Tough Assignment for Afghan Journalists

Breaking news under threat of bombs

Afghan journalist Numan Dost spoke with on Wednesday about the challenges he and his colleagues face reporting on Thursday's presidential and provincial elections.

Dost, an editor at Pajhwok Afghan News, the largest independent news agency in the country, shared his thoughts about the election, the growing violence and the government's order to refrain from reporting news about violence during the election.

Pajhwok has 81 journalists working in the Afghanistan’s provinces and 11 journalists in the capital Kabul. Click here to see their election-related coverage. What are the challenges in covering the elections story in Afghanistan?

Dost: Nowadays, our people face huge security problems. Today, for example, a group of people tried to take over a bank in Kabul, the shooting continued for three hours. Not even Kabul city is safe. As you know, this week there were four major incidents — two suicide attacks, one shooting at the president’s palace and the bank incident today.

So our journalists are not safe. And today the government sent a statement, a decision by the National Security Council, saying that the media cannot cover or report on violence before the elections — [if they do] the foreign media will be kicked out of our country and the local media will be closed.

How did your news organization, Pajhwok, respond to the government’s edict?

Our agency is independent and we say that we are with our people, and our people have the right to know what is happening. So we will continue to cover the story. Other media also said that they would continue.  It is the right of the people to know, and we will give this to them.  (Click here to see Pajhwok’s response to the government’s edict.)

Has the government responded to your news organization’s statement that it will not comply with their restrictions on news coverage?

Dost: Until now there is no update from the government. But the government knows that Election Day will not be safe, that attacks will continue. They know that people may be afraid and not go to the polling stations. And if this happens, the process will fail.

So the security problems are that bad throughout the country?

Security is not good anywhere. People know that insurgents want to do everything possible to disrupt the vote and the government will not be able to keep things safe. So it is impossible to prevent the violence.

For example, last week ISAF (NATO’s International Security Assistance Force) sent a balloon with cameras to monitor all the areas in Kabul that are under threat. But as you see, this week Kabul city was attacked by suicide bombs, and a group of insurgents started fighting with the police. So nobody believes the government is keeping them safe.

What do people think of the elections?

I think some people don’t want the elections to work because they are angry. Other people feel hopeless and say, “We voted in the first elections but our lives are worse – there is corruption, poverty and violence grows day-by-day.” But other people say they will go to the polling station.

So one category will not vote because they are angry, another afraid, and the last will go, saying “It is our right.”

How does the enthusiasm compare to the last election in 2004?

A lot of people stood in line and waited for hours to vote in the last election. In the rural areas and in the provinces, women usually don’t leave their homes. But believe me, in the last elections, women left their homes and voted. But now people aren’t so interested.

But (I believe) elections are very important because this is a democracy and people have the right to select their presidents and their provincial council members. Also, our people are always complaining that our presidents are imposed from the outside. So I think it is better for people to participate in this national process. We hope that [the election] is not too hard, because the situation gets worse day by day, the insurgence grows day-by-day, and people aren’t safe.

Do you know people who aren’t going to vote?

My wife voted in the first elections.  Now she is not ready to vote. I asked her why she wasn’t voting and she said, “Security isn’t good, I don’t want to kill myself.  My life is much more important than my vote.”

Pajhwok’s site has information on how to vote, background on the candidates and such.  Is this more activist approach important to you? 

We sent our reporters to polling stations and they will observe the process and report if there are any problems. We will cover this process very honestly. We don’t say to the people “select this candidate” but we will give the message to the people that this is their right.  We do not support the candidate, we just support the process.

What precautions are Pajhwok journalists taking?

You know that insurgents and violence are a fact of our lives, part of our lives. Our reporters go everywhere and will be going to the polling stations. So all of them are ready, and they will be at polling stations an hour before they open.  At the same time I reminded them, “Your life is more important than the story, so if there is a danger take care of yourself.”

Are you afraid of working as a journalist in Afghanistan now?

Right now we are not afraid. The insurgency and violence that is killing us is habitual, so we do not worry about it. I was born into war, I grew up in war and maybe I am killed in war. This is part of our lives, we are not afraid of this.

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