Escape, Survival and Solidarity: Afghan Journalists and the PFUJ

After one year of Taliban rule, journalists in Afghanistan are leaving in unprecedented numbers. Stories of escape, survival and solidarity are more important than ever, as we look to support journalists fleeing repression and violence, writes Lubna Jerar Naqvi.

Afghan journalist Lima Spesaly talks with Afghanistan Independent Journalists Association head Hujatullah Mujadidi on May 28, 2022. Credit: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

Nadia Zahel was through the first trimester of her pregnancy when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. She lived in Kabul, and her home in the Afghan capital was becoming increasingly unsafe. One can only imagine the emotions Nadia Zahel must have experienced in August 2021. Pregnancy is a wonderful, important, and stressful time for any woman. As a woman journalist facing the prospect of repression, violence, and economic uncertainty, Zahel’s life in Afghanistan was becoming untenable. Like thousands of journalists across Afghanistan, she was desperate to find a safe way out of Taliban control and secure a future for her child without fear.

The Taliban ascended with pretences of acceptance. In an August 2021 press conference, they claimed they would defend women’s rights and respect media freedom. This promise has somehow failed to be actualised; women and the media have been the subject of violence, repression, and harassment. Women were uncertain of their future.

Many hope to flee as conditions worsen. Immediately after the Taliban took over, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported “nearly 300 journalists….are attempting to reach safety, and there are hundreds more whose cases are under review”.

Afghanistan has never been an easy place for journalists, but Taliban influence has made working in journalism nearly impossible. Reporters Without Borders said Afghanistan “lost 39.59% of its media outlets and 59.86% of its journalists”, as economic crisis, media repression, and harassment impact outlets, journalists, and their families. Some of these journalists managed to get out of the country after organisations like IFJ moved to support them.

Zahel was among the first group of journalists who made it out of Afghanistan with her family, reaching Islamabad in August 2021. With help from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Pakistan Federation of Journalists (PFUJ), Zahel and her family stayed in a guest house for three months before leaving for France.

Speaking about last August, Zahel told IFJ, “The situation of my country was too dangerous and critical. I was pregnant; all night they [the Taliban] were firing from 2 am up to the morning. Day by day I was losing my hope. I guessed they will come to my house and kill me because I was on screen (newsreader), and I was a well-known figure in my community.”

Speaking about how she got out, Zahel said, “My sister - who was in France and was a former journalist for Afghanistan national TV - had an interview with SNJ (Syndicat National des Journalistes – France’s National Union of Journalists), so she said that she is worried about me. Then the team of SNJ and IFJ, which are working together contacted me and wanted proof of my work then told me to go to the French Embassy in Pakistan.”

The SNJ had given Zahel details for a contact in Islamabad, who helped coordinate her and her family’s trip to Pakistan. “He picked us up from the shuttle service and introduced me to Mr Shakil. Two days after our arrival in Pakistan some officials came to the hotel and took us to their office where we signed some paper.” She appreciated the support from PFUJ and the work they did for her to facilitate her stay in Pakistan.

“I stayed for three months in Pakistan,” said Zahel. She then left for France where she is now settling down with her family and new baby.

“Now I arrived in France, my life is good, but I am still shocked. I feel depressed when I think of the situation we faced. I lost my country, my family is separated, I have a master’s degree.” Her pain came through as she was unable to complete her thought.

She added she still feels anxious and depressed despite being away from the danger of the Taliban. She has no idea where her family and friends are or if she will ever be able to return home. Despite everything, Zahel still has some hope for her country.

Like Nadia Zahel, former Kabul resident Ahmad Haris Jamalzada managed to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban’s return to power. His contacts with the IFJ and the PFUJ allowed him to move to Pakistan in October 2021.

“From the first of October 2021 to 13 April 2022, I was in a PFUJ shelter with my wife and my children, which was supported financially by IFJ,” said Haris. “I'm thankful to the PFUJ and IFJ for supporting me and my family”.

Like many other journalists, Haris found himself in an increasingly hostile environment after August 2021. Luckily, he managed to escape with his family, and start a new life.

“It was a great opportunity for me and my family because we escaped from my own country, and we had nothing at that time. Thanks, PFUJ for their warm hospitality and kindness; IFJ and especially Mr Jeremy Dear did a lot, and we are thankful,” said Haris.

Out of the hundreds of Afghan journalists who came to Islamabad, 28 journalists and their families were supported and given accommodation by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and the IFJ.

The PFUJ concentrated on three main areas to facilitate their colleagues from Afghanistan and ensure their safety.

1. Facilitation in receiving Pakistan Visas

On the recommendation of IFJ, the PFUJ helped Afghan journalists obtain visas to enter Pakistan. The PFUJ met with the Pakistani Interior Ministry and the Minister for Information to discuss how to implement the IFJ’s recommendation. This assisted more than a hundred journalists to procure their visas; from here they attained visas and travelled to other countries.

2. Accommodation Facility for Afghan Journalists’ Families

The PFUJ rented an accommodation facility exclusively for Afghan families who were unable to afford basic living expenses in Islamabad. Families were selected based on the IFJ’s recommendation and were provided with food, security, health care, and a place to sleep, all free of cost. These expenses were paid for with funds provided by IFJ. Currently, about ten families have left the facility and gone abroad, while four families remain in the accommodation facility.

3. Financial Support Fund

Afghan journalists who have been living with relatives or in other accommodation in Islamabad were provided financial support for their living at their request.

Secretary General of PFUJ, Rana Muhammad Azeem said: “The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) represents more than forty regional journalists’ unions in Pakistan and works for the rights of media persons working in print, electronic and digital outlets. The PFUJ strongly believes in freedom of speech and expression of the media persons, while it has always been ready to play a vital role for the journalist of Pakistan and this region. That is why we have been working for the displaced Afghan journalists and their families in collaboration with IFJ.”

President, PFUJ, GM Jamali added: “PFUJ stands in solidarity with journalists regardless of their location. Pakistani journalists have faced a myriad of problems for decades and still stand their ground. PFUJ shows the same strength and resilience and never hesitates to stand in solidarity with journalists and therefore was more than willing to support our colleagues when Afghanistan saw the return of Taliban.”

Jamali added: “Many Afghan journalists contacted IFJ which connected many to the PFUJ. Several Afghan journalists came to Pakistan, where PFUJ provided them with all the support they needed during their stay in Pakistan. Now I am glad to say many of them have a second chance to begin their lives again.”

Lubna Jerar Naqvi is a freelance journalist and the Pakistan Gender Coordinator of the IFJ Asia Pacific.