Free Press Unlimited: One year since the fall of Kabul: a detailed account of the evacuation

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by Free Press Unlimited, was first published on September 13, 2022.

When the Taliban gained more and more territory, eventually entered Kabul, and took control over Afghanistan, it was pure chaos. For Free Press Unlimited it was an unprecedented crisis situation as well, that required our emergency team to work day and night to help keep journalists and fixers safe. We did not do that alone.

The emergency team collaborated with many other organisations and individuals with contacts in either Afghanistan or Pakistan who could assist with the evacuation. One of these pivotal liaisons was journalist Tahir Imran. Tahir worked for BBC Urdu that is part of BBC World Service until 2020 and works as a freelancer ever since. In this interview we speak to him about his role during the evacuation.

What is your relation with the situation in Afghanistan?

I have done all sorts of journalism, but one of the things I was really keen on and had huge interest in, was aviation. This is something which accidentally brought me to Afghanistan. As an aviation journalist you are connected to airlines and have contacts among airline executives and officials. After the Taliban took Kabul, a friend of mine, who works for Free Press Unlimited now, approached me and asked if I could help with evacuating a group of LGBTQI members from Afghanistan, and after that I started helping to evacuate journalists as well.

Help was needed with organising the flights at first, and then getting tickets or finding the right connections for flights. When I decided to help with that, I found the opportunity to organise special charters with the support of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). With this airline we evacuated journalists, but also human rights defenders, women’s rights defenders, authors, judges and police officials who were fleeing Afghanistan, in over 12 evacuation flights. So that’s how I accidentally became somebody who was helping in this crisis.

What obstacles did you encounter?

I think the biggest challenge at that time was that nobody knew what to do. There were many people who needed help, but the ways to offer help were limited. There were organisations who had money, but where and how to spend that money? For example, people needed visas, people needed support with fleeing the country, and people needed security advice via on the ground contacts. So I asked the CEO of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), Air Marshal Arshad Malik, if he could help with organising charter flights. With his active support and help we reached out to the Pakistani ambassador and the Pakistani government, requesting them to issue visas for people who were traveling with PIA. Without the help of PIA, CEO Air Marshal Arshad Malik, and its Public Affairs manager Abdullah Khan, I think we couldn’t have achieved anything. They were a source of rock solid support throughout this crisis.

A huge challenge was that, at that time, online visa applications were not available. So we had to find somebody in Kabul who could take the passports, and then take them to the Pakistani embassy for the application. A whole organic system was created. From August till Christmas, and even after that, we were just going through lists of people, coming from initially just two or three organisations, like Free Press Unlimited. Later on it grew and I have been in touch with over 50 organisations.

What was it like for you during this period?

It was very chaotic. I remember the first flight that we organised. I was so nervous. The flight was early in the morning and I couldn’t sleep the whole night. We were following the plane in the flight radar app and saw it taking off from Islamabad. Thats like a 45 minute flight. Then it landed in Kabul and the waiting started. People had to go to the check in, go through security. And then, finally, we received the first video of people sitting in the plane.

Things like this made it very heavy, intense work, and very emotional as well. There were many smaller incidents where people were crying, scared that they werent going to make it. If there was some kind of spelling mistake or something, the Taliban were not accepting papers. It was a lot of phone calls back and forth. But once the plane took off, we took a sigh of relief.

But then it just kept going. First we thought that it would be just one flight and that’s it. Then the planning for the second flight started, and the third and then fourth. A whole new challenge was moving money to Pakistan, because Pakistan is on the Financial Action Task Force grey list. There were a lot of hurdles to take in that regard. It was a crazy time.

How did you see the danger emerging for journalists specifically?

Before the Taliban, the media was flourishing, which meant that many journalists were well known, they were recognisable. Because of that, it was not easy for them to leave. Thanks to the Pakistani embassy and some other friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we could succeed. They ensured that these people could leave without being obstructed at the airport.

The journalists were really, really scared until the plane took off. We were continuously reassuring them that everything would be okay. It was all so uncertain. You don’t know what to expect because the Taliban themselves were not prepared at that time. Different groups of Taliban were controlling different parts of Kabul, like the airport, and controlling posts throughout the city. So you don’t know who to talk to if something goes wrong. It was a very messy situation. But fortunately it worked out most of the time. There were a couple of occasions where they refused someone to board, but in most occasions we didn’t have a problem.

What was it like to work with organisations like Free Press Unlimited in that chaotic first few months?

I think, in fairness, none of the organisations were prepared for this. Most organisations know how to help in a country where there is some kind of structure, there is some kind of a system. There are travel agents, there are flights going. But here, the whole bureaucracy, the whole government just completely disappeared. So you don’t know what to do.

Then there were organisations who had money, but lacked the will because they didn’t want to get into the unknown. Organisations like Free Press Unlimited, I have huge respect for, because they stepped up and they decided to take the bull by the horn and get into the unknown. And it’s a minefield. If you are sending money, you are helping somebody who might be on a hit list, who might be vulnerable, and you don’t know who you are dealing with. So it was a risk as well.

The best thing I found about working with Free Press Unlimited was that there was a humane touch in their work. The people I was dealing with, it was not just that they said they cared, you could see their care. They were always there, they were not off on the weekends or evenings, because it was a crisis situation. And I remember that Free Press Unlimited was one of the only organisations that brought these people from Kabul to Islamabad, and then kept supporting them for a long time, until they find that third country where they could go to.

Did you also hear about journalists who were determined to continue their work, in Afghanistan or from other countries?

Free Press Unlimiteds director Ruth Kronenburg said something very interesting during one of our meetings, in response to some suggestions who were saying that the journalists that fled Afghanistan could get a job in catering or delivery service or something else. She then made it very clearly that they could have done that in Afghanistan as well, they could start a restaurant or work somewhere else. But they left the country because they wanted to be committed to their profession. We need to be helping these people so they can continue their journalistic work, which is very important.

I think organisations like BBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Voices of Women, Deutsche Welle and others, need to step up and open up ways for these journalists to do their work in exile, provide them with a platform where they can pitch their work and then get their work published or broadcasted. And I know that in that case, if there is an equipment request or something, Free Press Unlimited and other organisations are there to help with that.

We are a year further now. Organisations like Free Press Unlimited are still working and lobbying for journalists and fixers to get evacuated or be offered a visa to leave the safe house in Pakistan. Do you have any insight into the current situation, where help is still needed?

There are two big challenges. Before people have gone through the process to receive verified documents, they have no visa and are illegal. That is a big obstacle. Creating some kind of temporary visa for these people, like a six months or one year resident permit, could be really helpful. Then, when the verification is done, they move on to the list of people who can go to a third country. Some of these third countries, especially the Netherlands, need to open more spaces for people who at least have a proven track record in journalism, even if they have not worked with Dutch media. Those should be considered as well.

Can you share any stories of people you have helped to evacuate?

There was a case of a woman who was a journalist and human rights activist, and her family. She had a young baby, and when the Taliban took control, they suddenly had to run away. She, her husband, and her son had passports. But the young daughter had no passport yet. This was around the time of the first flight that we were setting up. What to do?

There were no options available anymore to get a passport. And she had to leave because she was in real danger, a life or death situation. She managed to go to a safe place with the help of friends who brought her.

Fortunately, the Chilean government issued them a travel document. But that travel document was in Abu Dhabi, because Chile has no embassy in Pakistan. So how to take them to Dubai? Then with the help of PIA and some kind Pakistani officials somebody from Islamabad got on the plane and went to speak to the Taliban, tried to make sense to them by showing the documents. And I still dont know how exactly, but they were able to take the baby on the plane. But they had to stay at Islamabad airport for a few hours in transit because they didn’t have a visa for Pakistan. Then we arranged for their next flight from Islamabad to Dubai. Pakistan International Airlines spoke to the Dubai government and explained the situation to them, together with the Chilean government. They were able to go and get documents to travel to Santiago. Then the German government gave them approval to come to Germany.

I requested the donor organisation if they could fly via Amsterdam, so I could meet the girl and the family, which was so nice after being so involved.

Its interesting to witness so many embassies and governments helping, like Chile or Argentina. It must be very motivating to see that even in a horrible situation, there are good things.

You know, people sitting in an office in Berlin, Paris, New York or London, they might not hear these individual stories of people. But every single thing, even if you have just bought a ticket for somebody from Kabul to Islamabad, is life changing support. Even if it is a few hundred dollars, it is going to change the life of that individual or that family.

And these personal, individual stories, that is also why independent media, and a free press, is important. And the work that Free Press Unlimited does and the support that they provide is vital. Especially the emergency support. That emergency support is one of the catalysts for the continuation of the work of journalists who want to do right, who want to practice good journalism that creates an impact. Something that they are not able to do anymore in their own country, but with support they can continue it from somewhere else.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I think we are living in an age where journalism is going through a very difficult time. The challenges are not just physical, there are digital challenges as well. There is this whole campaign to discredit the free media and the rights of journalists. And that’s why the role of organisations that work to prevent that is very important. And whats really important is not just the financial support, but also the mental health support, the equipment support, the training support. All of these things help in its own way, in small fractions, in fulfilling the dream of a free, independent media.


About Free Press Unlimited

In our ideal world everyone has access to independent, reliable and timely information. People need that information to control their living conditions and to make the right decisions. To make this possible, Free Press Unlimited supports media and journalists worldwide. Our vision is short and to the point: “People deserve to know”. 

Free Press Unlimited (FPU) is an international press freedom organisation, based in Amsterdam with 70 passionate professionals. They work together with 120 partners worldwide to protect and promote press freedom and keep journalists safe.

Free Press Unlimited: Creating a safe space for women journalists in Kenya

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story, which was shared by Free Press Unlimited, was first published on September 13, 2022.

Kenya holds the not-so-honourable #1 position in sexual harassment of women journalists, according to a global media study involving 20 countries. Around 65% of women journalists surveyed in Kenya say they have faced physical or verbal harassment. The Association of Media Women in Kenya is working hard to address this issue.

Established in 1982, the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) has been working to amplify the voices of women for 40 years. In Kenya, for very many decades, women were not considered as people who deserve a voice. “Basically, we were not supposed to talk on our own behalf”, Judie Kaberia, Executive Director of AMWIK, says. “We have very few women in the media. Women journalists in Kenya face a lot of discrimination, and are seen as journalists who are not supposed to cover difficult topics.”

With Judie, and her colleague Lilian Museka (Programmes Officer), we discuss the issues that women journalists face in Kenya, and the peer to peer support groups that are starting with the support of Free Press Unlimited, providing a much needed safe space for women journalists to share their experiences.

What is AMWIK’s vision on the issues women in Kenya face, and women journalists specifically?

Judie: “In Kenya, women and girls struggle with a lot of challenges and cultural issues, including practices like female genital mutilation or underage marriages. These are issues that we have to grapple with. So our vision is a just society where rights of both men and women are respected, where issues are discussed and not undermined or made fun of. AMWIK is a membership organisation, with more than 300 women journalists as a member. This is a diverse group of journalists who are independent content producers, freelancers, editors working in newsrooms, and also university students who are in their final year of study.

From last year up until now, we have really been pushing to address sexual harassment in the media. And I can tell you, just by talking about sexual harassment, we face a lot of defiance and criticism. Fortunately, because of the power of some women who work as editors in media, we have been able to get coverage. And finally, we managed to get the discussion on the table. And now, for the first time, it is possible to talk about sexual harassment. We are also able to invite journalists to attend events about sexual harassment. Before, this was not possible.”

Women journalists in Kenya report the highest rates of sexual harassment in newsrooms, according to a study done by WAN-IFRA and the University of London. Do you recognise this from your work with AMWIK?

Judie: “I recognise it myself, having been a journalist in Kenya for around 16 years. It is very real and I’m very happy that this study was done, because for many years nobody in Kenya recognised that sexual harassment was an issue. There is a culture in newsrooms of violence against women, and it’s mostly coming from men in powerful positions.

Unfortunately, this issue is ignored because there are very few women at the decision making table. They don’t have the power to fire and hire, the men do. And because we live in a society where it is normal to objectify a woman, when these issues are reported to these men in power, they don’t take it seriously. So it is a dead end. That is the biggest issue that we are fighting with. There’s a lot of cover up because the people in power are the same men who have been perpetrators themselves.”

What are the consequences of this issue on the careers of women journalists in Kenya?

Judie: “They quit. I used to be a political reporter, and I also quit. The majority of women who face this are younger journalists, just starting their career, and sexual harassment is causing many to quit their journalism career early. A lot of women also decide to lay low. They try to hide and just survive to keep their job. Also because it is a rough economic time. But the vast majority leave the profession. We have fewer women journalists, and fewer of them at the decision making table because of this.”

The study also says that women journalists in general do not report the incidents in about 83% of cases. Why is that?

Judie: “These women fear to be victimized. They fear if they report it, everybody will start talking and say “this is the one who says she’s sexually harassed”. Also, a lot of times nothing happens. No action is taken. In fact, people tend to look at you in a way that says ‘what’s wrong with you?’ So there is a lack of action, a fear of discrimination, and even fear of losing their job. We have journalists who report sexual harassment and instead of getting help, they are fired. There is no confidentiality as well. As a result, women are afraid to report because they know what has happened to other women who did that.”

What can be done to lower that percentage of women who are afraid to report?

Judie: “Free Press Unlimited helped us see that it is important to focus on the victims who have gone through sexual harassment, instead of just documenting it and pursuing the perpetrators. We never gave the women a platform where they could talk about what they are going through. We were not able to give them psycho-social support.

Together with Free Press Unlimited we set up these peer to peer support groups. At first, I was not sure whether women journalists would be willing to come. Because they are generally so afraid. They did come, but they were asking, ‘can you assure us this is just going to stay here, so that I’m not going to lose my job?’.

We reassured them that it is a safe space, that we want to document these cases so that we know better what action we should take against it. We now want to organise this every quarter, to give women journalists a platform where they can come together and discuss issues that are affecting women in general, not just sexual harassment.”

What is the impact of these peer to peer support groups?

Judie: “For us this idea of a safe platform in the form of support groups, is a prayer answered. For so long we wanted to do something for these women, but did not know how. These support groups are going to help these women to reclaim their confidence. There is a journalist who will come to the next support group. She was raped at gunpoint by her editor and the editor was fired. So the persecution process was completed, but after that nobody cared about what she was feeling. And this is the first time she is getting psycho-social support, almost five years after the incident took place. The participants of these groups are very excellent journalists, who have been rendered useless because their rights are violated, and because they have lost confidence in themselves. They thought the world did not care about them. This project is a reassurance that hey are cared about.”

Lilian: “After we started the peer to peer support groups with Free Press Unlimited, we saw women asking for reporting mechanisms themselves. Following up on that, we developed our own monitoring tool. This helps us with reporting and documenting incidents, and monitoring the situation. Another wish we have is setting up a toll free line where people can report incidents anonymously.”

What is the role of men in addressing this issue?

Lilian: “One of the major things we do is involving men. We want to understand what goes on in their mind when they think of sexual harassment. Do they even understand what it is all about? So we have a programme called Man to Man Engagement. We are having conversations with them, and make them champions for women rights. Not just on sexual harassment, but on gender as a whole, to ensure there is a balance in media houses. So far we have about 60 male champions who are helping us to talk to their fellow men on why there is a need to address this issue. We made them more aware of the consequences by discussing it in our sessions, namely, that it is causing a lot of gender imbalances in the media houses, and that we are seeing women exiting the media space. We are happy to see that men are very engaged, talking about the issue on radio talk shows for example, trying to educate their fellow men.”

Is there any improvement in the visibility of this issue in the media itself?

Lilian:“Yes, during the group sessions we encourage journalists to write stories about sexual harassment and gender equality issues in general. Basically just write stories about women. Because now, most of the pages or most of the airtime in Kenya is taken up by male stories. And when media does take on women stories, they are always in the negative. So we are encouraging both male and female journalists to be gender responsive. To write stories on sexual harassment, the impact that it’s having on the industry, and how we can address it.

We have also provided journalists with training in conflict reporting and gender sensitive reporting. We did that in three counties, to about 65 journalists, and we really saw improvement in the writing of positive stories about women.”

And what is the future of the peer support groups?

Lilian: “This is our very first time doing this. The pilot has worked well, it has picked up. We also had a session with editors to see what their role is in protecting women journalists. Another session was with experts, including counselors, psychologists and representatives of the media, to help us understand how to better address some of these issues. This all went really well. Now we will continue organising more official peer to peer support groups, bringing together women journalists and help them get support. Once this is successful, we will replicate it in other areas of the country, not just in Nairobi.”

About Free Press Unlimited

In our ideal world everyone has access to independent, reliable and timely information. People need that information to control their living conditions and to make the right decisions. To make this possible, Free Press Unlimited supports media and journalists worldwide. Our vision is short and to the point: “People deserve to know”. 

Free Press Unlimited (FPU) is an international press freedom organisation, based in Amsterdam with 70 passionate professionals. They work together with 120 partners worldwide to protect and promote press freedom and keep journalists safe.

Free Press Unlimited: Journalism Matters. It is pivotal in protecting our democracies

What would the world look like without independent journalists? A question that can be answered by looking at countries where press freedom has been curtailed to a minimum and journalists have been gagged: Russia, China, North Korea. Countries where you can only speak in hushed tones, where all public publications pass through a very fine government filter and where, above all, a great deal remains hidden. Countries that provide people with blinkers, impenetrable tunnel visions and (enforced) docility with the status quo, that is determined by those in power.

In an ideal world, everyone has access to independent, reliable and timely information. This is a human right. It enables people to assess their own living conditions, influence them and make the right decisions. Press freedom is indispensable for this. 

Press freedom enables journalists to do their work freely and unhindered, which is vital for making and keeping reliable, independent information available to everyone. And this in turn is essential for sustainable growth and development in a society. Independent media fulfill an essential social role in holding power accountable and representing the voice of the people. 

Journalists are the guardians of democracy

Independent media and journalists are the fourth estate in society, that hold decision-makers and power holders accountable in the interest of the people. This is essential in a democracy. Therefore, a democratic society is not possible without journalists. Without independent journalism in all its aspects, control of government, parliament, judiciary and business is not possible.

If a “handbook for a dictatorship” existed, suppressing the free press would undoubtedly be very high on the action list. Besides eliminating parliament and controlling the military, silencing independent journalism is one of the most important goals for a budding dictator. What that can lead to we are now seeing in Europe, where Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship with its unprecedented suppression of the press has paved the way for a pointless war with Ukraine.

This, combined with an information war in which one’s own agenda is pushed as the truth, makes protecting freedom of the press and strong, independent journalism more important than ever. Everywhere in the world, including democratic countries.

Press freedom under pressure all over the world

In recent years, we have seen increasing pressure on press freedom worldwide, and especially on journalists personally. Psychological and physical threats are on the rise. This can also be seen in the large increase in the number of emergency aid requests that Free Press Unlimited has received over the past period. This year, Free Press Unlimited has already helped 2260 journalists with an emergency appeal, compared to over 750 in 2020. 

In more and more countries, human rights, democratic values, and with them press freedom, are under attack. The COVID-19 pandemic, the crises in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and the war in Ukraine have reinforced this. If press freedom was seen as a given in democratic countries, it is certainly no longer the case. The importance of journalism for the survival of our democratic rule of law must be put high on the agenda. 

Freedom of the press against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine 

The run-up to the war in Ukraine highlighted what the absence of a free press, and a state monopoly on information, can lead to. In Russia, the past 10-20 years have seen systematic efforts to reduce the free press in favor of an information system that has been brought under the complete control of state power. By giving the population only limited insight into what is happening in the world for years, a climate has slowly but surely developed in which a large part of the population supports the invasion of Ukraine. The fact that this has happened in Europe in the past 10 years makes it clear that press freedom is not (anymore) a given. A clear wake-up call. 

If democratic countries want to stop the spread of authoritarianism, they need to invest in good, reliable information flows to inform citizens. Which means investing in journalism. The answer is not to impose censorship, but to offer alternatives to propaganda. 

Journalists deserve our full support

Journalists deserve support and protection from everyone who stands for an open and democratic society. Communicating the importance of their work is extremely important. As many people as possible should understand that freedom of the press and independent journalism is something to defend and propagate together. Press freedom also has an impact on you. What would your world be like without press freedom? Closed, dangerous, uncertain. How can you continue to develop yourself without access to reliable information?

Free Press Unlimited stands firmly behind this and does so in its daily work worldwide. We keep journalists safe in Ukraine by relocating them to safe places or providing them with bulletproof vests through our Media Lifeline Ukraine initiative, we invest in and train investigative journalism in the Baltic countries, rebuild radio stations in communities in CAR, and facilitate knowledge exchange between journalists in Latin America and Central Europe. And much more.

We need to protect and nurture journalists, for a society where everyone has access to reliable information and where you as a citizen can trust the press as the watchdog of democracy. 

About Free Press Unlimited

In our ideal world everyone has access to independent, reliable and timely information. People need that information to control their living conditions and to make the right decisions. To make this possible, Free Press Unlimited supports media and journalists worldwide. Our vision is short and to the point: “People deserve to know”. 

Free Press Unlimited (FPU) is an international press freedom organisation, based in Amsterdam with 70 passionate professionals. They work together with 120 partners worldwide to protect and promote press freedom and keep journalists safe.