The brief report captured the palpable sense of the danger and uncertainty engulfing Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover. The handful of Western reporters who’ve remained in Kabul, along with Afghan journalists, have documented the deterioration of order on the capital’s streets and heartbreaking scenes from the city’s airport, as thousands await evacuation flights.
The question surrounding such reporting is how long it will last. American news organizations have hastened to pull their correspondents and Afghan employees and family members out of Kabul over the past few days — an exodus bound to create a news vacuum, with few outsiders able to bear witness to conditions inside the country.
At the same time, there’s little expectation that the Taliban will permit anything like independent reporting from inside what the group now calls the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban suppressed journalists in the pockets of the country it previously controlled, just as it cracked down on other basic rights.
Like Ward, ABC News correspondent Ian Pannell and his crew were confronted this week by aggressive Taliban guards, many seemingly unsure of what they were doing other than keeping people from gathering. Pannell’s reports on Wednesday and Thursday included scenes of Afghans thronging the perimeter of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, desperate to board a flight out.
NBC News’s Richard Engel reported Wednesday that conditions at the airport had improved thanks to the arrival of thousands of U.S. military personnel, making more evacuation flights possible. Engel said Monday that his network had moved out of its office in Kabul because of safety concerns.
And on Thursday, Engel left as well, boarding a military plane bound for Doha, Qatar. On the way out, he reported on the long lines and the long, uncertain wait at the airport, where people were “surrounded by trash, always under guard.” One Afghan man told him, “Our country is, right now, is finished. No more Afghanistan.”
Also at the airport on Wednesday, PBS NewsHour correspondent Jane Ferguson depicted a stark scene in a single camera shot: knots of Afghans who held visas and other documents allowing them to leave the country on one side, and people who lacked documents on the other. One person in the latter group held a baby.
Roxana Saberi of CBS News was unable to leave her hotel in Kabul on Monday because the building was on lockdown, so she reported from her room for “CBS This Morning.” Saberi later flew to Doha, documenting her journey on a military cargo plane alongside about 300 Afghans.
Reporter-photographer Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times and a companion were repeatedly punched by Taliban guards on Thursday as they covered a street demonstration. Two armed men beat them, knocking both to the ground. After realizing they were journalists, the guards apologized and offered them water and energy drinks. Yam wrote that one of the men insisted Yam delete images of the demonstration from his camera.
Behind the scenes, news organizations scrambled to get employees and their family members aboard such flights. The urgency was driven by the assumption that Afghans who helped Americans report the news for the past 20 years — local journalists, interpreters, drivers, office workers and others — are as vulnerable to retaliation by the Taliban as those who helped the American military battle Taliban-backed insurgents.
The Washington Post’s correspondent in Kabul and 12 Afghan employees and family members boarded a military jet to safety in Qatar on Tuesday. (The Post’s reporting from Kabul has been anchored by an Afghan journalist for the past week.)
The New York Times, following much anxious uncertainty, said Wednesday night that its Afghan employees and families, 128 people in all, had also left the country.
“We are relieved and overjoyed to be able to tell you tonight that our brave colleagues in Afghanistan made it to safety,” the newspaper’s international editor, Michael Slackman, said in a statement. He added, “We really want to express our deepest appreciation and respect for those who were on the ground, and who kept their heads during some very scary moments.” The Times declined to offer details, citing security concerns.
Still unknown: The fate of about 60 people affiliated with the Wall Street Journal. The group was part of a contingent from The Post and Times that rushed to the airport on Sunday. A spokesman, Steve Severinghaus, said midday Wednesday that “the situation on the ground remains extremely perilous” but offered no further details.
A CNN spokesman, Jonathan Hawkins, described conditions in Kabul as “fluid” on Wednesday and said the network would pull its personnel out “if we’re no longer satisfied with the security situation.” He declined to offer further comment.
The Associated Press — one of the most important sources of news from Afghanistan for news outlets worldwide — said two of its staffers left with their families earlier this week. They are now reporting on Afghanistan from Turkey.
Earlier this week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it had fielded requests from 475 journalists in Afghanistan, who work for both local and overseas news organizations, for help leaving the country, according to the Associated Press.
The sharp increase in interest in Afghanistan is in contrast to recent years, when America’s long military mission there was all but ignored by many news organizations, especially television.
Even a landmark moment — the signing of a peace treaty by the United States and Taliban in February of last year, setting the U.S. military pullout in motion — received no more than five minutes of coverage on ABC’s, CBS’s and NBC’s nightly newscasts, according to the Tyndall Report, which tracks the broadcasts.
Nevertheless, with fewer people left to report directly from Afghanistan, American news organizations are relying, in part, on contacts with local residents and on social media posts from inside the country. Those measures are secondhand, however, and editors say there’s no real substitute for having a reporter on hand as an eyewitness.
“We are constantly assessing how best to cover what happens next in Afghanistan, even as we focus on the safety of our people,” said The Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee. “It is critical that we keep our readers informed, and we are fortunate to have reporting ability still on the ground and journalists with wide past experience in Afghanistan assisting from nearby countries.”
The Times’ Slackman sounded a similar note even as he expressed relief over the departure of the newspaper’s Afghan staff.
“We must also remain strong in our commitment to find ways to cover an Afghanistan that is under Taliban rule,” he said.