Information in Afghanistan, Covid-19 adds to problems from war
As the coronavirus spreads in Afghanistan, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ) are concerned about its impact on the country’s journalists, especially women journalists, who are more vulnerable. They are threatened by economic precarity, the lack of protection and fierce competition between media outlets in the race for the news.
Although the Afghan government has adopted public health measures such as a lockdown in certain cities such as Kabul and Kandahar and some media outlets have switched to teleworking, the virus continues to spread and journalists are often exposed.
These difficulties are compounded by economic problems, which have forced many media outlets to lay off journalists or switch to part-time working without pay, with women journalists often the first to be laid off. In some provinces, including Kabul, Herat and Balkh, some women journalists have been asked to work on a volunteer basis, while others have been laid off.
On 30 March, the health ministry reported 196 cases of Covid-19 in Afghanistan – 106 of them in Herat – and at least five deaths. Local journalists believe the real figures are much higher. Neighbouring Iran, where the WHO reports a major outbreak, is refusing to treat Afghan refugees without legal status, with the result that more than 70,000 had reportedly returned to Afghanistan via the provinces of Herat and Nimroz by 20 March.
Afghanistan’s frail public health system relies above all on funding by the United States (via USAID), the World Bank and the European Commission. As the US is conditioning assistance to the Afghan government on its peace efforts, the current fraught political situation means the health system is weaker than normal.
Double jeopardy for women
“Women journalist are not just the first victims of the climate of insecurity and the war but also the most exposed to Covid-19, as they are denied the resources for taking care of themselves,” CPAWJ director Farida Nekzad said. “We tallied 1,741 women working for Afghan media outlets on 8 March, 1,139 of them professional journalists. The authorities must do everything possible to ensure that all these women can continue to do their work of reporting the news.”
Several media outlet such as Tolo News, Afghanistan’s biggest TV news channel, have adopted specific protection measures for their women employees.
“Our job is to inform the public properly in order to better combat the spread of Covid-19,” Tolo News chief Lotfullah Najafizadeh said. “Nearly 30% of our staff, who are not directly related to news, have switched to teleworking, while pregnant women and young mothers have been urged to suspend working. We have trained journalists about the health measures to take while working, and we have distributed masks and disinfectant gel. All this without any help from the government.”
Similar measures have been taken at the TV channel Zan (Woman), where the newsroom’s personnel are now teleworking. Several international media outlets have nonetheless been forced to lay off staff, especially in the provinces, and women journalists have been the first to be affected by the economies and the dismissals.
Report at all costs
The virus is not discouraging Pajhwok Afghan News agency chief Danish Karokhel, who is under lockdown with 15 of his employees at the agency’s headquarters in order to keep reporting.
“We are continuing to work despite the economic difficulties resulting from the epidemic,” he said. “Most of our journalists are teleworking and we communicate via WhatsApp or other information sharing methods. It’s the same in the regions, where only the absolutely essential reporters are going into the field. We managed to buy protective material for our journalists but we had to lay off some of them without pay.”
To combat the spread of the epidemic, a lockdown in Kabul and certain other major cities such as Herat, the epidemic’s epicentre, was announced by President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani on 28 March.
“One of the government’s priorities is to provide transparent information and prevent any attempts to hide the truth about the virus’s spread,” Vice-President Sarwar Danesh said. “This is why we have created the special committee for combatting Covid-19, which comprises several government entities as well as bringing in the private sector. Its mission is to provide information to the news media and social media, which have a key role to play in this crisis. To offset the [press conference] coverage ban and to avoid gatherings, the government is making videos available to the media and is talking via teleconference.”
“After fighting tirelessly for 19 years to report the news despite the war, Afghan journalists must now combat another calamity in the form of the virus,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Afghanistan /Iran desk. “They must urgently be given the resources to do their job so that they can continue to cover the peace talks and the reality of the pandemic in Afghanistan.”
- For media and journalists
- Guarantee the public’s right to full, independent, diverse and quality news reporting, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and ensure the flow of information needed to protect the population.
- Protect reporting staff in the field by providing them with face masks, gloves and disinfectant gel and wipes to clean equipment and work stations, so that they can report the news while staying healthy and not spreading the virus.
- Provide reporters with cellophane or another protective material for microphones, and microphone poles to maintain a distance with interviewees; encourage the use of autonomous crews to reduce toing and froing between the field and headquarters; ensure that each crew keeps using the same equipment; ban the use of clip-on microphones because they are too close to the mouth, and disinfect microphones after use; encourage the use of video chat apps such as Skype and Facetime for interviews. Always respect physical distancing rules.
- Do not force journalists to go out reporting in the absence of the necessary safety conditions. Allow them the right to pull out if they think there is a danger for themselves or anyone else, and ensure that managers and editors respect such decisions.
- Ensure that the media outlet’s medical service checks crews about to be sent to suspected infection sites to ensure that none of them has any inappropriate medical condition such as asthma, diabetes or a cold.
- Ensure that every journalist adheres to the rules of journalistic ethics, especially at a time when when “fake news” can have serious consequences.
- For the government
- Make special resources available to the media so they can fulfil their mission of reporting the news, including economic assistance to media outlets in difficulty; cancel taxes for the current year, and guarantee the salaries of journalists who have been partially laid off, especially women journalists, who are two-fold victims of this situation.
- Increase Internet bandwidth so that journalists and media outlets are guaranteed a constant connection at an affordable cost.
- Make facemasks and disinfect gel and wipes available to the media.
Afghanistan is ranked 121st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.