VOA Acting Chief Talks About Left-Behind Journalists in Afghanistan

Josh Rogin in the Washington Post reported that about 600 employees, contractors and family members who worked for USAGM services in Afghanistan were not evacuated because the clock just ran out. Despite assurances from the State Department and US military and several missteps along the way the USAGM group was not airlifted out.

The International Community reached out to Voice of America for its view on what happened and what is being done to get these journalists and their family members out of Afghanistan. Acting Director of VOA Yolanda Lopez responded to a few quick e-mail queries from the SPJ IC.

The questions and responses follow.

International Community: What can you tell us about the situation of these people and their families? 
Yolanda López: The journalists who work for the VOA Afghan Service in-country have always done their jobs at risk of harm. We fear they now face a life and death situation.  Understandably, we cannot provide any details about what our colleagues and their family members are doing to protect themselves and to stay out of harm’s way. 
IC: How many people are involved?
López: We cannot confirm a precise number, as we would not want to provide information that might help those who would do harm to our colleagues and their families.   In just the last few years, five USAGM journalists were killed in Afghanistan, including one who was a targeted assassination last year.
IC: Can you say anything about the efforts we assume are underway to get them out?
López: We continue to work with other federal agencies and non-federal partners to explore alternative evacuation strategies for our colleagues and their families. While U.S. officials from the Department of Defense and the State Department are no longer on the ground in Kabul, 67 members of Congress have urged the administration to prioritize the evacuation of our staff.  We thank them and anyone who is trying to help for their continued support.
IC: What is your reaction to the situation that left your journalists and their families behind?
López: We had every expectation that they would be evacuated by now and we are heartsick that many who wished to leave are still in Afghanistan. Now is time to focus and to continue working around the clock to evacuate our journalists and their families.  
IC: Twenty years ago, VOA got an exclusive interview with the head of the Taliban right after the U.S. invasion. It was clear that the Taliban – at that time – saw VOA as the most trusted news organization in the area and as a means to explain their position to the Afghan people. From what you have heard from your teams in Afghanistan, what is the attitude of this new generation of Taliban leaders? (Remembering that RFE/RL journalists in particular have received death threats and have been killed in bomb attacks.) 
López: While VOA interviewed the Taliban leader in 2001, as journalists we cannot offer any commentary on attitudes or motivations of the Taliban leadership then or now. 

We did that interview to shed light on the thinking of a U.S. adversary, which is the job of independent journalists, even though the U.S. administration at the time was uncomfortable with it.

In Afghanistan now, some might perceive our journalists as “anti-Taliban” because of their affiliation with Voice of America.  In reality, all of them covered the story independent of partisan motives or affiliation. 

VOA reported Tuesday that the Taliban’s media spokesman told an elite unit:   “Treat the Afghan population kindly and nicely. The public deserves this.”

We want to take the Taliban leaders at their word, but in recent days, we have confirmed Taliban attempts to round up several of our journalists in hiding and several instances of violence against their family members. 

What we really hope is to be reunited soon with the VOA journalists who covered the country faithfully.
IC: What, if anything, can US journalists do to help get the USAGM people out?
López: Please continue to shine the global spotlight on journalism in Afghanistan. We hope Honest and robust coverage of this will have the effect of putting pressure on new rulers in Afghanistan to do the right thing.