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USAGM Still Working to Evacuate Journalists from Afghanistan

FILE - Afghan journalists film at the site of a bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 9, 2021.

More than 100 USAGM employees and contractors are still in Afghanistan along with their families despite assurances from the U.S. State and Defense departments that they would be evacuated during the Kabul airlift that ended Monday.

Acting Director of Voice of America Yolanda Lopez, who has been working with USAGM management to get the journalists and their families out of Afghanistan, released a statement Thursday saying the agency is still doing everything it can to help those who wish to leave the country.

“We are incredibly disappointed that our efforts over the past few weeks to get our colleagues safe passage out of Afghanistan have been unsuccessful. We have been working day and night, pursuing every available option, only to hit countless obstacles and roadblocks,” she wrote.

“These men and women are part of our VOA family, and we will not be deterred by these setbacks.”

FILE - State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a media briefing at the State Department, July 7, 2021.
FILE - State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a media briefing at the State Department, July 7, 2021.

On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said during a news briefing that the department did everything it could to prioritize the journalists’ departure first on a U.S. military plane and then charter flights. But he said the plan changed after the Kabul airport was hit by a suicide bomber.

“We were working on their safe evacuation just as the attack struck the airport perimeter. The operational environment changed markedly unfortunately. It stood in the way of our ability to bring these individuals to safety before August 31,” Price said.

He said the department remains committed to the journalists but declined to share details of the guidance it is providing them and others still hoping to leave the country.

The Taliban have given public assurances that those Afghans who wish to leave the country and have valid travel documents will be able to leave.

But the group has a track record of targeting journalists.

Journalists also are at risk from militant groups like Islamic State. At least four USAGM journalists have been killed in Afghanistan in the past three years, including Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, who was assassinated in November 2020.

“We remain committed to continuing to do everything we can to help all of our journalists and their families who wish to leave the country and get them to safety,” Lopez said in an email sent to VOA staff.

USAGM officials working with the U.S. government and other groups to evacuate the journalists and their families over the past two weeks have not spoken out about the situation or provided details, to avoid jeopardizing the safety of those in the country.

In an interview with the Society of Professional Journalists, Acting Director Lopez said the journalists remain under threat.

“We want to take the Taliban leaders at their word, but in recent days, we have confirmed Taliban attempts to round up several of our journalists in hiding and several instances of violence against their family members,” she said, without elaborating.

Voice of America’s Afghan service has been broadcasting news and information to the country since 1980, and it was the last Western news organization to interview the Taliban’s former leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2001 on the eve of the U.S. invasion.