The ‘Pernicious Evil’ of Racism, Discrimination, Hatred, Inequality

A family from Sachac, a Quechua farming community in the Andes highlands region of Cuzco in southeastern Peru. When members of these native families move to the cities, they face different forms of racism, despite the fact that 60 percent of the Peruvian population identifies as ‘mestizo’ or mixed-race and 25 percent as a member of an indigenous people. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS - Racism harms not just the lives of those who endure it but also society as a whole. It deepens mistrust, casting suspicion on all sides and tearing apart the social fabric, warns the United Nations.

A family from Sachac, a Quechua farming community in the Andes highlands region of Cuzco in southeastern Peru. When members of these native families move to the cities, they face different forms of racism, despite the fact that 60 percent of the Peruvian population identifies as ‘mestizo’ or mixed-race and 25 percent as a member of an indigenous people. CREDIT: Mariela Jara/IPS

By Baher Kamal
MADRID, Mar 17 2023 – Three-quarters of a century ago, the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, emphasising that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. The 2023 theme of its 75th anniversary focuses on the urgency of combating racism and racial discrimination.

More: nearly a quarter of a century ago, the world adopted in South Africa the Durban Declaration to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, distrust, intolerance, and hate, globally.

Since then, these “contagious killers” not only continued unabated but are now more spread than ever in all societies, in particular in those under the dominance of the so-called ‘white supremacy.’


Centuries of colonialism, enslavement

Such a “Pernicious Evil” as rightfully described by the United Nations Chief, António Guterres, takes many forms and impacts all aspects of life. “Much of today’s racism is “deeply entrenched in centuries of colonialism and enslavement,” he warned already two years ago.

The UN Chief then painted a picture of “pervasive discrimination and exclusion” suffered by people of African descent, injustices and oppression endured by indigenous peoples, antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred – and the latest abhorrence of violence against people of Asian descent who are bring targeted unjustly for COVID-19.


The “repugnant” views of white supremacists

“We also see it in the biases built into the codes for facial recognition and artificial intelligence” as well as the “repugnant views of white supremacists and other extremist groups”, added the top UN Official.

In fact, racism harms not just the lives of those who endure it but also society as a whole. It deepens mistrust, casting suspicion on all sides and tearing apart the social fabric, warns the United Nations.

Impacts could include the ability to find a job, get an education, have equal access to healthcare, housing, food, water or get fair treatment in a court of law, explains the world body.

“We all lose in a society characterised by discrimination, division, distrust, intolerance, and hate,” as stated on the occasion of the 2023 International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (21 March).


Contagious killers

“Like COVID-19, racism and xenophobia are contagious killers,” the UN emphasises.

In 2001, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) was adopted at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. As the UN’s blueprint to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance globally.

Alongside with the International Decade for People of African Descent 2015-2024, the implementation of the Durban Declaration should represent a top priority in the world’s agenda. But is it?


Hatred spreading everywhere

Evidently it is not. Reality shows that the narratives of separatism, discrimination, division and fear and hatred of the other continue to be widespread in the streets, in schools, at work, in public transport; in the voting booth, on social media, at home and on the sports field.

Moreover, hate speech’ scale and impact are now amplified by new communications technologies.


The major victims

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination lists the following communities among the major victims of abhorrent racism, discrimination and hatred:


People of African Descent

The descendants of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade or more recent migrants, frequently face racial discrimination and prejudice.

Discriminatory structures and institutions, legacies of the injustices of enslavement and colonialism result in people of African descent being among the poorest and most marginalised groups in society who also face “alarmingly high rates of police violence, and racial profiling.”

In addition to People of African Descent and the descendants of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, racism directly impacts the lives of many other communities and groups, including:


Indigenous Peoples

Systematically discriminated against, robbed of their basic rights, lands and cultures, there are nowadays over 476 million indigenous people living in 90 countries across the world, accounting for 6.2% of the global population.

Of those, there are more than 5.000 distinct groups. Indigenous people speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7.000 languages.

“Nevertheless, they are nearly three times as likely to be living in extreme poverty compared to their non-indigenous counterparts.”


Migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, Internally Displaced People

There were 82.4 million people forcibly displaced world-wide at the end of 2020 as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order.

There are also millions of stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

Among the 82.4 million forcibly displaced: 26.4 million are refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18; 20.7 million refugees under UNHCR‘s mandate, and 5.7 million Palestine refugees under UNRWA‘s mandate.

There were also 48 million internally displaced people, 4.1 million asylum seekers, and 3.9 million Venezuelans displaced abroad (UNHCR).


People Living in Extreme Poverty

Poverty entails more than the lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods. Its manifestations include “hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion, as well as the lack of participation in decision-making.”

Poverty — a cause and a product of human rights violations

Many people who live in extreme poverty are often also victims of racial discrimination.

In 2001 the World Conference against Racism in Durban emphasised that poverty, underdevelopment, marginalisation, social exclusion and economic disparities are closely associated with racism, and contribute to the persistence of racist attitudes and practices, which in turn, generate more poverty.


A vicious circle

The UN often refers to poverty as a ’vicious circle,’ made up of a wide range of factors, which are interlinked and hard to overcome. Deprivation of resources, capability and opportunities makes it impossible for anyone to satisfy the most basic human needs or to enjoy human rights.



Racial discrimination does not affect all members of victim groups in the same way.

In fact, being the entire half of the world population, women and girls are often among the most vulnerable members of society, and are at greater risk of economic hardship, exclusion and violence; discrimination against them is often compounded.

The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action focused attention on the issue of multiple, or aggravated, forms of discrimination, which are most significantly experienced by female members of discriminated groups, but which are also suffered by persons with disabilities, persons affected by HIV/AIDS, children and the elderly, among others.

These are often among the most vulnerable members of society, and are at greater risk of economic hardship, exclusion and violence; discrimination against them is often compounded.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia subject members of these religious communities to discrimination and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas.

There are many other groups and many more millions of human beings who every day, every minute, fall prey to racism, discrimination, hatred, and the consequence of shocking inequalities that kill one person every four seconds.

Why don’t you take a look at what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says?


Scaling up Climate-Smart Trade Policies in the Pacific

Vanuatu in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclones Judy and Kevin. March 2023. Credit: UNICEF/Sheenal Sharma

By Sudip Ranjan Basu, Juan Rodrigo and Alexey Kravchenko
BANGKOK, Thailand, Mar 17 2023 – The impacts of the climate crisis are acutely felt in the Pacific region. In recent years, the region has been hit by devastating climate events, which cause widespread destruction and significant loss of lives and livelihoods across countries.

These events are a grim reminder of the increasingly severe climate events that are becoming the norm as a result of the changing regional climate patterns in the Pacific small island developing States (PSIDS).

To address climate catastrophes, there is a heightened need in adopting environmentally sustainable practices, including through international trade. In fact, climate-smart trade policies involve incorporating climate concerns into their trade policies.

Climate-smart trade policies are poised to play a catalytic role in enabling the PSIDS to access goods and services that can mitigate climate change. This approach can facilitate the shift towards a more environmentally friendly trade practice.

Harnessing technology for climate-smart strategies

With the growing scale of digitalization of trade processes, there are emerging opportunities to make trade more efficient, and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) emissions. However, the digitalization of trade itself can contribute to GHG emissions and so, it’s crucial to ensure a balance between the benefits and drawbacks of digital trade.

To mitigate these impacts, governments are increasingly adopting “climate-smart” trade policies, as highlighted in ESCAP’s 2021 Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report, prepared in collaboration with UNCTAD and UNEP.

Governments have been implementing measures such as tariff reductions on renewable energy technologies, digital goods and other less polluting items. In the Pacific, climate smart initiatives such as the Agreement on Trade and Sustainability aims to reduce barriers on the trade of environmental goods as well as eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and encouraging voluntary eco-labelling programs and mechanisms.

At the national level, Samoa suspended import duties on renewable energy materials and Papua New Guinea reduced tariffs on solar equipment imports.

In addition, the digitization of cross-border trade procedures leads to faster clearance times, more transparency and reduced bureaucracy. Implementing digital trade facilitation has the potential for increased competitiveness and reduced GHG emissions.

However, PSIDS have the lowest implementation rate of trade facilitation measures, with limited adoption of paperless trade measures. Only five out of the twelve PSIDS have ratified the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, with only Vanuatu having implemented an electronic single window system.

In particular, the implementation of the system in Vanuatu resulted in considerable environmental gains and has led to a 95 per cent decrease in the use of paper, which is equivalent to a reduction of at least 5,827 kg of CO2 emissions and a decrease of 86 per cent in trips between the customs department and the Biosecurity administration.

Furthermore, other Pacific Island States can emulate Tuvalu’s move by joining “The Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-border Paperless Trade in Asia and the Pacific“. This United Nations treaty aims to boost digital trade facilitation measures, thereby hastening trade transaction efficiencies, ultimately reducing emissions, and fostering trade growth.

Preparing the regulatory frameworks

Despite these efforts, only a few countries with the PSIDS have created trade strategies that reflect environmental concerns and climate-smart policies. Tuvalu is an exception, as they, with the help of the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) for Trade Related Assistance for the Least Developed Countries and ESCAP, have incorporated “climate-smart” elements into their national trade development strategy.

The situation is further complicated by persistent digital divides in the region, with low internet penetration rates and high costs of fixed and mobile broadband in many of the smaller PSIDS. The high cost of energy consumption in the telecommunications sector is also a major concern, with energy usage accounting for 20 to 40 percent of telecommunications operating expenses.

As PSIDS work to improve broadband coverage and access, ensuring energy efficiency in the telecommunications sector will become increasingly important for advancing climate-smart and digital trade.

Despite the potential benefits of implementing digital trade facilitation in the Pacific, the implementation rate of trade facilitation measures in PSIDS remains the lowest among other regions, at only 40.1 per cent. There are also considerable policy gaps in the PSIDS in areas related to e-transactions laws, consumer protection, privacy data protection and cybersecurity.

By putting in place these regulations, consumers, producers, and traders can engage in online transactions, while securing sustainable digital trade environment.

Advancing climate-smart and digital trade

Advancing climate-smart and digital trade is crucial for PSIDS. To support this development aspiration, the following policy actions need to be prioritized:

    • implement digital & energy policies to democratize digital service access.
    • remove tariffs on climate-friendly goods/services including renewable energy & IoT tech.
    • develop regulation for cross-border paperless trade and updating their regulatory framework for fostering digital trade.
    • reducing reliance on fossil fuels and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, including those in the fisheries sector.
    • green logistics and transportation sectors with reduced costs and zero-emission vessels
    • invest in human resources for climate-smart and digital trade.
    • integrate climate smart provisions on their trade agreements.

These measures can enhance the PSIDS’ digital and energy infrastructure, competitiveness, efficiency, reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and also be complemented with nature-based solutions, such as riparian zone restoration to enhance carbon sequestration and to mitigate the impact of tidal surges

Readers will find further details and policy recommendations in the report which is now available on the ESCAP website.

Sudip Ranjan Basu is Deputy Head and Senior Economic Affairs Officer; Juan Rodrigo is ESCAP Consultant and Alexey Kravchenko is Economic Affairs Officer.

IPS UN Bureau


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Belief in Witchcraft Costing Lives of Elderly Women in Malawi

Attacks on the elderly are increasing in Malawi, often under the pretext that witchcraft is at play. Survivor Christian Mphande lived to tell her story, but there is a worrying increase in elder abuse. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

Attacks on the elderly are increasing in Malawi, often under the pretext that witchcraft is at play. Survivor Christian Mphande lived to tell her story, but there is a worrying increase in elder abuse. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

By Charles Mpaka
BLANTYRE, Mar 17 2023 – In December last year, a video clip went viral of two elderly women surrounded by a charged-up crowd and engulfed in a cloud of dust as they filled up a grave in a village in the Mzimba district in northern Malawi.

As the two elderly sisters laboured in the task, which men in Malawi traditionally handle, someone in the mob kicked one of the women, Christian Mphande, and sent her flying into the open grave.

What was their crime?

A young woman related to the two had died, and people in the village accused Mphande, 77, of killing the young woman through witchcraft.

To punish her, Mphande was forced to bury the dead, helped by the sister. She was assaulted, her belongings, such as livestock, confiscated, and she was banished from the village.

It was yet another incident in the spiralling cases of harassment of older persons in Malawi.

Mphande is alive – now living away from home but within the district, probably to forever grapple with nightmares of her experience and live with the physical evidence of a gap in her gums after she lost some teeth in the assault by the mob.

But several elderly have lost their lives in Malawi at the hands of mobs. Five older women were killed between January and February 2023, according to the Malawi Network of Older Persons Organisations (MANEPO), a coalition of human rights organisations in the country.

In 2022, 15 elderly women were killed and 88 harassed for various reasons, largely on accusations of witchcraft—a rise from 13 killed and 58 harassed in 2021.

MANEPO’s Country Director, Andrew Kavala, describes the abuses of elderly women as a scourge visiting the nation.

“As a society, we have failed our elderly. We have unjustified anger towards them. Whether driven by frustration due to survival failures, we are venting our anger on innocent people. This is a tragedy,” Kavala laments in an interview with IPS.

Top of the factors behind this terror is what he describes as “baseless belief in witchcraft and magic,” which, he says, some people blame for their personal misfortunes.

Colonial Witchcraft Act

Malawi has in force the Witchcraft Act, which came into existence in 1911 under British colonial rule.

According to the Malawi Law Commission, the legislation was enacted with the aim of eradicating what the colonialists considered as dangerous some practices such as trial by ordeal, the use of charms and witchcraft itself.

In effect, the Act assumes that witchcraft does not exist. That being the case, it is, therefore, an offence for anyone to allege that someone practices witchcraft.

It is also an offence for anyone to claim that he or she practices witchcraft.

In 2006, the government set up a Special Law Commission on Witchcraft Act to review the 1911 witchcraft law. It was in response to calls that the law is alien to the common belief in witchcraft among Malawians.

In a report, the Special Law Commission indeed found a common and strong belief in the existence of witchcraft.

“There is witchcraft or, at least, a belief in witchcraft among Malawians,” the report said, concluding, “It is not correct to argue that there is no witchcraft in Malawi for the sole reason that the practice is premised upon mere belief.”

“Consequently, the commission concludes that the existence of witchcraft should not be regarded as a doubtful but conclusive (thing),” said the Commission’s chairperson, Judge Robert Chinangwa, at a presentation of its report in 2021.

But human rights organisations trashed the recommendations of the Commission for the review of the law. In a joint statement, the organisations said by definition, a witch or wizard is someone who secretly uses supernatural powers for wicked purposes.

Assuming that the law is amended to criminalise the practice of witchcraft, there would be the difficult issue of evidence, they argued.

“It is a good law practice that for one to be convicted of a criminal offence, the prosecution must have proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“However, witchcraft involves the use of supernatural powers. Therefore, proving the allegations would be very difficult in a court of law,” they said in a joint statement.

The Majority Believe in Witchcraft

There has been no conclusion since. That is, Malawi’s fight against abuse of the elderly on witchcraft-related accusations finds itself stuck on the rough edges between strong belief in witchcraft on the one hand and, on the other, that there would be no proof for its existence in a court of law if reviewed.

This belief in witchcraft is compromising Malawi Police Service’s efforts to clamp down on the abuses against the elderly, according to national police spokesperson Peter Kalaya.

“Our main challenge is that we work hard to enforce this law [Witchcraft Act] in a society where the majority believes witchcraft exists. As such, there is great resistance [to law enforcement],” Kalaya tells IPS.

The police’s situation is worsened by the fact that, in most cases, incidents of abuse of older women occur in rural locations remote from the nearest police stations. According to Kalaya, this sometimes negatively affects police response to provide a swift rescue of victims and arrest perpetrators.

He further indicates how the police sometimes evade the treachery of the witchcraft law.

“Most of the abuses older persons face fall within the general crime of mob justice such as being beaten, killed, their houses and property being burnt and being subjected to verbal insults,” he explains.

Wycliffe Masoo, Director of Disability and Elderly Rights at the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), a public body, says witchcraft belief in itself is not to blame; it is what happens as a result of that belief that is of concern.

“The question that remains is that if witchcraft exists, is it being practised by older persons only?” Masoo wonders.

He says while police have at times been swift in arresting and investigating suspects for abusing the elderly, the wheels of prosecution take too long sometimes and give the abuses an edge.

Legislation Already in Place

According to Masoo, whether Malawi sticks with the Witchcraft Act or reviews it and contends with the tricky challenge of proving witchcraft in a court of law, the country already has some legislation in place which, if properly used, would ably curb issues of mob justice on older persons.

For example, the Constitution prohibits discrimination of persons and guarantees “equal and effective protection against discrimination” on whatever grounds.

It guarantees human dignity, stating that “no person shall be subject to torture of any kind or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

What Malawi needs, according to MHRC, Manepo and the police, is to expedite the enactment of the Older Persons Bill into law and invest in a formidable, coordinated mass awareness that brings along traditional, religious and judicial leadership for all Malawians to understand the rights of older persons.

“This will wholesomely protect older women,” Masoo says.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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Georgia: Danger Averted, for Now

Cedit: Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images

By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Mar 17 2023 – Georgian civil society can breathe a sigh of relief. A proposed repressive law that would have severely worsened the space for activism has been shelved – for now. But the need for vigilance remains.

Russia-style law

A proposed ‘foreign agents’ law would have required civil society organisations (CSOs) and media outlets in Georgia receiving over 20 per cent of funding from outside the country to register as a ‘foreign agent’. Non-compliance would have been punishable with fines and even jail sentences.

The law’s proponents, including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, claimed it was modelled on one passed in the USA in 1938. The US law was introduced to check the insidious spread of Nazi propaganda in the run-up to the Second World War, and wasn’t targeted at CSOs.

For civil society it was clear the source of inspiration was much more recent and closer to home: Russia’s 2012 law, since extended several times, which allows the state to declare a ‘foreign agent’ any person or organisation it judges to be under foreign influence. The law has been used extensively to stigmatise civil society and independent media. It’s been imitated by other repressive states looking for ways to stifle civil society.

In Georgia, as in Russia, the ‘foreign agent’ terminology is deeply suggestive of espionage and treachery. Any organisation it’s applied to can expect to be instantly viewed with suspicion. This meant the law would stigmatise CSOs and media organisations.

Alarmingly, the proposed law was no isolated event: the government has been ramping up the rhetoric about groups ‘opposing the interests of the country’ and the need to save Georgia from foreign influence.

The initial proposal for the law came from a populist political faction, People’s Power, that split from the ruling party, Georgian Dream, but works in coalition with it. People’s Power has a track record of criticising foreign funding, particularly from the USA, which it claims undermines Georgia’s sovereignty, and has accused CSOs and the main opposition party of being US agents.

CSOs insist they already adhere to high standards of accountability and transparency, making any further regulations unnecessary. They point to the vital role civil society has played over the years in establishing democracy in Georgia, providing essential services the state fails to offer and helping to introduce important human rights protections.

This work necessarily requires financial support, and since there are few resources within Georgia, that means foreign funding, including from the European Union (EU) and other international bodies – sources the government is also happy to receive funding from.

The power of protest

The scale of the reaction took the government by surprise. Many states around the world have enacted repressive civil society laws, and it’s often hard to get the public to take an interest. But the issue cut through because of the larger concerns many people have about Russian influence, heightened by the war on Ukraine.

Russia is an ever-present issue in Georgian politics. The two countries went to war in 2008, and two breakaway parts of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – claim autonomy and receive heavy Russian support. Georgian Dream, founded by billionaire business tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, has an official policy of pragmatism towards Russia while also cultivating links with the EU – but opponents accuse it and People’s Power of being too close to Russia.

Many see the country’s future as lying within a democratic Europe and fear returning to Russia’s domination. This made the proposed law about a fundamental question of national identity.

That’s why, when parliament started discussing the bill in early March, thousands gathered over several nights, many waving Georgian and EU flags and chanting ‘no to the Russian law’.

When the bill passed its hurried first reading it sparked some violent clashes. Some people threw stones and the police responded disproportionately with teargas, stun grenades, pepper spray and water cannon. But people kept protesting and the government feared the situation could spiral out of its control. So, at least for the time being, it backed down.

What next?

The immediate threat may have passed, but it isn’t game over. The government hasn’t said the law was a bad idea, merely that it failed to explain it properly to the public and withdrew it to reduce confrontation.

Georgia was one of three countries that applied to join the EU following the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the other two, Moldova and Ukraine, were quickly granted EU candidate status, Georgia wasn’t.

The EU cited the need for both economic and political reforms. This includes measures to reduce corruption, organised crime and oligarchic influence, improve the protection of human rights and enable civil society to play a stronger role in decision-making processes. In introducing the proposed law, the government took steps further away from the EU and made clear it doesn’t trust civil society.

This raises concerns the bill could return in some revised form, or other restrictions on civil society could be introduced. In numerous countries, the kind of verbal attacks on civil society recently made by the government have led to restrictions.

But Garibashvili should be more attentive to the message of the protests. By taking to the streets, people told the government they’re paying attention and disagree with its current direction – and forced it to back down. Civil society has shown its power, and deserves to be listened to rather than treated with suspicion.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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Press Freedom Is an Illusion in Today’s Afghanistan

'The road to Kabul airport was a one-way street, - We couldn't go back. Not to pick up clothes, computer or notebooks, says Afghan journalist Seyar Sirat. Credit: Gie Goris/IPS

‘The road to Kabul airport was a one-way street, – We couldn’t go back. Not to pick up clothes, computer or notebooks, says Afghan journalist Seyar Sirat. Credit: Journalists on the scene of attack against journalists in Tabian Cultural Center, Mazar-e-Sharif, March 11 2023

By Gie Goris
BRUSSELS, Mar 17 2023 – Every year, Afghan journalists celebrate their national day on 18 March. This year, there is little reason to party, because of general restrictions, increasing intimidation and a recent attack on journalists. However, at a unique gathering in Brussels, Afghan journalists showed resilience.

‘I have always felt good at my desk,’ says Seyar Sirat. ‘I am rather introverted by nature, and so spending hours in front of my screen for TOLO News was a blessing rather than a curse. Until 15 August 2021, when the world of Afghanistan began to crumble. But even that morning, I continued to work with concentration until the moment the news arrived that President Ashraf Ghani had left the country. That was the moment some people burst into tears. That was the moment I left.’

What we should resist is the idea that Afghan media is helped by helping Afghan journalists flee the country. There they become package deliverers, taxi drivers or cooks, while the country needs their expertise, commitment and courage

Sirat tells his story at the first international gathering of Afghan journalists since the day Kabul fell. Some journalists were able to come over from Afghanistan, others travelled from various European countries where they now live and try to work. And where they have to try to build a second life, “like newborn babies”, as Sirat puts it. In a new language, in a foreign context, but with intense and family ties to the homeland. And with deep, mental scars.

‘The road to Kabul airport was a one-way street,’ Sirat observes visibly emotional. ‘We couldn’t go back. Not to pick up clothes, computer or notebooks. Not to go back to work or old life. Those three days and nights around and at the airport are the most tragic and traumatic moments of my life.’


Dead and injured

There is no shortage of trauma, among Afghan journalists. A colleague from the north of the country informed me of this just a few days ago that on 11 March, in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, there was an attack on a meeting of local journalists from various media. The toll was heavy: three dead and 30 injured, including 16 journalists. Te Afghanistan Journalists Centre confirms. The attack, meanwhile, was claimed by IS-KP, the local branch of Islamic State.

After the attack in Mazar-e-Sharif, a number of journalists ended up in hospital. Even there, they were not reassured by the armed representatives of the current rulers. ‘They should have killed you all,’ they heard from the Taliban, who had to guard and protect them.

In his opening address to the meeting of Afghan journalists in Brussels on 15 March, EU Special Envoy for Afghanistan Tomas Niklasson also referred to that recent tragedy and put it in the broader context of a dramatic deterioration of human rights and rule of law since the Taliban took power. He cited the recent report by UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett, who was able to document 245 cases of press freedom violations since August 2021. These include not only attacks, but also arrests, arbitrary detention, physical violence, beatings and torture. ‘Most of you will say that this figure is an underestimate,’ Niklasson said. All the journalists present nodded.


Lost space

The trauma does not begin for everyone on 15 August 2021. ‘At least 120 journalists from home and abroad have been killed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years,’ Hujatullah Mujadidi, director of the Afghan Independent Journalist Union, noted in his opening remarks to the meeting. ‘Afghanistan had 137 TV stations, 346 radio stations, 49 news agencies and 69 print media until two years ago. Together, these accounted for 12,000 jobs. Little of that remains. 224 media platforms meanwhile closed their doors and at least 8,000 media workers – including 2,374 women – lost their jobs.’

‘We had finally created space for ourselves after centuries of restrictions,’ says Somaia Walizadeh, a journalist who was able to flee the country. ‘That space has been taken away from us again. Of the few media that were founded, run and nurtured by women, a few still exist. But even there, men now call the shots.’ Reporters Without Borders states that in half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, not a single female journalist is still employed and more than eighty percent of female journalists are out of work. RSF also estimates that 40 per cent of media platforms have ceased to exist and 60 per cent of all media workers became unemployed after August 2021. No wonder, then, that some 1,000 journalists have already fled abroad.


The heart of the problem

Those who want to do real and independent journalistic work in Afghanistan come up against one difficulty after another. “It was never easy to get reliable information,” says Somaia Walizadeh, “but today it is quasi-impossible. According to her colleague Abid Ihsas, who remains active in Afghanistan, this has to do with the fact that journalists on the ground face Taliban fighters ‘who do not know or recognise the importance of independent media.’ But it doesn’t stop there, he says, because the entire administration under the current authorities is extremely centralised and hierarchised. ‘Every detail and every shred of information has to be approved and released by a higher authority every time.’

But the real root of the problem, according to Ihsas, lies in the deliberately created ambiguity. There is a 10-point regulation – which is very vague – but no real media law. ‘It is never clear what is allowed according to the authorities and what is not. Ultimately, it depends on the moment and the person in front of you. Usually, the rules are communicated verbally and ad hoc. This not only leads to a lot of outright censorship, but also too much self-censorship due to the constant uncertainty.’ Rateb Noori, a refugee journalist, summed it up this way: ‘The fact that relatively few journalists are in jail is not even good news in these circumstances. It mainly shows how effective the intimidation is.’

The insecurity also applies to what journalists do outside their formal assignment. ‘Forwarding a WhatsApp message or liking a tweet or FB message can already get you in trouble,’ says Ahmad Quraishi, director of the Afghanistan Journalists Centre. Other problems he identifies: ‘There are very limited lists of journalists invited to press conferences or given access to those in charge. These almost never include women, and if they do, they are additionally screened and checked.’

Fariba Aram adds that foreign journalists are treated much better than domestic colleagues. ‘It seems that those in power still want a reasonable image in the rest of the world, while in Afghanistan they are averse to anything journalistic,’ she says. Hujatullah Mujadidi of the Afghan Independent Journalist Union confirms that: They are trying to divide us. International against national. Diaspora against interior. “Good media” against “bad media”. That is why it is crucial that journalists and media continue to speak and negotiate with one voice,’ he concludes. True as that be, maybe Tomas Niklasson put it better when he described the journalists in the room as ‘not united, as this is overly ambitious, but connected’.


The hard hand and the long arm of power

Legal uncertainty, censorship, lack of access to information and economic difficulties combine to form an almost insurmountable obstacle for Afghan journalists. And for the hundreds of journalists who continue to practise their profession from Europe, Pakistan, Australia or North America. Indeed, they face the same barriers to information and have to navigate with extreme caution what they write or bring, as there is always a chance that family members left behind will pay the price for their truth-telling.

Someone testified about an article he was to write for an international news site on climate change and air pollution. The requested information never came, but the statement that they knew where his family lived, did. Rateb Noori also had a similar experience. His news site investigated a story on the de facto lifting of the requirement for women to appear on TV wearing a face mask. In that case, it was not the journalist’s family that was threatened, but local colleagues – even though they thought they were safe at their changing hiding addresses.


What to do?

Analysing the current situation proved to be the simple part of the programme. When asked what could or should be done about it, Afghan journalists and their international partners from the EU, Unesco, RsF and the International Federation of Journalists got little beyond tentative ideas. ‘You cannot solve problems that are more than 20 years old in a matter of weeks,’ argued Najib Paikan, who recently had to shut down his own TV station. ‘But what we should resist is the idea that Afghan media is helped by helping Afghan journalists flee the country. There they become package deliverers, taxi drivers or cooks, while the country needs their expertise, commitment and courage.’

That earned Paikan applause, even though everyone knew that leaving is the choice of a large section of now desperate journalists. Moreover, the problems do not disappear when you cross the border, Wali Rahmani, a fugitive media activist, noted. ‘Hundreds of journalists are stuck in Pakistan and are only concerned with survival. Food and shelter for themselves and for their families. They too are entitled to international support.’


At the awards

On the sidelines of the conference in Brussels, the annual Journalist of the Year Awards were also presented. The 2023 Awards went to Mohammad Yousuf Hanif of ToloNews, Mohammad Arif Yaqoubi of Washington-based Afghanistan International TV, and Marjan Wafa, reporter for Killid Radio. Over the past 10 years, a total of 14 journalists received the award, including five women.