Danish Karokhel takes a blue ring binder from a shelf in his small, dimly lit office and flips through copies of the emailed threats the Pahjwok News Agency, which he heads, receives from the Taliban.
Karokhel reads and translates one such email: the Taliban complain about a reporter’s coverage of an attack that was initially attributed to the Taliban. The authors give the agency one week to write a «correction» or else they will «take action» and assume that the reporter is «a spokesperson of the puppet government».
Karokhel grins broadly, then closes the folder and puts it aside. The editor and journalist laughs a lot. Even when he talks about the monthly threats the agency receives or the «elements in government» who are opposed to media freedom and regularly harass his reporters. Demonstrating that in Afghanistan’s perilous media landscape maintaining a sense of humour is a survival strategy.
From 0 to 50 in 11 years
Fuelled largely by foreign donor assistance, the Afghan media has experienced an unparalleled boom in the past 11 years: growing from one Taliban-run radio station in 2001 to about 150 independent local radio stations, 50 commercial TV stations, a handful of newspapers as well as the state broadcaster RTA today. Despite the diversity in media outlets and the new legislation, Afghan journalists are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place: they have to navigate between threats and harassment both from the Taliban and from government authorities.
With the expected economic decline in 2014 due to the withdrawal of international troops – as well as the uncertain outcome of next year’s presidential elections – the future of Afghanistan’s media diversity and press freedom hang in the balance. How many of these independent outlets will survive and how freely journalists will be able to report are open questions.
Under pressure from many sides
Pahjwok (meaning «echo» in Dari and Pashto) was launched in March 2004, initially as a project of the UK-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) which trained about 1000 Afghan journalists in eight regions. Karokhel was one of the trainers. Since 2005 Pahjwok is independent of the IWPR but still partly dependent on foreign assistance to run the news agency, which includes an editorial staff of 70 (including 11 women). In 2008 Karokhel and managing editor Farida Nekzad received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Karokhel talks a lot about quality and balance, which the agency strives to maintain despite the difficult circumstances in which Afghan journalists work. He explains.
On the one side there are the Taliban. During their rule they destroyed televisions, now they actively engage in media work, run a website that features video footage and employ spokesmen. Not only do they send threatening emails, they also put pressure on media if these do not publicise their statements, according to a BBC Media Action report.
On the other side is the government which, Karokhel says, is divided into three or four groups. President Hamid Karzai supports the media’s independence and freedoms. He is a frequent target of criticism in the media and subjects himself to tough interviews. «He wants the media to be free,» Karokhel says. Who will succeed him in office next year is uncertain, but Afghan journalists are worried. «We don’t think we will have the same freedom we have had for the last 10 years.»
«They don’t like us»
Then there are members of the government «who don’t like the media and don’t want us to have the freedom to do investigative journalism; they don’t cooperate with us.» Sometimes Karzai intervenes when these groups or persons threaten or harass a media outlet, Karokhel says.
And then there are the provincial governments. «In Kabul the media is known by the government, we are a strong group here. There are fewer security issues, not like in the provinces where the members of government don’t know the laws and rights protecting journalists and create problems for them,» he says. «If anybody wants to create problems for a journalist in one of the provinces they can, but in Kabul it’s more difficult.»
In some provinces journalists are bought off with favours and bribes. «It’s a kind of pressure on the media and on the media’s independence,» Karokhel says. When the Pahjwok editorial team notices that articles sent by a reporter suddenly are filled with praise for the provincial government and lack any criticism, the team sometimes is forced to replace the reporter in order to maintain the agency’s journalistic objectivity.