Jane Ferguson, a correspondent for PBS NewsHour and contributor to The New Yorker magazine, landed in Kabul on August 15, just as the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was collapsing and the Taliban began to enter the city.
Ferguson told CPJ that covering the swift and unexpected changing of the guard in Kabul is the most complex and fast changing conflict situation she’s ever faced. That says something, coming from a highly experienced war correspondent who once slipped across the front lines of Yemen’s civil war, disguising her identity under a full Islamic face veil to report on the devastating famine in Houthi-held areas of the country.
CPJ caught up with Ferguson via video in the middle of her day today, after she finished reporting on the tense streets and was preparing to submit another nightly feed to PBS. She spoke about how she’s navigating the dangers in Kabul, about the impact of the changes on Afghan journalists, and about the outlook for press freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CPJ contacted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid for comment via messaging app but received no response.
You have a lot of experience reporting in different conflict zones. How does this compare?
I’ve never ever had a more logistically challenging assignment in my whole career, and I’ve covered a lot of wars and revolutions and crises and humanitarian crises. One of the difficulties for a reporter is that this is unprecedented. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a war just flip on its head like that, where suddenly, those in charge are the Taliban, the insurgents. Trying to navigate the parameters has incredibly difficult, trying to figure out what is safe and what isn’t, where you could go. The day that I landed was Sunday morning [August 15]. I got here about 8 a.m. By 2 p.m., the government had fled and we were starting to see the Taliban in the streets. I’ve been second guessing myself, thinking, “Is this ridiculous that I’m here? Should I be staying in this hotel?” We’re all just thinking to ourselves: “Is this safe? Are they going to come in and hurt us?” But I must say there that there has been a lot of a collegial supportive attitude amongst the journalist pack here.
But it’s very difficult, there are dangers, checkpoints everywhere. The specific Taliban checkpoints outside the hotel that I’m at near the airport are particularly belligerent. So we have to get fixers to approach the checkpoints and ask if it’s okay for us to go through. The idea that I’m living in a reality where I have to try to figure out if there’s a Haqqani network [a Taliban faction] checkpoint down the road controlling this part of Kabul is surreal to me.
But so far, you’ve been able navigate it and avoid harm and somehow do your work.
Pretty much. The first night, there was basically no government. I decided that our team should move back to a more secure place rather than staying in a regular civilian hotel in the center. We decided to move back toward the airport where there are way more secure hotels that had really, really meaty security and we kind of got stuck because the Taliban threw up these really intense checkpoints near us. Also one of the difficult things has been that the crowd that you see of people trying to get to the airport, that’s all on the road here. We got trapped here a little bit, so we had great access to cover what happened at the airport but not so much what’s going on in the city.
That’s changing today, we’re going to be moving back into the city. That’s been frustrating. But we’ve not been hurt and so far we’ve been keeping in touch with one another, all of the international journalists and so far, nobody has been harmed. When we landed here, we thought we would be landing into urban warfare potentially. That there would be more resistance. So in many ways this is a real mercy that we’re not covering that.
As a woman journalist are you facing particular pressures?
I’ve been reporting from Afghanistan for a very long time. I understand which areas of town you can wear what, the restaurants you can go to, I know how to navigate all of that. Now it’s anybody’s guess. I had a conversation with another television journalist from Europe. We were both kind of joking because we were going to try our best at that Taliban checkpoint down the road from our hotel. She looked down at her sandals that she was wearing. We were both wearing big baggy shirts and headscarves and she said “You know, I’ve got my toenails painted pink. I wonder if that’s an issue?” Are we allowed? Are these problems now? We don’t know.
What are you hearing from Afghan journalists?
Unfortunately, I’m having a lot of Afghan journalists coming to me and asking how can they get out of the country. People who not long ago swore that they wouldn’t and I think it’s because no one could have predicted such a vast, sweeping takeover. All night I’m on the phone, “Can you help this person? I hear about this flight going out here… there might be visas at the French embassy… or maybe someone’s putting on a charter, can we get people on this charter?” All night is an attempt to get people out of the country and all day is an attempt to cover the story. Also, it’s sensitive.
I occasionally reach out to people and ask, “Do you need help?” I don’t want my Afghan colleagues to feel like were chasing them out of their own country. Some of them might want to lay low and try to survive. It’s so heartbreaking, becoming a refugee, fleeing your own country, having to leave the country that you love, and your home. It’s such a personal and painful experience that I don’t want to insert myself in that. None of them want to leave. They want to continue living their lives and doing the jobs that they love. There’s been a lot of tears. I’ve not been on assignment ever in my life where I’ve seen journalists and civilians, people, hotel staff, drivers in as many floods of tears. These are the most emotional few days of work that I’ve ever, ever done.
What do you make of the press conference Tuesday by the Taliban spokesperson? He made some indications about allowing press freedom with conditional language.
Here’s what I heard: “Embrace us, international community, trust us. We have the ability to surprise you, please stay. Help us run this country.” Every single talking point is so divergent, at such odds with their actual actions — they spoke of women’s rights, anti-narcotics, freedom of the press, anti-reprisal and revenge attacks against those who worked for the government. These statements are clearly designed to put anxieties to rest. The anxieties are there because of the actions. There has been zero press freedom in Taliban controlled areas of the country in the last 20 years. I mean for Afghans. Sometimes they’ll let us Western journalists come in and we’re heavily, heavily watched. But in terms of an organic media landscape, that doesn’t exist. Women working anywhere, never mind on television – that doesn’t exist.
I don’t mean to sound too cynical, but it’s very difficult to think that this is earnest. They certainly want to project an image and they are very serious about that because they want to be seen as a government and not an insurgency. However, the likelihood of them in the long run respecting press freedom is very, very low.
Does the Taliban’s wish to project a softer, more liberal image create a lever for the international community to apply pressure?
We’re looking at the carrot and the stick. The stick is pretty much gone now. The stick was the war, the military, that didn’t win the war. The carrot might be helpful. They know they need UNICEF to run schools and hospitals for children. They need international aid organizations to run institutions, to pay salaries. They are not going to be able to run a country if it’s a failed state. It’s one thing to say that you respect press freedom. It’s another thing to wake up in the morning and face the reality of press freedom, which is going to be criticism, it’s going to be exposure of facts, it’s going to be hard-hitting interviews, it’s going to be extremely uncomfortable coverage for the group. I think it’s very unlikely that they are going to want to pay the price. If aid agencies hold them to very high standards, I don’t know if the Taliban are ready to pay the price necessary to not become pariahs.
How centralized is the Taliban? Can they enact policy?
Who is the Taliban? Is it a homogenous group? No. You may end up with a decree coming out of Kabul that feels good in hotel lobbies in Doha [the site of peace talks] where negotiations and chats are going on about how you might outlaw forced marriage. Are local commanders in Helmand [a southern province] going to enforce that? Somewhere else, up in the north, will those communities respect that? As you’ve seen under Taliban controlled areas over the past 20 years the implementation of the harsh rule of law has been varied, and I think that is going to be even more so now.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The war was lost, but there were gains and many of them were media related. Perhaps an audience who are not intimately aware about Afghan society might just think, well why would we worry about journalists more than we would worry about anyone else — a musician, or a farmer or a baker? But I would just make the point that journalists are always more at risk because of the nature of their work, but secondly and most importantly there is a whole generation of Afghan journalists, and it’s unique. People who are in their late 20s and early 30s, that post 9/11 generation have unbelievable skills, they are brilliant. They’ve been trained all over the world. They’ve started their own YouTube channels, they’ve set up TV shows, they’ve got production companies.
The media landscape here is like nothing I’ve ever seen in the developing world, anywhere, and so it’s not just that we need to protect journalists because it’s the right thing to do, it’s that there’s a unique media landscape here that if lost would undo a generation of journalists and broadcasters and writers.