INTERVIEW: Taliban's 'scared straight' policy pushing journalists to withdraw from profession

Ashraf Amin, Tuesday 12 Oct 2021

Elisabeth Eide, the Norwegian journalist, author and professor in journalism studies at Oslo Metropolitan University visited Afghanistan 15 times, including the first time the Taliban were in power. She wrote five novels and 25 non-fiction books, among them monographies on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Elisabeth Eide
Elisabeth Eide

Eide's first novel Til Kabul faller (As Kabul Falls), first published in 1994, is about Nina Marstein, who interviews torture victims in Afghanistan, but is also looking for a French colleague who has disappeared. In the hunt, she crosses the tracks of the CIA, Afghan intelligence and the irreconcilable, and also comes across information that must not come out before Kabul falls.

Ahram Online: What made you interested in covering news stories from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Elisabeth Eide: It is a very old story. When I was in high school, I wrote my thesis about Mahatma Gandhi. Then years after, I was engaged in the protests in Norway against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. A year later, I met two exiles from Afghanistan in Paris and interviewed them for the Norwegian media. They told me a lot about the resistance against the Soviets, and also about the Soviet brutality. I was intrigued enough to also join an NGO that worked for solidarity with Afghanistan. You can imagine I've sort of lived with Afghanistan for the past four decades.

AO: Based on what we follow in the news, do you expect there will be any change between the current Taliban regime and the previous one you witnessed?

EE: Well, there have to be some changes. I visited Afghanistan in 1997, when the Taliban had been in power in most of the country for one year. They took, as you may know, Kabul in 1996. Under their regime, the media situation was very easy to sum up. It consisted of one radio station called radio Sharia, and a kind of stencil newspaper. That was all. We cannot expect this media situation to return, at least not totally.

AO: What have you learned and witnessed in your visits to Afghanistan?

EE: If we start with the three visits I made during the time of the Taliban, I could see that there was full control over the country. There was no highway robbery and a sort of peace in most of the country, but the price people paid for that peace was very high. You hardly saw women out in the streets without wearing the burqa and were forced out of universities. I tried when I was in Kabul to interview the rector of the university, but I found out that I was not permitted to do so since I was a female.

I also saw checkpoints during my travel by road, where people would confiscate our music cassettes and trample upon them. I've seen people who tried to play music in the marketplace run as fast as they could when they saw black turbans, which are symbolic of the Taliban.

In many ways, I saw half the population being barred from social activities, except in the health sector, because of course, Taliban also needed their wives to be treated by females and not by male doctors.

AO: You published a study in 2019 based on a series of interviews with Afghan journalists. What were the important findings of this paper?

EE: I published this paper with two Afghan journalists, Mr. Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, who was leading the large media monitoring organisation in Afghanistan and had to flee because he was very high on the death list. The second, Ms. Hasina Shirzad, is a former journalist and now also a refugee.

Our study was about journalists’ safety and their concerns under the government of that time, which was not the Taliban. Unfortunately, there were many concerns, even if Afghanistan had one of the most liberal press laws in the region. Journalists’ daily work would meet with several obstacles such as access to information, which was not always available, and also with harassment and threats from people in authority. People in power, even if the press law was good, were not used to being scrutinized by the media. There was much corruption during the Karzai and Ghani governments. There were lots of issues to be critical about with the previous Afghan governments as well, but at least the media could do it.

Let me just add that during the previous governments, there were assassinations of journalists. This has been reported both by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Although there is no accurate information about who did these assassinations, some believe the Taliban did some of these attacks, and others were by the local branch of ISIS. There could be cases where even people close to the government would do such things because they were angry at certain journalists.

AO: What would be your advice to the reporters who are currently covering the news in Afghanistan?

EE: I don't think my advice is perhaps so important. For some of the journalists I know, it has been a question of leaving the country, because they are allegedly on a list of targets for the Taliban once they take power. According to the local news, 153 local media outlets closed down in less than a month in 20 provinces. I know quite a few journalists have escaped and many more would like to.

What we see is a “scared straight”, which means that the Taliban scare these journalists and try to make them withdraw from their profession. Should we advise them to withdraw? Should we ask people not to cover protests in the streets, because they risk being flogged as we have seen in pictures on social media? I hope not. I wouldn't do that, but I can’t tell them to go out and risk their lives. I think people should protect themselves first by being in a group, which we've seen in the protests, for example, that men are surrounding women who protest out of solidarity.

I read an interview with Saad Mohseni, the director of Moby Group, the owners of the private Tolo TV in Kabul. He said that they are still running their programs and the limit would be the day when they cannot have female journalists. He mentioned that quite a few female journalists have left, but he just recently hired new ones. So, there is some stubbornness on the institutional level. I see the same with Pajhwok news agency. There are still signs that journalists are resisting being silenced.

AO: Do you see examples of citizen journalism covering local events from Kabul?

EE: It's hard to judge the quality of the content, I see a lot of material on Facebook but we cannot trust all these updates on social media. If human rights are not respected and women cannot work, many Afghani media companies could move their main stations abroad or to neighbouring countries, and have their journalistic shoes-on-the-ground with people they trust, who are trained to evaluate sources before broadcasting any kind of facts.

AO: You published your first novel As Kabul Falls in 1994. What inspired you to move from a reporter to a novelist?

EE: I lived in Pakistan for almost two years and covered the Afghanistan war from there in exile. I had at that time a one-year-old son, so I did not go too much to the war zones, but I learned a lot of stories from all the refugees who crossed the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan. There were some stories that were not fit for the journalistic format. One of the stories was about how a certain Mujahideen group actually kept prisoners from other resistance groups that they didn't like, perhaps from radical liberal groups, so they created prisons inside the refugee camps. I could not get these accounts totally verified. I could not get anybody to tell. They were too scared.

So, I decided that was part of what I could put into a novel. There were other parts too. This was one of the main plots in that novel. Sometimes fiction can tell more truth than journalism, it can be more universal in a sense. This could also be a story of how journalists have come short of telling the full truth because they haven't had access to reliable sources. Then they can put it into fiction, and stand by it as something they believe to be true.

AO: Being a journalist in such a turbulent area, how did you factcheck the information you received, and did you find later that you were wrong about certain information you published?

EE: If I go back to the 1990s, definitely so. I think that many of the journalists who were covering Afghanistan from Peshawar in Pakistan perhaps relied too much on some of these different resistance fighters. For me, that story I just told you was an eye opener to say that, look, these guys have bad sites.

One of the ways I learned to counter the information I got from mainly the male leaders was to talk to the women. I had some advantages as a woman journalist to go behind the curtains and ask the women, who would tell their stories and advocate for their rights to open schools for girls even if the male leaders said that there are not enough schools for boys. If you are based for a long time in one place you learn how to bring different voices in your story. I also learned that there was lots of exaggeration in the information the Mujahedeen were relaying about their battles. Giving numbers about what is happening in Afghanistan is very uncertain, because statistics have never been a strong point in Afghanistan’s conflicts.

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