Exiled Afghan journalists living in Toronto launch Amu TV

Afghan journalists-in-exile have launched an independent media platform to publish on-the-ground stories from Afghanistan, in hopes that safeguarding the flow of information can help save lives.

“We will let people know where conflict zones are, so they can avoid those areas or be more vigilant,” said Amu TV CEO Lotfullah Najafizada, formerly the Kabul-based director of Afghanistan’s largest media network, TOLOnews.

“Media coverage of human rights violations can also put pressure on the Taliban and other groups to at least not be so blatant about what they’re doing,” he said, adding that the outlet’s Farsi, Pashto and English editions will target local as well as international audiences.

Najafizada first spoke with the Star in Toronto, where he now lives with his family. The Canadian government had resettled Najafizada in Canada following the fall of Kabul in August 2021, while Amu editor-in-chief Sami Mahdi had secured a U.S. work permit.

Amu TV co-founders Lotfullah Najafizada (left) and Sami Madhi reunited in Washington D.C. in early 2022.

The two friends named their initiative Amu, after the major river in Central Asia, as a way to evoke hope and connection amid difficult times.

After securing grants and private donations earlier this year, they recruited fellow journalists-in-exile to work as editors and translators of reports by colleagues who were unable or unwilling to flee the country.

Even though the team did not openly advertise for the positions in Afghanistan, they were able to find journalists who were living across the country through word-of-month.

“They are experienced newsroom veterans as well as part of a new generation of journalists who are really brave and facing a very tough situation to have chosen to remain in the country as journalists,” Mahdi said.

“If the free media still existed in Afghanistan, we would support them but the fact is that there’s a vacuum we’re trying to fill,” said Mahdi, who was recently the bureau chief of Radio Azadi and professor of public policy at Kabul University.

Since taking over, the Taliban has issued numerous restrictions on local and foreign media such as ordering female news presenters to cover their faces and banning media that contravened “Islamic or Afghan values.”

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) stated in a June 2022 report that it has recorded 163 incidents of abuse against journalists attributable to de facto authorities, including cases of arbitrary arrest, torture and intimidation.

A survey by Reporters Without Borders and the Afghan Independent Journalist Association found that 231 out of 543 media outlets had closed by December 2021, while more than 6,400 journalists lost their jobs.

Afghan journalists-in-exile have launched Amu TV, an independent media platform to publish on-the-ground stories from Afghanistan, in hopes that safeguarding the flow of information can help save lives. Here, journalist Lotfullah Najafizada interviews U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Sept. 2021.

At an online meeting last week, more than a dozen Amu TV reporters discussed stories such as civilian casualties in fighting between Taliban and rebels, land grabs and official corruption, flooding across the country and bumper grape harvests.

Several staff took the precaution of taking the call outdoors, or had their videos off with no names displayed on their accounts.

“Civilian casualties is a very sensitive topic for the Taliban,” one male reporter in Kandahar said at the meeting.

When Mahdi asked if the reporter could provide an estimate for the number of recent civilian deaths, the reporter said some 150 people might have been killed, and he would “try to find people who had been tortured to interview.”

Several women are among the local staff who file reports and video footage to editors through a private portal. When filming sources, the outlet also allows interviewees to speak anonymously or off-camera.

Amu TV is set to publish video stories online and scale up towards their goal of establishing a satellite television channel, since satellite TV is currently widely available in Afghanistan.

Taliban authorities have yet to enact blanket bans on media websites or social media, although some experts say they have the available technology to do so in the future.

“It’s a very hard situation but we hope our professionalism will help us. As journalists we have spent many years dealing with them, and sat down and interviewed (Taliban) leaders, so they know us,” Najafizada said.

“We’re not trying to promote Western thinking. We’re not the PR arm of the U.S. or Canada. We are Afghan journalists trying to stay engaged with our country.”

Joanna Chiu is a Vancouver-based reporter covering both Canada-China relations and current affairs on the West Coast for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu

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