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August 23, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:32am

Some 200 Afghan journalists given right to settle in UK following appeal from media outlets

By Charlotte Tobitt

The UK Government has promised to take action to protect some 200 Afghan journalists who worked with the British media.

The Observer reports that the UK Foreign Office has agreed to issue visa waivers for the group in recognition of the risks they have taken for media freedom.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said: “We must protect those brave Afghan journalists who have worked so courageously to shine a light on what is really going on in Afghanistan. That’s why we have granted these journalists and their media staff visa waivers to come to the UK.”

Question remain though around how the journalists will be evacuated from the country and whether they have been contacted.

Some 21 news brands from 11 UK-based media organisations co-signed an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab earlier this month calling for special visas for their Afghan colleagues.

Since then the situation has rapidly worsened in Afghanistan, with Taliban forces taking the capital city of Kabul on Sunday. Female journalists and those who have supported Western media are feared to be among those most at risk.

Raab previously said special visas would be offered to Afghans who worked with British media organisations on a case-by-case basis through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, but many remain “trapped”.

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[Read more: UK offers visas to Afghans who worked with Brit journalists after cross-industry plea]

The UK has announced a resettlement scheme for up to 20,000 people wanting to leave Afghanistan, including 5,000 within the next 12 months, but no more details regarding help for journalists.

Now several of the news outlets have co-signed a new letter urging the Government to ensure their colleagues are able to get on evacuation flights, but the Foreign Office continued to say it would only consider requests case-by-case where there was evidence of a threat due to someone’s connection with the UK.

The letter was signed by Guardian and Observer editor-in-chief Katharine Viner on behalf of her newspapers plus the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, The Sun, The Economist, Sky News, and ITV News, Channel 4 News and 5 News producer ITN.

Viner wrote: “When British media organisations wrote to you earlier this month about the grave Taliban threat to Afghan journalists and translators who had worked with us, you responded almost immediately. You recognised their vital contribution to a free press by reporting on the British mission in Afghanistan and promised colleagues at risk a path to safety. President Biden did the same in the United States.

“But now, the Taliban has arrived in Kabul and our colleagues are trapped there. With evacuation flights resuming, we need you to act on your promise to protect those who worked with journalists and get them to safety outside Afghanistan.

“As we are sure you have seen, our American colleagues have asked for and expect the same. Given the threats to the safety of Afghan journalists, we ask the British government to urgently take these steps to protect our colleagues.”

The News Media Association backed the letter, with chief executive Owen Meredith saying: “Journalists have played a critical role covering the military operations over the last two decades and in shining a powerful spotlight on recent events in Afghanistan.

“The UK Government must now act swiftly in defence of a free press by taking all the appropriate steps to ensure the safety of these journalists and those who have supported their work.”

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, echoed: “News of an Afghan resettlement scheme was obviously a welcome one, but it is lacking in both detail and ambition.

“We know there are significant numbers of Afghan journalists and media workers who have direct links to UK employers who need our help, but there are also many other journalists and media workers whose commitment to journalism and impartial reporting over many years puts them at grave risk and in need of urgent assistance. This is not the time to be putting arbitrary caps on the number of people we can support or lives we can save. This is the time to do the right thing and to act swiftly before it is too late.”

[Read more: Foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn says money, not danger, is behind declining foreign coverage]

Stanistreet offered to work with sister unions to submit names of those in urgent need, saying it “cannot let bureaucratic hurdles slow things down”. Other governments are working with the International Federation of Journalists to help people to places of safety, she added.

A Foreign Office spokesperson told Press Gazette on Thursday night: “We consider relocation requests on an exceptional basis where there is evidence of an imminent threat due to an individual’s engagement with the UK.”

‘Please help to evacuate them before something bad happens’

Nine media freedom and journalist organisations wrote to Raab on Friday urging the Government to ensure all Afghan journalists, not just those with links to UK media, are considered a high priority for the resettlement scheme.

They said: “Journalists who have worked for, or been funded by, western media outlets or development agencies are in grave danger – as are their families.”

The signatories, including Internews Europe, the International Federation of Journalists, Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders, English PEN and the Coalition for Women in Journalism, were supported by the editors of the Mirror, Express and Guardian titles and the Journalists’ Charity.

They quoted a journalist who was forced to flee the Taliban several years ago and whose brother was killed in 2017. At that time their family escaped to Kabul but they said: “Since last month they have been getting constantly threats and messages from our district Taliban that once they captured Kabul they will execute my father along with my two younger brothers.

“Now I’m really concerned about their lives. Please help to evacuate them before something bad happens to them.”

Already a relative of a journalist at German broadcaster Deutsche Welle has been killed by the Taliban and another seriously injured. Other relatives of the journalist, who is currently working in Germany, managed to escape and have been forced to go on the run.

The groups are also worried about journalists who do not work for western media outlets but who fear for their lives as women or because of their work for independent media.

They said: “As a co-chair of the Media Freedom Coalition and stated advocate of media freedom, we believe it is vital that the UK leads the way in its support of Afghan media at this terrible time.”

The BBC, which did not sign the letters to Johnson and Raab, has not said it planned to move any BBC Afghan staff to the UK, although the NUJ has urged it to do so.

A BBC spokesperson told Press Gazette on Thursday: “The BBC is doing everything it can to secure the safety of our teams in Afghanistan. All the relevant expertise and resources across the BBC and with external parties are currently dedicated to this task.

“We pay tribute to all our teams who have been covering this story, under extraordinary circumstances. We want the BBC to be able to continue reporting on Afghanistan, its people and the region more broadly and bring these important stories to the world.”

Earlier this week the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times jointly wrote to President Biden urging him to ensure the safe exit of their Afghan journalist colleagues who worked “tirelessly” to support their reporting over the past 20 years. They called for protected access to the US-controlled airport in Kabul and evacuation.

“As employers, we are looking for support for our colleagues and as journalists we’re looking for an unequivocal signal that the government will stand behind the free press,” they said.

The New York Times confirmed on Wednesday night all of its colleagues in Afghanistan – totalling 65 families of 128 men, women and children – had been safely evacuated.

Michael Slackman, its assistant managing editor for international, said: “There is more to do. We must help all of these families make the transition to new lives abroad. We must continue to work to help others who need to find their way to safety. And we must also remain strong in our commitment to find ways to cover an Afghanistan that is under Taliban rule.

“We remain hopeful that freedom of the press for female and male journalists will be established and the safety of all members of the press will be assured in the future.”

[Read more: Death threats, social media scrubbing and chaos as the CPJ fights to help Afghan journalists flee the Taliban]

US non-profit the Committee to Protect Journalists has verified around 300 journalists attempting to reach safety. It said around 45 were Afghan media workers facing “clear and imminent” threats from the Taliban, a further 127 local journalists faced “significant risk”, and 119 were affiliated with US news organisations.

Several US journalists, including PBS NewsHour correspondent Jane Ferguson and CNN’s Clarissa Ward, have reported Afghan journalists coming up to them and asking for their help getting out.

Several funds have been set up for people wanting to help journalists in Afghanistan.

The International Federation of Journalists has set up a dedicated solidarity fund for Afghan journalists within its safety fund.

Even three days before the Taliban took Kabul the IFJ believed more than 1,200 journalists and media workers had lost their jobs across the country because of the takeover.

Non-profit Internews has set up a donation page so it can help relocate journalists to safety and support them in continuing their work.

[Read more: News groups’ support of journalists in Afghanistan is ‘moral duty’, AP boss says]

Picture: SAC Samantha Holden RAF/PA Wire

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