UK media unite to urge visas for Afghan reporters at risk from Taliban

Newspapers and broadcasters send open letter to Boris Johnson raising safety fears about locals who did vital work for the west

A coalition of British newspapers and broadcasters has appealed to the government to expand its refugee visa programme for Afghans, to include people who have worked for UK media over the past 20 years.

In an open letter to the prime minister and foreign secretary, more than 20 outlets outlined the vital need for a route to safety for reporters whose work with British media could put them at risk of Taliban reprisals.

“There is an urgent need to act quickly, as the threat to their lives is already acute and worsening,” the letter said.

“If left behind, those Afghan journalists and media employees who have played such a vital role informing the British public by working for British media will be left at the risk of persecution, of physical harm, incarceration, torture, or death.

US media came together to make a similar appeal last month, unifying outlets as diverse as Fox and the New York Times. The Biden administration has since expanded its visa programme for Afghanistan, to cover people with links to the US media, and US-funded aid projects.

The signatories to the British letter represent an equally broad coalition. They include broadcasters Sky and ITN (which makes news for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) and all major British newspapers from the Guardian, the Times and the Financial Times to the Daily Mail and the Sun, and weekly magazine the Economist.

The National Union of Journalists and press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders have also put their names to the demand for a path to safety for journalists with UK links, modelled on the visa route for military interpreters.

The letter was sent to Boris Johnson and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who did not immediately respond

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, promised his party’s backing for the effort to expand protection to Afghan journalists.

“The Labour party strongly supports this campaign. These brave Afghans helped the British media report news of the war to the world. They stood up for media freedom and democracy, values that we rightly champion around the world,” Starmer said.

“The UK must not abandon them. We urge the government to do the right thing and provide these Afghan journalists, support staff and their families sanctuary in the UK.”

Afghans who worked as reporters, translators or “fixers” – multi-skilled journalists who do everything from research to driving for foreign correspondents from outside the country – have been vital to public understanding of a war that has claimed hundreds of British lives and cost billions of pounds.

That work, and their links to the UK, also created unique security risks for them. Afghan reporters say their reporting is regularly cited in insurgent threats.

The letter notes that the UK government’s own panel on press freedom “recommends a visa programme for journalists at risk in their home state”.

The Taliban have for years targeted journalists in campaigns of assassinations and intimidation, which intensified last year, when a wave of attacks in urban areas picked off reporters along with human rights workers, moderate religious scholars and civil society activists, as they went about their daily lives.

Helmand-based Elyas Dayee, a key contributor to much of the UK media coverage from the province where most British troops served, was killed in a bomb attack claimed by local Taliban commanders. Other victims included three women who worked for Enekass TV in eastern Afghanistan, gunned down on their commute.

The threats have become even more urgent since the Taliban launched a military campaign in May that has swept through the country.

They have seized more than half of rural Afghanistan and are threatening several major cities. The group have carried out targeted killings after taking control in some areas, and journalists fear they are likely to be on hitlists.

The body of the Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Danish Siddiqui was multilated while in Taliban custody, after he was killed near the southern town of Kandahar last month.

Underlining the gravity of the current security situation in Afghanistan, the US has started airlifting out former employees even before they finish their visa process, and UK military officials are appealing for a broader visa programme.

Contributor

Emma Graham-Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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