Credit: Courtesy of Kiran Nazish (above) founder of the Coalition for Women in Journalism

Since the Taliban took over the Afghanistan capital Kabul earlier this month, the Coalition for Women in Journalism (CFWIJ) has helped to evacuate 70 women and men and their families in the last eight days - but the priority list is getting longer.

The founder and award-winning Pakistani journalist, Kiran Nazish told that the non-profit organisation has received more than 2,500 applications to move people into safehouses, and their volunteers have spent days narrowing that down to an urgent list of at least 300 women journalists, academics and activists.

These are people whose bylines and names have appeared widely in the media, have worked for Western organisations, and fear they will be targeted by the Taliban.

"In contrast to what the Taliban has said in their statements and how they’re trying to portray themselves as governing more peacefully and to include women, we are concerned that is probably not going to be true," says Nazish.

"What we are seeing from the ground reality is they are actively threatening people, knocking on doors and warning women journalists, academics and activists that they should not be working. We are trying to get as many people out of the country, and help as many people who are being targeted, as possible."

The everyday reality

In situations like Afghanistan, their stories sound scary. But the reality is that women journalists fear for their safety in many countries, all the time.

Nazish spoke on a podcast before the Taliban takeover unfolded, and told us about how women journalists have become the target of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns designed to clamp down on press freedom.

At the time, CFWIJ documented 70 cases of violence against women in the month of May internationally, which included the death of Palestinian journalist Reema Saad and the abduction of Nigerian journalist Amra Ahmed Diska.

More recent data puts this at 61 cases of violence against women journalists worldwide in July 2021, including 31 cases of physical assault (the highest in a single month this year), 12 cases of legal harassment, five journalists facing serious threats, three journalists subject to online harassment, and more cases to do with sexual harassment, state persecution, racist incidents and verbal harassment.

This is not just coming from countries where women are not treated equally, but there are examples throughout the year in the US, the UK and across Europe. The trend is one of misogynistic attacks to silence women, and thereby, their reporting.

"Our concerns are not only in the Middle East where you see visible conflict like Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey," Nazish said. "It's not only in South Asia - India, Pakistan, Afghanistan. But it’s in Europe and Eastern Europe like Belarus has become a huge concern."

It can be easy to get caught up in high-profile cases, like Maria Ressa's ongoing legal battle in Philippine courts after her news organisation's critical reporting on President Duterte. But Nazish recalled five women journalists who worked for smaller Philippine organisations, who have become the target of state abuse and are not receiving support from the newsroom. The point is that freelancers, most of whom women, and those in smaller organisations, slip under the radar and miss out on support.

"While we are having the conversation about the Philippines and we all know about Maria Ressa and how she's being targeted, the government is not just targeting her. They are also targeting other women who are in a more vulnerable situation and do not have access to support.

"This is happening everywhere in Pakistan, Mexico, Turkey. A lot of journalists live in exile where governments have been difficult to journalists, while in exile journalists back home are still targeted and there is still repression. It's important to support them."

What can be done?

CFWIJ is trying to fill the gap through support on the ground. But some countries are hard to get in and out of, such as Myanmar, where there have been arrests of politicians, activists, as well as journalists.

LGBTQ journalists are also vulnerable too in many of these countries, and so they need to factor in support for those intersectional areas of targeting. One possible solution is trying to change the political situation from within.

CFWIJ has been lobbying to create a law within the Pakistani parliament to protect journalists, for example, and try to create relationships with politicians who have an interest and commitment to democracy. But it does not always work that way.

"We want to get people within governments, who are interested in democracy, to ally with us and work together. We cannot be on the opposite side, we have to work together," says Nazish.

"But that works in some countries, and not in others. We have been unable to find any allies in China or in Saudi Arabia. It’s important to look at what system works where and then improvise."

Internally, newsrooms must also provide mentorship and legal support for journalists who go to great lengths and personal risk to get stories for their organisations. But many reporters feel frustrated with the lack of support she says, recognising that mentorships played a significant role in how she coped with threats against her as a journalist.

Nazish identified BuzzFeed News as one organisation that is proving that supporting reporters pays off after its investigative journalist Megha Rajagopalan picked up a Pulitzer Prize this year for exposing China's vast infrastructure for detaining Uighur Muslims.

"Her newsroom, which works untraditionally, supports her, and BuzzFeed is one of many new newsrooms which come from a different mindset and works differently with their reporters. They give more liberty to reporters and provide resources.

"If the journalist says 'I believe in this story and I want to cover it', newsrooms need to invest in that. If the journalist says 'I'm really afraid to go out and I don't feel safe, can you buy me a vest?' the attitude should be to support journalists, because without journalists there is not going to be a newsroom."

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