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Getting ready for contingencies in Afghanistan

An Afghan journalist films in Kabul as a military helicopter flies above. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood)

Considering the worst-case scenarios for post-2014 Afghanistan, international news agencies should start planning a range of assistance responses for locally hired journalists and media staff. By the end of 2014, NATO troops will have largely withdrawn and the Karzai government will make way for a new administration. If the situation becomes chaotic, Afghans working for foreign and local media could become targets for retribution for their work as journalists.

A similar discussion has already started in Western media about the future of Afghan interpreters who have served foreign governments and militaries. They may find their lives at risk once the dynamics on the ground change. (Here's the New York Times' piece from Monday, and a post by George Packer for the New Yorker. Der Spiegel's story is here. Sweden's government is considering offering asylum to all of its Afghan staff.) Some suggest Afghanistan could become as chaotic as Iraq as the U.S.-led war wound down.

There are some important distinctions. Just as Iraq was not Vietnam, Afghanistan is not Iraq. Important indicators such as numbers and types of deaths among journalists were far worse in Iraq than they have been in Afghanistan, a point CPJ made as early as January 2010. The death toll for journalists killed in the Iraq conflict was by far the largest ever recorded. A total of 151 died in connection to their work, more than 80 percent of them Iraqis and about 60 percent of them in targeted killings. In Afghanistan, 21 journalists died after September 11, 2001, the start of the all-out offensive to drive Al-Qaeda from the country and their Taliban hosts from power. But the majority of those killed, 13, were foreign journalists. Among Afghan journalists, two died in targeted killings, another was beheaded while being held hostage. The others died while on the job, either in bomb blasts or crossfire.

Still, there is serious risk for local reporters. Afghan journalists report they are accustomed to living under constant threat of retribution. More could be killed covering increased violence, or the breakdown in social order could lead to more targeted killings. There is already perfect impunity for the killers of journalists in the country: Afghanistan ranks seventh on CPJ's global Impunity Index.

The vulnerability of local journalists has long been a crucial issue for CPJ. Monica Campbell explored the uncertain future for Afghan journalists in an analysis in CPJ's Attacks on the Press in 2011. Elisabeth Witchel addressed the broad dangers facing fixers in a 2004 report. Most observers, Witchel said, "believe the international media community must do more to protect fixers." CPJ's senior security adviser, Frank Smyth, wrote about the problem as early as 1992 in a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review titled, Out on a Limb: The use and abuse of stringers in the combat zone.

In Kabul in September 2012 while doing research for a year-end report on the future of Afghan media, I met with several foreign news agencies. We discussed what plans, if any, they have for their locally hired staff after 2014. I found some of them had already started to address the problem.

Some of the people with whom I spoke were veterans of Iraq or other conflicts, and they were well aware of the problems of looking after local staff and their needs. Those in charge have had to deal with personal pleas for assistance from the local men and women they had worked with under demanding conditions for years. They know those calls for help are impossible to ignore. In general, foreign journalists in the field want their organizations to meet those responsibilities. Helping local colleagues was a founding principle for CPJ back in 1981.

While there was no denial of responsibility from the people I met with, the question was how far their organizations could go in assisting those who might really need help and how to sort out the most pressing cases.

Conditions vary from country to country, but CPJ's approach to assisting journalists tends toward helping them find a safe haven in their own country whenever possible. The next best scenario is to get them to safety in a nearby country until they can return home. Finding the money to support them and their relatives, which often goes beyond a small nuclear family, has been a steady challenge for CPJ and allied groups over the years. Our Journalist Assistance program is constantly struggling to keep up with the financial demand.

And although we have helped many journalists go into exile, it is usually a final option we try to avoid. We have seen too many talented men and women leave their countries and flounder. Their expertise, so valuable in their own society, is of little use elsewhere. Many find themselves in menial jobs for which they're vastly overqualified. Back home, their country is deprived of their intellectual resources.

Finding financial support for those who do go into permanent exile is a challenge. But once the decision is made to assist them, it is even harder getting them visas into safe havens in North America, Europe, or Asia. In Iraq, it seemed as if official resistance got worse as the situation deteriorated and the demand for refuge rose.

Some of the bureau chiefs with whom I spoke in Kabul said a first step for them was to formalize their relationship with their staff with contracts, and make it clear to them the extent they would be able to help them if the need arose. They had already prepared lists of local staffers who would be eligible for some sort of assistance, the ones they deemed the most at risk. Not all were bylined journalists--some support staff are on their lists too.

At the headquarters end, media organizations should be developing contingency plans or dusting off those they had developed for earlier situations. That includes developing mechanisms to accurately gauge the level of threat their local employees are facing, and winnowing out exaggerated claims. Threats to staff can escalate quickly, and media organizations should start using their political clout to argue for fast-track visas to safe havens. And in this period of shrinking revenues, they should begin setting aside funds to meet their responsibilities.

There is no guarantee that Afghanistan will play out like Iraq. But there is no reason that foreign media organizations working there should not begin planning a range of responses to look after their most vulnerable staff. Leaving it to harried bureau chiefs or senior producers to deal with at the last minute as they're struggling to cope with the demands of a major story needlessly risks lives.

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