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Journalists must raise their voices, says prize winner from Afghan news station which survived a massacre

When a targeted Taliban suicide bombing cost them seven employees and left 17 others wounded a year ago, TOLO News staff thought many of their colleagues would abandon their posts.

But one year on, most of the journalists of Afghanistan’s first 24-hour TV news station continue delivering stories from across the country, with war reporting taking up more than half of their coverage, according to TOLO News Director Lotfullah Najafizada.

Afghan Taliban

Afghan soldiers take aim at Taliban insurgents. File Photo: Al Jazeera English, via Flickr.

“When you’re an Afghan and a journalist and you take the risk of reporting, you’re doing more than informing people. You’re becoming an agent of change by embracing that risk and putting the lives of your family in danger,” Najafizada told HKFP.

‘Statement of courage’

One of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, Afghanistan was ranked 120 out of 180 countries in the 2016 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, scoring only slightly better than its neighbours.

The war-torn country has seen gradual improvements in the conditions for press freedom in recent years, with a relatively liberal constitution and legislation protecting the freedom of the press and information.

But reporters continue to face violence from government officials, security forces, powerful warlords and Taliban insurgents. Najafizada criticised the Afghan government for not doing enough to protect the press, though he said there is no systematic crackdown on journalists. He added that the situation is worse for smaller media outlets.

Afghan press

A photojournalist showing his equipment to local Afghan children. File Photo: ResoluteSupportMedia, via Flickr.

“I have come across a general in the military, who said that one of the reasons for the war [to continue] is because there is too much press coverage of the war, which I think is very very alarming” he said.

According to a report released last July by the Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee, 2016 was already the bloodiest year for journalists in the history of Afghanistan, with ten journalists killed in the first half of the year. It noted that the recent rise in violence against the press was largely attributed to the Taliban.

“When you face warlords, when you go to places where there is no government, when you go to Taliban-controlled areas,” Najafizada said. “I think that is a statement of courage.”

On Thursday, Najafizada – representing TOLO News – received the 2016 Agence France-Presse Kate Webb Prize at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The independent, privately-run outlet was given the award for its fearless reporting work.

Reporting on the front line

Najafizada told HKFP that last year’s attack on his colleagues was due to a clash of ideologies. The suicide bombing near a bus carrying TOLO staffers took place in Kabul, days after the Taliban’s powerful military wing declared the news channel to be a “military target.”

According to Najafizada, the Taliban has said it targets the news channel – which represents the moderate version of Islam – because, among other things, of its entertainment programmes featuring women singing on stage, and its “un-Islamic” coverage of the Taliban’s seizing of Kunduz, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban captured Kunduz in October 2015, and that was the biggest security-related story of the past 15 years for the media and the country. There was no reporting coming out of Kunduz, so we sent ten journalists on the ground,” Najafizada said.

One of the stories involved an allegation of insurgents raping a female student. “That was based on two quotes from security officials and then we had a denial from the head of the dorm, but the Taliban said that it was an insult to them,” he said.

Kunduz

Joint US-Afghan-German operations in Kunduz. File Photo: Wikicommons.

Despite the insurgents’ denial, the NGO Amnesty International reported that the Taliban committed gang rapes and mass murders in Kunduz.

The deadly attack against the TOLO employees sparked public outcry, with thousands of supporters gathering outside the news station’s compound. Some Afghan journalists also suggested boycotting the Taliban by not giving them coverage, but Najafizada said his team did not adopt this position.

“If they are part of the story, it is our job to report, not to take sides,” he said, adding that people have daily contact with the Afghan military or the Taliban in at least 20 out of 34 provinces.

“So you have no choice but to report as journalists on those incidents because people’s lives matter.”

TOLO news newsroom

TOLO News newsroom. Photo: TOLO News.

‘Let the narrative live’

Najafizada, who has been a journalist for the past 12 years, said press freedom is vital to contributing to the long-term transformation of society. He lamented that his country had been hijacked by a group of extremists, who want to take Afghanistan “back to the Dark Ages.”

“I don’t think the Afghan people are ready for such a strategic setback,” said Najafizada. “It is a dream for the Taliban and it will remain a dream for them forever.”

Instead, he said, the majority of Afghan people embrace universal values, and want to ensure their democratic system will be sustainable. “Afghanistan is a young democracy – just 15 years – and we have gone through a lot of regime changes and revolutions in the past decades, from monarchy to communism to Taliban. All in one generation.”

Asked if he had any advice for Hong Kong journalists, who are facing worsening press freedom, Najafizada said: “For journalists who report in places where the situation is deteriorating, it’s more than just reporting the situation. It’s also about fighting against what’s coming your way. I think resilience is critical.”

Lotfullah Najafizada TOLO

Afghanistan’s TOLO News director Lotfullah Najafizada speaks after receiving the Kate Webb prize given to his television station in Hong Kong on January 12, 2017. Photo: AFP / Aaron Tam.

To fight the uphill battle, he believes journalists should try to explain their cause, make the issues more relevant, and “let the narrative live.”

“In our business, one of the unfortunate things is that our narrative changes quite quickly. It’s one thing today and tomorrow there’s another story,” Najafizada said. “I think for things which matter and affect [society] long-term – especially affect the core of journalism – those narratives should be there.”

“Journalists in the world, including Hong Kong, should take it seriously and report as much as they can and raise their voice, raise their voice louder than those who try to suppress it.”

Journalists must raise their voices, says prize winner from Afghan news station which survived a massacre