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43: Strength in unity

Khalil Rahman Omaid
It took a tragedy to galvanize the Helmand press corps into action to protect itself. Today the press club flourishes and the work continues.
2.04.2013  |  Lashkar Gah
The head of the Helmand Press Club, Zainullah Stanakzai, fires off his next story from the group's office. (Photos: Omaid)
The head of the Helmand Press Club, Zainullah Stanakzai, fires off his next story from the group's office. (Photos: Omaid)

For local media workers in Helmand, the tragic catalyst to efforts to unite as a group came with the murder of a colleague in 2008, the same year that I became a journalist amid rapidly deteriorating security in the province.

And while people from all sides of the conflict contributed to this security downslide, Helmand’s journalism, like a toddler, was taking its first steps in a largely oblivious society.  

Established in 2007, the Helmand Press Club had few facilities when its members then elected their first president. The first holder of the post did not measure up to the task, and the group still foundered in its efforts to consolidate.

“We journalists were scattered all over six years ago,” recalls Zainullah Stanakzai, the current president of the press club. “We did not have any premises and would beg people to allow us to use their office to report and broadcast our news stories. At the same time, we were vulnerable; anybody could threaten us; harm us; and even kill us.”

Building from loss

Many journalists were threatened at the time. Our own dear friend and colleague Abdul Samad Rohani paid the ultimate price for reporting on narcotics traffickers, and this is still my most painful memory.

It was late afternoon on June 7, 2008, when Rohani was kidnapped from Lashkar Gah. We reported his disappearance to the police and we searched in vain for him until late that night.The next morning, Rohani was found dead near a cemetery in Bolan. His throat had been cut and his body was riddled with bullets. 

Beyond the huge pain experienced by his family and friends, this was a tragedy for the local population too. Young and hard working, Rohani actively reported their problems and shared them with the world via the BBC Pashtu service. He also hosted a popular local radio programme. 

Mounting pressure 

Meanwhile, several other journalists, including Aziz Ahmad Tasal, Aziz Ahmad Shafi, and Mohammad Elyas Daiee, were also threatened by the Taliban until they left Lashkar Gah and moved to Kabul. Most still work in the media, some decided to call it a day, so great had the threat level become for them and their families. 

One who decided on a change of career was Shafi, whose own vulnerability increased severalfold after a failed attempt to relieve the pressure on him. 

“In the aftermath of Rohani’s death, I started working with BBC radio,” he recalled. “I became tired of being intimidated and threatened by the Taliban for my work as a journalist, the harassment became more frequent until I was eventually threatened with death.” 

Then late one afternoon as he was driving home from work, he noticed that he was being tailed by a car full of men. He made a detour to a local police check point and waited until the car disappeared, and took the decision to relocate to Kabul. Here too the threats continued until he appealed to representatives of the Taliban leadership in Quetta to intervene on his behalf.

Growth of a press corps: Helmand's journalists have found their collective voice and expect an even greater workload after 2014.

“After talking to them, I was able to convince them that I report their every single story to my office, but that my office never broadcasts them.” The Taliban even called the BBC office to cross-reference him, and the bureau denied all knowledge of him, presumably for his security: “This was now even more dangerous for me because it portrayed me as a spy. After that, I left the media and started a normal life, and now run my own business.”

Such stories of harassment are commonplace among the Helmand media circle, and were a driving force behind the subsequent efforts to band together and seek help from foreign organizations and donor agencies. After Rohani’s death, the press club elected Stanakzai, and our new president started networking among the Provincial Reconstruction Team and other organizations to attract resources.

The office was fitted with computers and an Internet connection, and Helmand journalists have been able to attend short-term courses and workshops. From 2008 to 2011, several colleagues were able to travel abroad for training, some to the United States, Britain, and Sri Lanka. Foreign donor agencies were at the time helping to support the local media, and here I must pay tribute to Ms. Jean MacKenzie, then Kabul director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Because of her initiatives, more training places became available for established and aspiring journalists in Helmand. 

No turning back

But as important as these wonderful opportunities was the sense of unity that began to grow. There has never been more coordination and collaboration among our members, and this close working relationship has definitely helped to reduce the level of threat towards us.

At the same time, the increased pressure observed from some quarters was also evidence that our solidarity was itself perceived as a threat. As Stanakzai notes, certain government officials and powerful warlords tried to dissuade journalists from joining us, seeking instead to coopt them for their own purposes. But we are undeterred and continue to grow.

“We have elections once a year,” said Stanakzai. "In the beginning, our society had only 20 members who could vote, now that number has increased to 40.”

Today, we like everyone else wonder what changes 2014 will bring.

From my conversations with my colleagues, it seems the consensus is that many foreign journalists will also leave Afghanistan as international troops withdraw. For us that means there will be even more work to do, covering the many pressing issues that remain. And preserving that precious sense of obligation and unity that the loss of our dear friend has instilled among us.