In the wake of US pullout, Afghan journalists need protection

In the aftermath of this week’s foreign policy speech by President Barack Obama and discussions on the imminent pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, we need to think once again of the implications this retreat will have for the thousands of Afghans who for more than a decade have worked not only with the military, but also with U.S.-based non-governmental and media organizations.

For the past year and a half, Congress has been addressing the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programs that enable Iraqi and Afghan wartime allies who come under threat as a result of their service to come to the United States. However, time and again–and most recently on May 21– Congress has failed to expand the Afghan SIV program to include Afghans who worked with U.S.-based news outlets. (Iraqi journalists under threat have been afforded some U.S. visas since 2008.)

Last year, Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, travelled to Afghanistan to meet with the local press corps. His goal was to asses what’s in store for Afghan journalists as U.S. and NATO troops begin to leave and the country elects a new president. Dietz met with dozens of journalists; CPJ later commissioned a telephone survey of 15 others. Though evaluations were mixed–some even positive–many said they remain under constant threat from all sides of the conflict. Women journalists are acutely vulnerable, and those perceived to have ties to the U.S. remain at particular risk.

Barat Ali Batoor, a young photographer, is among the dozens of Afghan journalists that come to mind. Batoor has worked with The Washington Post, Newsweek, India Today, The Global Mail, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, and Reuters. In 2005, he received a grant to document a growing practice by prominent or rich Afghan men of forcing children into a life of sexual abuse. In 2011, his photos were exhibited at a cultural center in Kabul, and later appeared in The Washington Post and other U.S.-based media outlets.

Batoor told CPJ that he started receiving a slew of threatening phone calls immediately after his work appeared in The Washington Post. He said callers identified themselves as Taliban, and accused him of being the official photographer for the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Batoor said he was also followed as he went from his home to his office and back. Terrified, the photographer decided to flee.

Today, Batoor has asylum in Australia, where he is once again working–but only after having survived a daunting journey that included a capsized boat and an unnerving escape from a refugee detention center in Indonesia.

There are many other Afghan reporters who have been targeted simply for having their work published in U.S. media. And yet, Congress has failed to ensure their safety once U.S. and NATO troops have left.

Last week, members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee announced that amendments to the Afghan SIV program would be included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). These provisions extend for another year the existing Afghan SIV program. They also expand eligibility to Afghans who had worked with U.S. forces but had been directly hired by NATO, and who so far had been excluded from the program on that technicality.

But language that would have extended the SIV program to Afghans who have worked with U.S.-based media was not included in the NDAA bill that will be presented for debate and a vote on the Senate floor. (The language under consideration also would have expanded eligibility to Afghans who had worked for U.S.-based non-governmental organizations and to the families of Afghan SIV recipients under threat.)

The provision failed despite the support of several senators. CPJ calls and e-mails seeking comment from Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the champions of the bill, went unanswered.

Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, was another backer, according to Donelle Harder, his communications director. Harder told CPJ that the only clear option for reviving the provision this year would be for a separate amendment to be introduced when the NDAA goes to the Senate floor.

This is the second consecutive year that a provision extending protection to Afghans who worked with U.S. media has been cut from related legislation.

Violence in Afghanistan has increased this year, with two international journalists killed in direct relation to their work, according to CPJ research. The country ranks sixth on CPJ’s Impunity Index, a list of countries where journalists are routinely murdered and their killers go free.