‘Living in fear’: Exiled Afghan journalists face arrest, hunger in Pakistan

Stuck with no income for more than a year after fleeing Afghanistan for Pakistan, Samiullah Jahesh was ready to sell his kidney to put food on the table for his family. “I had no other option, I had no money or food at home,” Jahesh, a former journalist with Afghanistan’s independent Ariana News TV channel, told CPJ.

Jahesh is one of many exiled Afghan journalists still in limbo more than 18 months after the Taliban seized power, forcing hundreds of thousands of Afghans to flee. Those who left included hundreds of journalists seeking refuge as the Taliban cracked down on the country’s previously vibrant independent media landscape.

While some journalists found shelter in Europe or the U.S., those unable to move beyond neighboring Pakistan are in increasingly dire straits. Unable to find jobs without work authorization, their visas are running out as they struggle with the snail-paced process of resettlement to a third country. Pakistan, which last year announced it would expedite 30-day transit visas for Afghans going to other countries, is now taking harsher steps against those in the country without valid documents. In March, the government announced new restrictions limiting their movements. At least 1,100 Afghans have been deported in recent months, according to a Guardian report citing Pakistani human rights lawyer Moniza Kakar.

Pakistan is not a signatory to the U.N. refugee convention stating that refugees should not be forced to return to a country where they face threats to their life or freedom, and Afghan journalists told CPJ they fear the Taliban’s hardline stance on the media would put them at particular risk if they were sent back.

Some journalists told CPJ they have to pay exorbitant fees to renew a visa and applications can take months to be processed. Those without valid visas live in hiding for fear of detention or extortion. Even those with the proper documentation said they have been harassed by local authorities. The uncertainty, they say, has put a strain on their mental health.

“People are worried about being identified and arrested if they go out to try to renew their visas. The risk of deportation is putting everyone under pressure,” said Jahesh, who suspended his plan to sell his kidney following a donation after tweeting his desperate offer in February.

The situation is “dire,” said Ahmad Quraishi, executive director of the advocacy group Afghanistan Journalists Center, which estimates there are at least 150 Afghan journalists in Pakistan. He called on embassies to prioritize resettlement applications of at-risk journalists.

CPJ spoke with five other exiled Afghan journalists in Pakistan who are facing visa issues. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Ahmad Ferooz Esar, a former journalist with Arezo TV and Mitra TV, fled to Pakistan in December 2021 with his wife, also a journalist. He was briefly detained in early February and is in hiding after speaking out about his detention.

On the night of February 3, the police entered our house and arrested me and a number of other Afghans living there. I asked the police why I was being arrested, they didn’t say anything. They asked me about my job and what I did in Afghanistan, I was very afraid. They did not even check our passport or visa status.

We were taken to the police station. They asked for money. Before my mobile phone was taken away, I shared my arrest with some media colleagues in Islamabad. With their help, I got out later and I gave media interviews in which I talked about police corruption. I stated the facts, but the police came looking for me later. We had to leave the house.

We are living in fear. Every moment we fear they may find out our current address and come here to arrest me. Please help me and my wife escape from this horror and destruction. There is no way for us to go back to Afghanistan.

TV anchor Khatera Ahmadi wears a face covering as she reads the news on TOLONews, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 22, 2022. Ahmadi was forced to flee to Pakistan in July 2022 after facing threats from the Taliban. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Khatera Ahmadi, a former news presenter with Afghan broadcaster TOLONews, fled to Pakistan in July 2022. A photo of her covering her face on-air following an order by the Taliban was one of the most widely shared images illustrating the restrictions on female journalists in the country.  

I had to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power and after the threats that were made against me. I got the visa and came to Pakistan with my husband, who is also a journalist. It’s been eight months now, we’re in a bad situation. We can’t travel freely in Pakistan. We have to go to the Torkham border [a border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan that some Afghans are required visit every two months] to renew our visas, but the Taliban might arrest me there.

I cannot go anywhere, my family cannot transfer me money, I cannot make the [rental] contract for the house. We can’t do anything here.

Medina Kohistani, a former journalist with TOLONews, fled to Pakistan a year ago. She said there has been heightened anxiety among exiled Afghan journalists in Pakistan.

The police always patrol the streets and markets and check the visas and passports of Afghans. In some cases, they enter buildings and check the visas and residence permits of Afghan refugees.

In one case, several people, including journalists, had been arrested over visa issues, and were later released after paying a bribe. My friend, who is a journalist, did not have money to pay the fines after his visa expired, he is living in constant fear.

Ahmad, who asked to be identified only by his first name, has been living in Islamabad for about 10 months. He was forced to flee Afghanistan after he was detained by the Taliban over his reporting.

I have seen that most Afghan journalists have had to buy their [Pakistan] visas for US$1,200 to be able to flee Afghanistan and now, their visas have expired. Even though they tried to apply for an extension, they didn’t get an answer. The only way to get a visa is by paying a bribe, which is impossible, given the financial situations of many Afghan journalists.

I personally witnessed one of the journalists whose visa has expired…pay a bribe to the police. I cannot provide more details as I may face more risks to discuss that.

An Afghan journalist in Pakistan, who is also a father of three children aged 5 to 14. He fled to Pakistan over a year ago and asked not to be named for the security of his family.

Pakistan does not provide education for our children, public and private schools do not enroll our children. This is a really big issue. What will be the future of these children while there is no hope for a third country resettlement?

When we fled Afghanistan, we had a small amount of cash savings that we kept with us. We had just enough to get by with those savings in the beginning, now we have to sell our belongings like my wife’s jewelries for cash and for food.

There are no other options, we can’t go back to Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior did not respond to a request seeking comment for this article, including the allegations of bribery.

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