporters at a recent media conference in Kabul. “Investigative journalism is collapsing because of the threats and the attacks, the pressures exerted on journalists.”
Not all of the threats come from the Taliban. Journalists and media owners say that many are instigated by police, the military and other government personnel.
Qadeem Wiar of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, a local media support and advocacy group, said police target reporters for negative coverage, threatening prosecution or imprisonment.
When one reporter for Zeenat Radio in Logar province recently broadcast a critical story about an Afghan lawmaker, police arrived at the station and threw everyone, including the cook and the cleaner, in jail for several hours, said Norullah Stanikzai, the station’s director.
In another incident, he said, an Afghan intelligence officer beat him with the butt of his Kalashnikov rifle, accusing the station of falsely reporting an explosion that killed 17 children and four officers. The report turned out to be accurate.
“None of the perpetrators of attacks against journalists have been put in prison or penalized,” said Homayoon Nazari, a freelance journalist from Herat. “This raises questions of whether the government of Afghanistan is committed to freedom of expression or the safety of journalists.”
The government has passed an access-to-information law but does not enforce it, said Tauhidi, of the Nai Institute. “The government thinks that public property is the property of the government,” he said. “But it’s the property of the people of Afghanistan.”
Sediq Sediqi, spokesman for the Afghanistan Ministry of Interior Affairs, acknowledged that there are problems with the police and their treatment of journalists.
“Our security officials have misbehaved. I want to express my sincere apologies to you,” Sediqi told the audience at the journalism conference. “We will try to make police officers be more aware of the work of journalists.”
He said police officers are busy fighting terrorism and have not had time for training that would sensitize them to the media.
Journalists in the audience complained to him about government-ordered directives to spokesmen at provincial government agencies not to speak with local journalists. Sediqi told them letters had been sent to provincial police chiefs telling them to cooperate with the media.
But he also said that journalists had a share of the blame for the bad relationship, accusing them of antagonizing police commanders and being mouthpieces for the Taliban and Islamic State loyalists in Afghanistan.
“Every night we see pictures of Daesh,” Sediqi said, referring to the Islamic State. “Why are we allocating so much air time to the opponents of our government?”
Journalists working in Taliban-infested areas said they must be careful how they choose their words and programming. Some stations refuse to broadcast news that might anger the Taliban. Many radio stations, for example, don’t broadcast music because the Taliban has banned it.
Zawaan Inqelabi Usafzai, who runs an independent radio station in Laghman province, said that journalists in his area face “repercussions from the government during the day and from the Taliban at night.”
Taliban threats can come over the smallest things, he said, such as a demand that the group’s dead be described as “martyrs.”
At the media conference, Usafzai urged national media outlets not to use the word “terrorist” to describe the Taliban, saying it could lead to blowback for journalists in areas the group controls. “If we call ourselves impartial, we should not use this title for the Taliban,” he said.
Amiri, of Salam Watandar, said the network never calls Taliban fighters “militants” or “insurgents” — simply “Taliban.”
And they never broadcast ads by the U.S.-led military coalition that denounce the Taliban because that “will create problems for the stations,” Amiri said.
But they do broadcast soft coalition ads that ask listeners to support the Afghan security forces or reject drugs, he said.
On the other hand, Amiri said, the network is careful not to broadcast what may be considered Taliban propaganda.
Some journalists say they can’t equate the actions of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with those of the Taliban.
“We have to remain impartial, but that doesn’t mean we’ll support the enemies of Afghanistan,” Tauhidi said. “If we say all the time that it’s the National Unity Government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban want, will that guarantee the safety of our lives?”
Stanikzai, of Zeenat Radio, said journalists in remote provinces are limiting their coverage to protect themselves from the insurgents, as well as police and government officials.
The Taliban, he said, often calls him when his station doesn’t broadcast the group’s claims of how many people its fighters have killed or injured — claims that are usually exaggerated.
“We get a call from the Taliban saying: ‘You are spies of the Americans and that’s why you didn’t broadcast,’ ” Stanikzai said.
The Taliban’s threats have been backed up in some cases with violence, journalists say.
In Nimroz province, Taliban fighters barged into a local station and shut it down for running the soft coalition ads. It was reopened only after elders intervened, Amiri said. In Wardak province, he said, the Taliban attacked and destroyed a station broadcasting Salam Watandar programs. And in Paktika province, the Taliban executed a manager of a radio station three years ago.
Mahmud Ibrahimi, the owner of Radio Surghar, said in an interview that one of his staff members was badly beaten by the Taliban while he was on his way home. Ibrahimi has been threatened three times, including twice on the phone.
He said he once received a letter that read:“If you do not stop your radio, we will kill you and your parents.”
At Pajhwok, the news agency, three reporters have been killed by the Taliban in the past 11 years, said Karokhel, the editor in chief. In June, a bomb attack targeted the agency’s Jalalabad office, wounding four and shattering computers, cameras and other equipment. No group asserted responsibility.
“Other reporters have been kidnapped, jailed or beaten — maybe 50 cases in the last 11 years,” he added.
In a file cabinet in his office, he has dozens of threatening letters and e-mails from the Taliban. The most dangerous province for his journalists to work in is Helmand, much of it ruled by the Taliban, warlords and drug dealers.
Karokhel’s staff has been working on a report about kidnappings and how they’ve become a major source of the Taliban’s revenue. Reporters in several provinces have refused to cooperate, fearing for their lives.
“We can’t report this story out nationally, even if we want to,” Karokhel said.
The financial incentive for journalists to take risks is low. Karokhel covers expenses and pays $600 to $700 a month to his reporters in cities, $400 to $500 to those in volatile provinces, such as Helmand and Khost, and $200 to $300 to those in rural areas.
In one incident, his Laghman province reporter received $300 from a local politician for promising a favorable story on Pajhwok. The story was killed unexpectedly, and the politician complained to the news agency that he wanted his money back.
“We immediately fired the journalist,” said Karokhel, adding that the news agency has a written code of ethics.
One of the few media outlets to refuse aid directly from the U.S. government is Hasht-e-Subh, or Eight AM, a hard-hitting newspaper that routinely breaks stories and does important exposés on official corruption.
“If we get funds, they will want something in return,” said Shah Hussain Murtazawi, deputy chief editor of Eight AM.
Started eight years ago, the paper has 70 staff members in seven provinces. The paper is published in both Pashto and Dari five times a week, with the other two days online only.
The paper never sends reporters to U.S.-funded workshops because “the level of training is very low,” Murtazawi said. Instead, he trains them in-house.
The paper relies on funds from a German NGO, the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundation in the United States and the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy. Aid ends in 2016, and already the paper is worried about its future. Paltry ad revenue pays only for staff lunches and Internet usage, Murtazawi said.
“Our newspaper is not self-sufficient,” he said. “Whatever reports we write are against the government. Most companies don’t want to advertise with our newspaper.”
One recent exposé was about a deputy minister who used government funds to build a sauna in his office and spent $4,000 on a fingerprint-sensor security door.
This kind of reporting has had consequences.
Murtazawi said unknown gunmen showed up at the paper’s office gates after it published a report on land-grabbing by influential government officials. For the next 40 days, the paper had policemen and guards posted.
And after a report about the lack of transparency in how mining contracts were awarded, the mining minister complained to the attorney general’s office, accusing the paper of sabotaging the mining sector. The office filed a civil case against the paper, which is ongoing.
When reporters face threats, they change the hours they work and their routes to and from work to prevent ambushes, Murtazawi said.
“If someone wants to kill you in Afghanistan, he will usually take action in three days,” he added, smiling.
Mohammad Sharif in Kabul, Steven Rich in Washington and Courtney Mabeus, a graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, contributed to this report.