Plea for sanctuary for Afghan journalists at risk of Taliban reprisals

UK’s foremost media organisations call for assistance for colleagues

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 05 August 2021 10:09
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Some of the UK’s most prominent media organisations have issued a plea to Boris Johnson for help for Afghan journalists, translators and support staff who have worked with them over the 20 years of British military presence in the country.

In a joint letter to the prime minister and foreign secretary Dominic Raab, 23 newspapers, broadcasters and media organisations - including The Independent - called on Mr Johnson to follow the example of president Joe Biden, who has given Afghan journalists and media staff with US links access to a refugee programme.

They appealed for the creation of a special visa programme for Afghan media workers with UK links who are at risk as the Taliban attempts to retake the country following the withdrawal of Western troops.

The workers and their families - amounting to a total of a few dozen people - face an “acute and worsening” threat to their lives from the militant group, which has a track record of persecution and targeted killings of journalists who attempt to inform the world about conditions in the country, the letter warned.

The letter came as home secretary Priti Patel and defence secretary Ben Wallace acknowledged that the UK owes “a huge debt of gratitude” to local interpreters and other staff who worked alongside UK troops in Afghanistan.

Writing to former Army chief Lord Dannatt, who has led calls for the translators to be offered sanctuary in Britain, the ministers said the UK had been “at the forefront” of international efforts to relocate people, taking in 1,400 Afghan staff and their families since 2014, and a further 1,400 in recent weeks.

The government is committed to relocating another 500 families - around 2,500 people - as soon as possible, and Ms Patel and Mr Wallace said the scheme would remain open indefinitely, with no limit on total numbers.

They announced that the scheme was being amended to ensure that Afghans who worked with the British military are automatically eligible for relocation to the UK, even if they have already fled the country and are living elsewhere.

But the scheme is open only to Afghans who worked with the military during deployments in Afghanistan since 2001, and media workers are not currently able to apply.

Today’s media letter said that British newspapers and broadcasters covering the country have been “heavily reliant” on Afghan colleagues who were “committed to the vision, shared by the British government and its Nato allies, of a free media as a vital part of a stable, peaceful democracy”.

But it warned of “very real fears” that these people will now face reprisals from Taliban militants, who have already murdered Helmand-based reporter Elyas Day and photographer Danish Siddiqui, as they launch a military offensive to regain control of the country where they were ousted from power in 2001.

Journalists are among the civilians regarded by human rights organisations as most at risk of persecution, the letter warned.

And it stated: “Britain has recognised the vital role of Afghans who served as translators for our armed forces, and the unique dangers they face because of their service, through the creation of a visa programme for them.

“The Afghans who worked for UK media outlets have also been critical to our national understanding of what British men and women fought for Afghanistan, and the conduct of our allies in the Afghan government.

“The numbers concerned are small, perhaps a few dozen people including family members, yet their work in illuminating the realities of Afghanistan to the British public has carried an exponential impact.

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

“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.

“The Biden Administration this week recognised the threat to journalists and media staff with US links, giving them access to its refugee programme for Afghans.

“We hope that a British government committed to democracy, which recognises the important role of a free press, will recall their help in their time of need and vulnerability and offer similar sanctuary.”

A Foreign Office spokesperson said the letter was being “actively considered”.

“The UK is committed to media freedom, and to championing democracy and human rights around the world,” said the spokesperson. 

“Journalists must not face threats, injuries or death from simply doing their job: reporting on the truth.

“We continue to stand with the people of Afghanistan to support a stable, peaceful future for the country. We are also supporting the international efforts to energise the Afghan peace process.”

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