Steven Butler describes it as “mass panic.” As the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator has been fielding “hundreds and hundreds” of daily pleas from journalists asking for help to flee the country.
Butler, along with CPJ Asia research associate Sonali Dhawan and the organization’s Emergencies team, are now in the process of vetting those requests.
Many Afghan journalists told CPJ they are too afraid to speak on the record. To get a picture of what’s happening on the ground, CPJ features editor Naomi Zeveloff spoke to Butler and Dhawan via video about what they have learned. Their interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CPJ contacted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid for comment via messaging app but received no response. CPJ also emailed the U.S. State Department for comment but received no response; several calls to the U.S. military failed to connect.
When did CPJ begin getting requests for help from Afghan journalists?
Butler: The requests for help from journalists who wanted to leave Afghanistan because they saw the Taliban coming started early this year. It was a trickle at the time and then it started to crescendo in July and increased by early August.
We are getting hundreds and hundreds of requests for help every day now. Many of them are journalists and some of them are not journalists, they are just trying to find a way out. It has completely flooded our system. We are doing the best we can. We have four people working on analyzing and looking into individual cases.
We value our reputation for thorough documentation on everything we do and are applying our same standard to this — we are trying to document the cases as the best we can, because we are recommending them to the U.S. government for emergency evacuation.
What can you tell us about the chaotic scenes at the airport and what it means for journalists?
Butler: As of Tuesday the area has been secured and there is a perimeter. Anytime you have a military perimeter you have a problem, because there is an outside and there is an inside, and the outside is going to be controlled by the Taliban in one way or another, so the challenge has been to figure out how to get people through an insecure situation on the streets of Kabul, how to get them checked in through this military perimeter including additional checks by the U.S. military, and then get them on to flights. We have had people that have failed to get through.
Why are Afghan journalists so desperate to leave?
Butler: As the Taliban have extended their control over the provinces we have seen them close down media outfits and substitute their own personnel. That hasn’t always led to people being killed or put in prison necessarily, but nonetheless journalists in Afghanistan are concerned that they are going to be pushed out of their profession — at the minimum. There are a number of very prominent journalists who have been harassed or chased by the Taliban and who have gone into hiding.