Afghan citizens evacuated by Romanian authorities disembark an airplane near Bucharest, Romania, on September 9, 2021. Romanian authorities have organized the evacuation of journalists. (AP Photo/Alexandru Dobre)

‘A lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear’: CPJ’s María Salazar Ferro on evacuating Afghan journalists

In Afghanistan, the situation is worsening for local journalists as Taliban fighters attack and detain journalists in the field and news outlets are shuttering amid restrictions and economic woes, according to local TV station TOLO News.

As The New York Times has reported new details about the Biden administration’s mixed record on evacuating journalists, CPJ is continuing its efforts to help those trying to escape Taliban rule. Spearheading those efforts is CPJ Emergencies Director María Salazar Ferro, who said she experienced a “rollercoaster of feelings” watching her colleagues band together in a rescue effort that she said received too little support from governments around the world.

CPJ features editor Naomi Zeveloff spoke with Salazar Ferro via video call to get an update on her team’s work.

CPJ also contacted Zabihullah Muhajid, the Taliban spokesperson in Afghanistan, and Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson in Qatar, via messaging app but received no reply.

In an email, a State Department spokesperson told CPJ that the United States will “work vigorously with the international community to explore all options to support vulnerable populations in Afghanistan” including journalists and that it “will continue to support” those seeking to leave Afghanistan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you know how many Afghan journalists have made it out of the country?

I don’t think anyone actually knows how many Afghan journalists have managed to get out. Every day we hear of somebody we were in touch with in the country who pops up somewhere else. We have assisted 46 journalists and their families to leave the country and we have been involved in the evacuations of more than 100 others.

Any idea how many are still trying to leave? 

It is difficult to pinpoint how many people remain and who wants to leave. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the situation, we continue to receive hundreds of emails a day [asking for help]. Whether they are all journalists or not we don’t know, which is why we are trying to comb through those emails. The need continues to be there. 

Has the nature of the threats you’re hearing about changed? 

There remains a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear about what’s to come. The nature of the requests is about the general fear of what it means to be an Afghan journalist under Taliban control. 

Can you shine a light on the work of CPJ’s Emergencies team in recent weeks?

Our focus is to help journalists to safety, whatever safety means for that person. In many cases journalists are looking to leave; they believe they are in severe danger. The Emergencies team provides logistical support in the case of these evacuations and in the case of journalists that remain in the country we provide safety information and work with journalists to provide safe havens.

CPJ helped to evacuate several women who worked for Zan TV, a women-run news channel which shuttered after the Taliban takeover. Can you talk about their case?

It became immediately evident we needed to prioritize female reporters who were at heightened risk. The women who worked for Zan seemed to us to be one of the most at-risk groups because of the focus of their work, which is women’s issues, and because the media outlet was primarily composed of women. They were very organized and we were able to get their information very quickly, so as soon as the window opened up we were able to support them in leaving the country. We were able to work with the Qatari government to get the majority of the group to Doha and worked with Irish authorities to get them to Dublin after Doha. We are hopeful that this will be a new page for them that they will continue doing their great work from there.

Which stories have touched you in particular?  

The profiles of the Zan journalists came to us via a group of Afghan women journalists. Without going into too much detail, the person we were liaising with remains by choice in Afghanistan. What really calls out to me is that [our liaison] was not doing it for herself. She decided for personal reasons to stay but she prioritized the safety of all her colleagues. What is really going to stick with me about this difficult time is seeing how strong the community has been and how hard people have worked to make sure no one is left behind.  

What’s the status of CPJ’s evacuation efforts now? Are people still getting out?

We were able to support a group of six journalists to leave for Pakistan over the weekend. Since August, the story of Afghanistan has been that it changes from hour to hour — one day there will be a possibility that falls through and the next day a completely different possibility will open up. Right now, the status is people can leave if they are in the right place at the right time. We hear from different governments, including the U.S. government, that things could change and that there may be other possibilities down the road but right now it continues to be completely ad hoc.

Many of the fleeing Afghans were airlifted to Qatar. Where are they now? 

Qatar was always supposed to be a lily pad, a place of transit. CPJ is working directly with three journalists who remain on the ground in Doha and there are many more who are linked to U.S. based outlets. We know that there are many journalists who made it via Doha to Mexico, which is providing a temporary safe haven, and there are journalists in other European countries such as Germany and Ireland and journalists in neighboring countries like Pakistan or Uzbekistan. There are some we know of in Albania and Georgia. So really people are spread out, around the world; many of these people are looking for more permanent resettlement.

What’s the current situation with the Priority 2 program, the refugee admissions category the U.S. expanded to include Afghans who worked for U.S. news outlets? 

There is a lot of frustration around the process with evacuations to the United States. The P2 refugee status was created and journalists who had worked for U.S.-based media outlets are included in that process. But there is a lot of confusion and a lot of inconsistency in how this has been used, so we are waiting to see how it continues to be rolled out by the U.S. government. We are not clear how many people have been processed and even those who are in that process now. It is an extremely difficult one, because it requires them to be processed outside the country and the entire endeavor can take between 12 to 24 months.

[Editor’s note: In response to CPJ’s request for comment, the State Department spokesperson reiterated the eligibility of certain Afghan journalists for the P2 program.]

The New York Times referenced your work this week in a report on how the Biden administration had both helped and hindered the evacuation of Afghan journalists. Is there still anything the Biden administration can do to help these journalists?

I have a list. There are certainly a lot of journalists who remain on the ground in Afghanistan – I would like some more clarity on whether they can be evacuated and under what mechanism. Another point would be more clarity about the P2 process. How can people be processed for P2? Who is being processed for P2? Can people be processed within the United States or do they have to go through the process outside the country? I would like additional clarity on emergency parole [allowing entry to the U.S. without a visa] and the P1 [Priority 1 program of refugee admissions] process under which journalists at risk who did not work for a U.S-based outlet could potentially fall. Another thing that would be extremely helpful is more information about transit countries and what governments the journalists or CPJ could be reaching out to as a first stop on the way out of Afghanistan.

The Times piece mentions freelancer Ahmad Wali Sarhadi, who reached out to CPJ in distress and received an email back saying, “You are not alone.” The journalist, whom CPJ helped evacuate, said he would never forget that email. Can you talk about the importance of that message?

It is the journalist community that has come to the rescue. It is colleagues, it is newsrooms, and journalists’ own colleagues in Afghanistan who have banded together to help Afghan journalists.

The Taliban promised it would allow journalists to continue their work; two weeks ago we saw reporters covering an anti-Taliban protest flogged. There have been other attacks on journalists too. What’s your assessment of press freedom in the country right now? 

The outlook is not good. We are still waiting to see what exactly the Taliban is going to do. So far, the incidents we have encountered of interactions between the Taliban and local journalists are concerning. But it is still a little bit of a wait-and-see situation for us to really understand how things are going to play out in Afghanistan.

What is your advice to journalists still in the country?

Because the general situation in Afghanistan has been changing so quickly we can’t provide blanket advice. But if we were to give one piece of advice, it is to shelter in place, to have a low profile. The low-profile bit goes both for what you are doing in real life and what you are doing on social media.