(Photo: Asghar Noor Mohammad, Main photo: Alex Macbeth)
The participants leave the Afghanistan Today workshop venue on a high, as a blue sky shimmers over Kabul's still snow-dotted streets and the white peaks that surround the city. As the group disperses and rejoins the bustle of daily life beyond the gate, this first welcome burst of spring warmth is also a fitting reflection of the journalistic breakthroughs of the previous five days.
The 18 participants are returning to their regions and regular jobs with an extra package of skills, generated as much by their own discussions as the trainers' input. But beyond shared ideas for snappy feature leads and transitions, they leave having deepened friendships within this community of colleagues that was built up since 2010, story by story, workshop by workshop.
But appropriate concern for the future is also ever present. Afghanistan has held the international public eye for the last eleven and a half years. But as the 2014 withdrawal of combat forces looms, western countries are winding down not only military operations, but much civil activity too. Aid agencies and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are scaling back and packing up, and some western media are following suit, choosing now to send in correspondents on quick-hit assignments rather than maintain expensive and vulnerable bureaus. Meanwhile, voices in the media continue to make a monster out of 2014, prognosticating worst case scenarios of societal collapse.
But while distant observers pound the prophesy of a fallen-state, those closest to the ground, like our team of local journalists, become ever more important in the struggle for accurate information.
An experienced western journalist who gave a talk at this workshop illustrated the responsibility that Afghan journalists will carry when their western counterparts have departed or spend less time in-country. He relayed the answer an ISAF officer had given in response to a question about whether the Taliban, following the withdrawal of foreign troops, would retake towns and villages ISAF had secured. “No one will know, so who cares?” came the officer's callous response.
Female participants edit a feature together at the recent Afghanistan Today workshop in Kabul.
This is not to say that this view prevails among ISAF commanders, who will always carry a responsibility to uphold the efforts and sacrifices of the past decade. But it does reflect the reality that lack of current and reliable information can leave many parts of the country in the cold as inevitable changes ensue. As editors of the Afghanistan Today project, we can however testify to the continued commitment and resolve of our Afghan colleagues, which we have seen do not diminish but rather grow with each meeting.
So the question is perhaps not whether we, as outside observers of Afghanistan, will continue to be provided with accurate news and analysis. It is more likely a case of whether the appetite for Afghan news will remain in a world continually rocked by new crises. Will people stay receptive to reports from a country where their troops were once stationed?
As the pendulum of world attention swings towards Mali, Somalia or the next epicentre of international military involvement, Afghanistan surely cannot be allowed to be forgotten. Perhaps we are worrying unduly. Our journalists are becoming increasingly adept at making their stories heard, even if appetites beyond Afghanistan may start to wane.
And the country has no shortage of brave, incisive, dedicated journalists; men and women who face tremendous challenges reporting every day but who stick with this rigorous vocation. Many have had their cameras and equipment confiscated or destroyed by security forces, others have been threatened and harassed by local authorities, business figures and insurgents as a consequence of stories they have produced. Women must overcome extreme prejudice simply to become journalists, let alone to report freely. And several of the AT team lost their own friends and colleagues to the continuing violence.
Thousands of people lost their lives to the conflict in the past decade, billions have been invested and much of this wealth has been diverted or squandered, as has the belief in much of the population in the democracy so strongly advocated but abused by those in power. The fate of millions of people is still to be decided, starting with presidential elections next year and parliamentary polls in 2015.
The news will still be written, so the question will be: Will the international community, as former stakeholders, renew its engagement? Or will it too, as the ISAF officer suggests, withdraw its interest along with the boots on the ground?
Whatever the outcome of the military and political trials ahead, Afghan reporters will undoubtedly remain a key voice pitching for the world to care and act for Afghanistan’s future. Lest we forget, the local press corps will ensure we remember.