How can a journalist prevent a feeling of inaction and despair when a dictatorial regime seizes power and a violent clampdown on press freedom means that reporting on injustices against citizens becomes unfeasible and life-threatening at a time their job is more urgent than ever? Abbas Rezaie was a staff member at the Etilaat Roz, the most widely circulated daily newspaper in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, when the Taliban took over the capital on 15 August 2021. Over the ten years since its launch, the paper built a trusting readership and reputation of transparency for its reporting against corruption that held powerful figures to account. The staff, still reeling from the fact the militant Islamist movement were able to take Kabul despite being greatly outnumbered, had to decide whether and how to keep their paper operational. Rezaie filmed daily events at the paper’s small office as the city fell and the Taliban consolidated its hold on power in the immediate aftermath, resulting in the documentary The Etilaat Roz, which won Best First Feature at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. The newspaper, in this sense, itself became a story, and a universally significant one at that, as we see at highly personal close-hand, the impossible decisions editor-in-chief Zaki Daryabi and his colleagues had to make, in a drastically uncertain atmosphere of information censorship in which the rules were not yet defined and the cost of choices could not be known in advance.
«This is an overnight country», says one journalist of Afghanistan, referring to the inability to establish anything with assured continuity in an unstable, unpredictable environment in which coups or other political and social transformations can occur in a moment without warning. A sense among citizens of betrayal and being left alone to their fate comes through. Journalists reflect on the preceding years of unsteady rule at the hands of Ashraf Ghani, who was the final president until the government’s overthrow and how they perceived them as having destroyed the country’s infrastructure and defence force capacities as he lined his own pockets while managing to appeal to Washington’s foreign policy elite. They also talk of American president Biden’s withdrawal of US troops, in a haphazard pull-out that saw many at-risk Afghanis left off evacuation lists and essentially deserted, even as word went around that the Taliban were searching from house to house for journalists. One disgusted Etilaat Roz staff member says he would prefer to take a bullet in the street than undergo the indignity of begging the Americans on the ground there to grant them air passage out (of a list of 47 newspaper employee names sent as an evacuation permission request, only ten are approved for help.)
One disgusted Etilaat Roz staff member says he would prefer to take a bullet in the street than undergo the indignity of begging the Americans on the ground there to grant them air passage out
As the documentary proceeds day by day, we are taken closely inside the frantic uncertainty over how to survive and whether to try to escape via the airport (an exit route that becomes more closed, as the Taliban bar those without pre-existing passports from leaving) or stay on in Kabul. The Etilaat Roz staff also deliberate over how to safeguard the paper’s research documents and archive of printed editions and whether to try to report accurately on events as locals inform of them, risking the Taliban’s ire. In the initial takeover, the Islamist radicals try to exude an attitude of calm, even as gunshots can be heard in the streets. The men and women on staff at the paper suspect this false assurance is aimed at garnering the approval of foreign governments and institutes before the new regime shows its true, brutal face and agenda. Media outlets are informed vaguely they can continue working under a framework of Islam, but Etilaat Roz are unwilling to legitimise the regime, and if they cannot report honestly, they would rather cease operations. Whether the Taliban would allow female reporters’ continued employment is also unclear, and women at the paper reflect on a potential dead-end to a whole career of training and experience. What is more, all means for money transfers have been blocked, making it logistically very difficult for the paper to pay their staff without borrowing funds.
Bound to come
A sense of responsibility to their readership and a duty to voice public injustices sees the Etilaat Roz attempt to cover a street protest against the Taliban. Five staff members are arrested, and two are beaten with whips, who eventually return with extensive bruising, looking disoriented and shaken. It’s an unsettling outcome that underlines for them the unsustainability of reporting as usual. To continue their work from an outside location, further from access to the most repressed citizens, is resorted to as a temporary option — but one that is not embraced as the final chapter or outcome, after ten years of work building transparent journalism from within Afghanistan, in a landscape that has seen 231 media outlets cease operations since the Taliban takeover. After all, in an «overnight country» like Afghanistan, change is bound to come again.