Afghan journalist’s death is a loss for press freedom



Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak covered violent news. His last two stories for Pajhwok Afghan News, before he died on July 28 in a major attack in Tarin Kot, capital of Uruzgan province, were about an attack on police checkpoints in which both Taliban and police were killed, and an interview with a would-be suicide bomber. Few of his 24 years of life saw any kind of peace in Afghanistan.

Although there are now nearly 7,000 journalists and media workers in Afghanistan, it is still very difficult to find, train, and then retain independent reporters outside of major cities. It’s dangerous, hard work with few resources, and the pay is not great, which is why so many of them string for several outlets.

Photo by Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak

Not only that, but these reporters face the particular pressures of working in communities where everyone knows everyone, where access to reliable information is very limited, and where family relations can complicate professional duties.

At Pajhwok Afghan News, the first independent Afghan news agency, we have been working for several years to upgrade reporting skills and equip and train the staff to shoot video as well as better photos. Naturally, this additional set of demands is especially hard on the regional reporters, who are already hampered by so many limitations.

Photo by Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak

Khpalwak was one of the Pajhwok reporters who came from Uruzgan, where he lived and worked, to Kabul for this occasional training, and he took to all of it with enthusiasm. He contributed a steady feed of photos and videos to the agency as well as a full gamut of stories, from breaking news to features.

But he covered more than just war and instability. Following Pajhwok’s mission, Khpalwak also tried to capture a fuller picture of Afghan life–the slow progress of reconstruction, girls attending school, peaceful gatherings to discuss problems, and even local amusements, as in the photo below of a man withstanding the weight of a tractor on top of him.

Photo by Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak

In the photos he shot in recent months, we can see Uruzgan through his eyes and also witness how he engaged with those he photographed and reported on. Ordinary Afghans, as well as officials, felt comfortable with him. They spoke freely with him. He was part of their lives, and they were part of his.

Khpalwak leaves behind a 1-month-old daughter, but he was also precious to people who did not even know him. His death is, as Pajhwok Director Danish Karokhel said, a loss for the citizens of Uruzgan and for media freedom in Afghanistan.

Via CPJ, Afghan journalist’s death is a loss for press freedom – Blog – Committee to Protect Journalists.

Typing in the Dust

Typing in the DustThis piece originally appeared in Smoke Signals newspaper. 

When the sandstorm hits, I sleep with a water-soaked cloth pulled over my face. It’s the only way to keep from breathing the fine dust that permeates the tiniest cracks in the building.

In the morning, the ground glows with smooth beige powder, as though cloaked in snow. I put on my military-grade helmet and shrapnel-proof vest, climb into the armored car with my co-workers and our bodyguards, zig and zag down city streets. I clear 15 checkpoints–including three pat-downs–during this commute to and through the International Zone of Baghdad.

At last I arrive at the workplace: a cavernous conference room inside the Iraqi parliament building. I fluff my helmet-smooshed hair, pick up my notebook, and smile at the cluster of Iraqis.

“Sabah el-khayr,” I greet them … and I really mean it. Any morning that I have the privilege of working with journalists in places like Iraq is, indeed, a good morning.

Not the same kind of good morning as I enjoy in a kayak on Lake Petit. But, after a two-year hiatus in Big Canoe, it was time to rejoin my colleagues overseas.

So in May and June, I went to Afghanistan and Iraq to work with local journalists.

Optimism and journalism are two words seldom seen as mates. Yet in both countries, my work with these journalists left me hopeful about their future.

June 8-24: Baghdad

My assignment: Teach interviewing skills to Iraqi journalists who cover the parliament. Their assignment: Ask clear, specific, neutral questions from their elected officials–even if it means interrupting them in mid-sentence.

Scary stuff. The interrupting, I mean. Most of the journalists I worked with were still afraid to press ahead in their role, even though they understood its importance.

While they knew in their bones that they have the right and the obligation to question elected officials, the journalists were often silent when faced with a blathering member of parliament. Some of their hesitation was cultural – to not contradict authority or elders–but they also work with a very real fear that being overly aggressive in their reporting will lead to being killed.

Many in the press corps are young and with little formal training in journalism, but also are uncontaminated by Saddam-era ideas. I found Iraqis, like many other journalists I have worked with in the region, keen to learn and quite sophisticated in their understanding of politics. We had many laughs as well as some very impassioned talks about the risks that come with the job.

Judge Zakia Hakki, member of the parliament's human rights committee, is questioned by Iraqi journalists

Judge Zakia Hakki, member of the parliament’s human rights committee, is questioned by Iraqi journalists

Though the reporters were sometimes disdainful of the members of parliament, those we interviewed were knowledgeable about their committee’s issues but were themselves struggling to learn how to do their job. The Legislative Strengthening Program that my work was part of, funded by tax dollars through the U.S. Agency for International Development, aims to build that capacity among members and staff in the Iraqi parliament.

Improving the quality of local coverage is important to the parliament’s ability to serve its twin role of legislation and oversight. Journalists are the eyes and ears of Iraqi citizens, as well as a megaphone amplifying the voices of ordinary people loud enough that elected officials will hear.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from the cities has been cause for both celebration and fear; an upturn in violence is to be expected.

But the longer-term trend is toward unity and rebuilding, rather than sectarian violence. Journalism will be a crucial part of that positive trend.

Kabul: Back to the Future

I was enjoying the last bites of lunch on a sunny patio, catching up on the news about friends. Then an editor stuck his head out of the window of the conference room and yelled down at me: “C’mon, it’s one o’clock!”

I concealed my smile as I scrambled to my feet and headed to the meeting. What a delicious pleasure to be scolded for being late … by an Afghan editor.

Over and over, in the two years we lived in Afghanistan, we taught the importance of timeliness in journalism, of making the deadline, of operating the office efficiently and on a schedule. The Afghans, after 26 years of civil war, were well-attuned to the immediate present, but did not have much practice with preparing for an organized future.

Day by day, one monthly calendar page at a time. I made a point of reminding the staff repeatedly about our workshops and plans well in advance – yet they were usually surprised when the event actually came to pass.

Now they were telling me to be on time. I was thrilled.

I had returned to work again with Pajhwok, the news agency that my husband Tom Willard and I started. Although I’d kept in touch via email, and had seen some of my Afghan colleagues when they visited the US, I had not been to Kabul since 2005.

Some things were much the same, or worse. Kabul, like Baghdad, has its share of wind-whipped dust storms. The construction, demolition, open sewers, and insufficient green space all add to stinging clouds of dust. The concrete barricades and armed guards are numerous and seem to go on for entire blocks. The attitude toward Westerners has clouded considerably. Although the Pajhwok staff calls me “Mom,” outside the safety of the office gate I felt the hostility.

At the time we left Afghanistan, we were unsure whether Pajhwok would last more than a couple of years. News agencies are not easy money-makers, and the prospects for long-term funding were not good after the Iraq war started. We’d had to build the agency nearly from scratch in about four months, and did not know whether the staff was solid enough in the important skills they needed.

We carried on anyway, believing that the education and experience the Afghan staff gained as individuals would continue to benefit the country’s development even if Pajhwok itself did not survive.

The staff persevered after we left. Today Pajhwok’s staff covers the entire country and publishes photos and audio and about 40 news and feature stories a day in three languages. Its clients include international news outlets, embassies, and nongovernmental organizations, as well as all the Afghan radio, TV and newspapers.

Many of the staff members are the same men and women whom we hired and trained in 2004. And remarkably, despite being taunted by rampant corruption and threatened by the guns of warlords, they are still following the principles and ethics of journalism that we taught them.

I came this time to help the staff prepare for coverage of the elections in August, only the second time that Afghan voters will choose a president as well as their provincial council members. The election of 2004 was momentous, but this year’s ballot will be more important in the degree to which it can solidify democratic institutions.

Part of my work was to discuss policy and coverage guidelines with the Pajhwok editors. As we debated how to give fair treatment to the large field of presidential candidates, I was struck by the high level of standards and thought around that table.

Somehow this team had grasped and held firmly to the principles that are so central to democracy: that they must serve ordinary people rather than the powerful, that their mission is to provide quality information so that citizens can make good decisions and hold their leaders accountable.

No sandstorm has obliterated their vision. They get up every morning, still breathing, and clear away the dust.  One story at a time.