'We’re Preparing for the Worst-Case Scenarios'
U.S. Agency for Global Media says it "will not back down" in Afghanistan despite the danger.
Amid the instability in Afghanistan, the U.S. Agency for Global Media—the parent organization of Voice of America and other government-funded news outlets—is working to keep employees safe as well as cover the rapidly evolving news in the dangerous environment.
On Sunday, the Taliban completed its rapid takeover of Afghanistan as the United States was finishing its withdrawal of troops by the August 31 deadline, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. As the situation deteriorated over the weekend, the Pentagon deployed thousands of additional troops to the country to help with evacuations. As of Monday, there were 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan; by the end of Tuesday there were to be 4,000 on the ground in Kabul, said Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor during a briefing on Tuesday morning.
“We are doing everything we can to keep our local [Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Technology Services and Innovation] personnel safe,” Kelu Chao, acting CEO of USAGM, said in an email to staff on Sunday. “My security team and senior staff have been working around the clock with the U.S. Department of State and other federal partners to get our staff to safety. Rest assured; we will do everything in our power to protect them.”
The work her colleagues in Afghanistan and Pakistan are doing to keep audiences informed amid the dire situation “is proof of your professionalism and commitment to the Afghan people and to the USAGM mission,” she said.
While it is not clear what the United States’ presence in Afghanistan will be going forward, Chao stressed the agency “will not back down in our mission to inform, engage and connect Afghans in support of freedom and democracy.”
“Our journalists have been under attack for quite some time,” said Jamie Fly, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, on a briefing call on Tuesday, in regards to Radio Azadi, the network’s Afghan branch. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is a component of USAGM.
Due to security concerns and the coronavirus pandemic, the network has already scaled down physical operations in Afghanistan, but “we still have journalists in [the] country. They’re doing reporting about the events as best they can,” said Fly. “We’ve also for many years operated much of our programming out of headquarters here in Prague in the Czech Republic and so we remain on the air, able to broadcast by using our facility outside of Afghanistan.”
The journalists still on the ground are “at extreme risk,” he said. “We have been very clear with them that if they want to leave the country, we at RFE/RL will do everything in our power to help them get out of the country.” The biggest challenge they’re facing is getting access to flights, although the situation at the Kabul airport had improved somewhat on Monday, he said.
“No one knows ultimately what the Taliban’s approach to the media [is] going to be. They’re trying to present a different face right now,” said Fly. “They haven’t shut down RFE/RL and VOA transmitters in [the] country, they haven’t forced us off the air, yet. But no one knows how long that will last and I think a lot of people fear … that this probably is a charm offensive that could very well disappear.”
“We’re preparing for the worst-case scenarios and focused right now on just getting our people to secure locations where they can continue their work,” said Fly on Tuesday.
Voice of America Acting Director Yolanda López said the agency was “in contact with our stringers to the best of our abilities. We are also working hard on keeping our signals up so we can continue to inform a population desperate for news of what is happening in their country and the world.”
Lopez thanked the technical support division “for keeping us up and running; for the most part, our content is still being delivered in the region” as well as the agency’s News Center “for staying on top of the story—with many people stepping up to work on their day off—and collaborating with the language services.”
She said she was especially proud of VOA’s South and Central Asia Division for covering a story “that, for some, hits too close to home.” Lopez said she would do her best to keep colleagues updated on the situation.
For security reasons, USAGM said it could not provide numbers on how many personnel the agency has in Afghanistan and how many are being evacuated.
Meanwhile, agency journalists in Afghanistan have been sharing on Twitter their experiences and what they’re seeing.
Those include Ayesha Tanzeem, VOA Bureau Chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Mustafa Kazemi, director of the counternarcotics reporting unit at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who is in Afghanistan with his wife and 11-month-old daughter. “We are okay,” he tweeted early on Tuesday. “Still trapped. No evacuation yet.”
In response to a tweet from Amb. Ross Wilson, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Kazemi asked for “immediate assistance” for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty staff.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.