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'No One To Protect Us': Afghan Journalists Who Fled To Pakistan Say Western Nations Have Abandoned Them


Nasrin Shirzad, a former journalist with Afghanistan's Ariana TV, fled to Pakistan after receiving threats from the Taliban. She says her visa has now expired and her many appeals to NGOs and Western countries for assistance have been rebuffed.

Speaking truth to power was a lifeline for Nasrin Shirzad, who made her mark on Afghanistan's media scene by covering issues that often conflicted with the Taliban's extremist views.

That lifeline was severed when the Taliban returned to power in Kabul in August 2021, setting off a cascade of setbacks for the female newscaster and anchor.

Unemployed and fearing for her life, Shirzad fled with her family to neighboring Pakistan. For months, she has received letter after letter telling her she cannot be helped because it is impossible to determine that she was under threat in Afghanistan.

The night letter the 42-year-old mother of three found on her doorstep in the eastern province of Nangarhar immediately after the Taliban seized power tells a different story.

Handwritten and bearing a Taliban letterhead and stamp, the letter's message is as dire as it is brief:

"To Nasrin, daughter of Saif Al-Maluk, reporter for Ariana News in Kabul:

Since you worked as a journalist for infidel channels (TV) and made propaganda against the Islamic Emirate, you presented the Islamic Emirate as a terrorist group to the people and thus you are a sinner in the opinion of the Islamic Emirate. Make up for your mistakes and sins as soon as possible or the Islamic Emirate will take care of you."

RFE/RL, which reviewed the letter, was unable to verify its authenticity. In written comments, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid dismissed the letter as a "fake," and said "people make up cases like this" in order to seek asylum in the West.

Shirzad has received letter after letter telling her she cannot be helped because it is impossible to determine that she was under threat in Afghanistan.
Shirzad has received letter after letter telling her she cannot be helped because it is impossible to determine that she was under threat in Afghanistan.

But Shirzad said her work as a journalist has earned her and her family many such threats over the years. It came as a relief when in February she finally received a visa to evacuate her family to Pakistan.

Now, however, her life is in limbo. Her visa has expired, her landlord has given her an eviction notice, and her appeals to NGOs and Western countries to help her move abroad have been rebuffed.

"We were able to document your journalistic background but we were not able to document the recent threats/safety problems you have been exposed to as a result of your work," read one reply from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to Shirzad's request for support in applying for a visa to a third country.

When she sought help from France, which was heavily involved in the nearly 20-year U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Shirzad said she was told by the embassy that "they can't repatriate me and my family because they say I am not facing any danger due to my journalism in Afghanistan."

Journalists Covered Up, Silenced

A WhatsApp group dedicated to Afghan journalists who have escaped to Pakistan shows that Shirzad is far from alone. In the year since the Taliban retook power, the group has expanded to about 200 journalists who share their stories of living on the run with little help from the outside world.

Many, like Shirzad, left their homeland out of fear of retribution for their work over the past two decades as Afghanistan tried to develop a more open media landscape.

Although the Taliban has pledged to support media freedom, the message sent through acts of censorship, pressure, and violence against journalists -- and orders that female newscasters like Shirzad must abide by strict Islamic dress codes on air -- made it clear the promise would not be upheld.

RSF, in a report published on August 10, said that Afghanistan has lost nearly 40 percent of its media outlets and just under 60 percent of its journalists since the Taliban takeover.

Women journalists, the media watchdog said, were most affected by Taliban rule, with more than 76 percent having lost their jobs and "disappeared completely from the media landscape in 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces." Whereas 2,756 women journalists and media workers were employed in the country prior to August 2021, only 656 are still working, the vast majority in Kabul.

In July, Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada issued a decree that forbade "false accusations against officials or criticism of them." The decree has been called out by media watchdogs as an attempt to silence free speech.

The order joins the "11 rules for journalists" -- issued shortly after the Taliban seized power -- that prohibit the publication or broadcasting of reports that are "contrary to Islam" and which discourage reporting of news that has not been confirmed by Taliban officials.

Afghan journalists Neamat Naqdi and Taqi Daryabi arrive at their office after being beaten and detained by the Taliban in Kabul in September 2021.
Afghan journalists Neamat Naqdi and Taqi Daryabi arrive at their office after being beaten and detained by the Taliban in Kabul in September 2021.

More than 80 journalists have been arbitrarily detained since August 2021, and 50 have been the direct victims of violence at the hands of the Taliban's security forces, according to RSF.

The situation has led to calls by civil society and media organizations for countries to protect and evacuate Afghan media workers, and promises of help from Western countries.

The United States pledged in September 2021 that despite the evacuation of American troops it would continue to work to help "at-risk people leave Afghanistan."

Visa Issues

Days before the Taliban takeover, Islamabad took steps to address such concerns by easing its visa policy to help media workers who wanted to evacuate Afghanistan via Pakistan.

But that measure expired last month and the government has yet to approve an extension.

Malik Muhammad Afzal, an official who works for the Pakistani Interior Ministry's visa department, said the measure was slated to be extended this week but that it is subject to approval by the country's intelligence agencies.

Even with the eased restrictions, many Afghan journalists who fled to Pakistan have said they've encountered numerous problems extending their visas, forcing some to pay bribes in either Afghanistan or Pakistan to obtain new documents.

Abdullah Hameem, a journalist with leading Afghan broadcaster Tolo TV who covered the war between the Taliban and foreign and Afghan government forces, said that "every day our colleagues are getting different legal, financial, and emotional pressures, and we don't know where to go."

"Most are having visa renewal problems, and some of our friends went back to Afghanistan for a fresh entry visa for Pakistan," Hameem said. "This is a very dangerous move, to go to Afghanistan. Some of our friends paid $300 to $400 to private dealers for the renewal of Pakistani visas."

Hameem said he manages to get by with financial support provided by the rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Abdullah Hameem, a journalist with leading Afghan broadcaster Tolo TV, says he and many of his fellow journalists just "don't know where to go."
Abdullah Hameem, a journalist with leading Afghan broadcaster Tolo TV, says he and many of his fellow journalists just "don't know where to go."

Rafiullah Nekzad, a 23-year-old who worked for the private Khurshid TV channel in Kabul, said he went to Pakistan this spring after he had heard the Taliban was looking for him.

"Two months ago, I applied for a visa extension to stay in Pakistan legally, but I still have not received the renewal," he said. "If I don't get my visa renewal, then I am not able to rent a place to live, and if someone sends money, I cannot collect it with an expired visa."

Sodaba Nasiry, a 26-year-old journalist who worked for the former Afghan parliament's television channel, said she left Kabul for Pakistan the day the Taliban stormed Kabul.

She said her visa expired this month, leaving her unable to rent a room legally. For now, she is staying with an Afghan widow in Islamabad.

"I don’t know where to go. All my e-mails and applications to the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the German, French, Italian, and Canadian embassies have given no positive replies to requests for any assistance," Nasiry said. "Now I suffer from depression. I was admitted to a hospital for treatment but after a few days I had to leave due to a shortage of money."

Sodoba Nasiry used to work for the former Afghan parliament's TV channel. Now she's unable to rent a room in Pakistan because her visa is expired.
Sodoba Nasiry used to work for the former Afghan parliament's TV channel. Now she's unable to rent a room in Pakistan because her visa is expired.

Afzal from the Pakistani Interior Ministry's visa department offered assurances to RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that all applications for visa extensions filed by Afghan journalists are being processed. He said that if any Afghan media workers provide proof about bribe-taking that legal action would be taken against the perpetrators.

As for outside help, media watchdogs such as RSF say they are doing what they can to help.

"It's very hard for me to talk about specific cases, but we are helping those who fled from the Taliban and went to Pakistan or Iran or are still living in Afghanistan," RSF Asia-Pacific director Daniel Bastard said. "Our policy for Afghan journalists is to give them assistance."

Bastard said the support his organization provides includes helping Afghan journalists in Pakistan get to third countries because "we know they cannot live for [the] long term in Pakistan."

Going back to Afghanistan is not an option for journalists like Shirzad, who says her hometown is dominated by the Taliban and whose husband, a cameraman, has also received threats related to his work as a journalist.

With no visa in hand and no one to take up her cause, she said she feels "great hopelessness."

"You work to tell the truth," she said of her profession, "only to face death threats and find there is no one to protect us."

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