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Calls Grow for Emergency Visas for Afghans Working With US Media

FILE - A female TV presenter from southern Afghanistan conceals her identity for security reasons as she is being interviewed by the Associated Press in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 3, 2021.

A coalition of more than two dozen U.S. news outlets and press freedom organizations is calling on the U.S. government to help protect Afghans who worked with foreign media and may face risks from the Taliban as a result.

Letters to President Joe Biden and top House and Senate leaders called on the United States to establish a visa program for local journalists and stringers who worked with American news outlets.

Many of these media workers fear retaliation from the Taliban as a result of their association with the U.S. media, the letter said.

Afghanistan has long been one of the most dangerous countries for the media, but threats and risks have increased since the start of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban in September 2020, and the U.S. troop withdrawal.

At least 10 journalists and media workers have been killed since peace negotiations began, and dozens are fleeing areas in Afghanistan’s north, where the Taliban have seized territory. About half of the country’s district centers are in Taliban hands, the chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday.

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“The Taliban has long conducted a campaign of threatening and killing journalists,” the letter to Congress said.

The signatories urged the U.S. to provide assistance to around 1,000 media workers and their families in the same way that it helped protect those who assisted the U.S. military. The letter notes that the U.S. established a similar program in 2008 to help Iraqis who worked with U.S. media.

“This is not a political issue. This is a human rights and a human safety issue. There are people whose lives are at risk every moment of every day, and the U.S. government has an obligation, in my view, to help solve their problems,” said Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, which is a signatory to the letter.

The Taliban deny targeting independent media, telling VOA they have taken over only government-owned outlets and told journalists to work normally.

The significance of the contributions that these media workers made to U.S. coverage of Afghanistan over the past two decades cannot be understated, says Laura King, a Washington-based correspondent for the Los Angeles Times who served as that outlet’s Kabul bureau chief from 2008-2012.

VICE News Washington bureau chief Sebastian Walker, who reported from Afghanistan on several occasions, echoed that view.

Both the Los Angeles Times and VICE Media Group are signatories to the letter.

Support staff or “fixers” perform a variety of roles for journalists in conflict zones. They act as translators or drivers, help find sources, analyze cultural nuances, advise on safety assessments and help find food and shelter, King and Walker explained. Many tell only their spouses what their job is due to the risks involved with working for foreign media.

“We couldn't do our jobs without those people -- it's as simple as that. They are absolutely essential to any kind of reporting that you see," Walker told VOA. “Those Afghans on the ground make it possible for international journalists like myself to come into the country, to get to places, to make their way around, to speak to people and get an understanding of what's really going on, on the ground. That just would not be possible without this group of people.”

A senior State Department official speaking on background confirmed to VOA Wednesday it had seen the letter and would respond “in due course.”

The State Department is in the process of relocating as many as 2,500 Afghans to the U.S. later this month under a special immigrant visa, or SIV. The group includes about 700 interpreters and others who aided U.S. forces, as well as their families.

“In terms of other people in Afghanistan who have helped the United States or helped U.S. organizations -- whether it's NGOs or media organizations -- we are looking at other options for providing safe options for them,” the senior official said.

All Afghan media workers -- whether they work for the foreign or domestic press -- face severe risks due to their work. But according to King, working for the international press presents distinct threats.

"As far as the Taliban is concerned, people who work with us [the foreign media] are just as much traitors as people who worked with the military,” she said. “In the case of people who work for Western organizations, there might be more of a sense of obligation to them -- practical and moral obligation -- to make sure that they don't face retribution for the work that they did with us.”

With risks and threats increasing, fewer may be willing to do the job, which in turn could reduce news coverage of Afghanistan, according to Walker.

King said she agreed but added that foreign news outlets will likely reduce coverage of Afghanistan in any case once the U.S. completes its exit.

Both journalists said they supported the calls for the U.S. government to protect these media workers and their families, adding that the Afghan media workers just wanted to help tell the world what was happening.

“From our side, it's complete trust. We are completely in the hands of our local staff," Walker said. “We have complete trust and faith in the people that we work with.” And now, Walker said, it’s time for reciprocity.

“Your life is in their hands,” King said. "It's really on us to protect these people who helped us to tell the story of what was going on in Afghanistan, because it would not have been possible without them.”