‘There is hope for Afghanistan’

Journalist-activist Najiba Ayubi shaped the media landscape in Afghanistan during its brief stint as a democracy. Forced to flee when the Taliban returned to power, she is hopeful in her home in Los Angeles that Afghans who ‘tasted freedom of expression’ will one day strive for its return

Often called the ‘graveyard of empires’, Afghanistan has seen tumultuous reigns throughout history. For people who have never been to the country, images of violence, atrocities, betrayal, and war, as well as images of torture, inequity, and a society that has been torn apart by the desire for power distort their perspective. A desolate valley, dark streets, carpets of rubble, or burqa-clad women with gun-toting men in Toyota pick-ups—these are the go-to visuals that movies and TV shows use to depict Afghanistan. For the Afghan people of many ethnicities and tribes who call this land their home, this is a place that boasts breathtaking natural beauty and rich cultural and dynastic heritage. Nearly every generation has witnessed a different face of this region, more so in the past few decades.

Journalist-activist Najiba Ayubi’s personal destiny has been intrinsically intertwined with the ever-changing political landscape of the country. The dream of a free and democratic Afghanistan continues to fuel Ayubi’s work. Currently living in Los Angeles, she has been at the forefront of shaping the contours of independent media in Afghanistan for two decades. The rise and fall of the Taliban has significantly influenced the course of her life and her career as a resilient and visionary journalist who helped shape Afghanistan’s media during its brief stint of democracy. Her illustrious career as a trailblazing figure in Afghanistan’s media industry, where she took numerous risks due to her wide expertise, ranging from reporting on human rights violations to investigative journalism, abruptly came to a halt with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan two years ago.

However, while sitting in her Los Angeles apartment, where she continues her work as a journalist and activist in exile, Ayubi remains confident that the efforts of independent media during that period will not be in vain. “The people of Afghanistan have experienced what it means to be free. They have tasted freedom of expression. Women experienced unprecedented freedoms during the time when the media could operate relatively freely. The resistance you see today stems from exposure to free media. It contributed to preparing a more mature citizenry, and I hope that free media will soon return to Afghanistan as people continue their fight for a free and fair society,” she said, during an interview by SIGMA.

Born into a loving family of nine, Ayubi’s path into  journalism was influenced by the nurturing environment of her childhood. She was fortunate to have parents with a broad outlook, with both her father and mother prioritising education over everything else. Her father was a teacher, and despite her lack of formal education, her mother possessed an insatiable appetite for news from around the world. Somehow, that thirst for knowledge was instilled in Ayubi early.

As she grew up, her fascination with world affairs grew deeper. She’d pore over articles and excitedly read the bylines. ‘Do I know any of them? Can I ever get my name in the newspaper too?’ Clutching tight a copy of the Parian News, seeing her byline in it became her life’s mission. One day, then in fifth grade, she confided in the school librarian, who helped her write her first piece and get it published.

Proud and elated, she paraded the paper around the school. ‘I hugged it and walked around the school. I wanted to show my name in the Parian News to everyone! I was very happy.’ 

Later, encouraged by her teacher, Ayubi started regularly writing stories and articles. Slowly, she earned a page in the newspaper dedicated to youth. It was here that she conducted interviews, reported on events, and honed her journalistic skills. She went on to work with a number of newspapers and media outlets and became a correspondent of Haqiqat-e Inquilab-e Saur.

Political upheaval, from the Soviet invasion to the rise of the Mujahideen, deeply impacted her personal life. By the early 1990s the country languished under a puppet government while warring factions of different ethnic groups and tribes vied for power.

Life under the Taliban was fraught with danger and fear. Having lost one of her brothers to war and her father to the Mujahideen, she had seen her family suffer. Her sister, a judge, implored Ayubi and her youngest brother to leave Afghanistan. ‘I have a very bad feeling’, she had said, recalls Ayubi. The siblings embarked on a perilous journey to Iran.

However, the winds of change eventually reached Afghanistan. With the fall of the Taliban and the emergence of a new government under Hamid Karzai in December 2001, Ayubi and her brother faced a tough decision. They had secured visas for New Zealand, a land of relative safety and stability. But their hearts were drawn to their homeland and they chose to return. Their decision was rooted in a belief in the possibility of positive change and a refusal to abandon their homeland during its time of need.

The Killid Group 

Around this time, civil society groups worked diligently to fulfil their desire to expand and mould the freedom that had been granted to them after a prolonged wait. An NGO, Development and Humanitarian Services for Afghanistan (DHSA), recognised the need for a media outlet to break the shackles of silence and censorship. It started The Killid magazine. ‘Killid’ means ‘key’; the name symbolised unlocking of the chains that had bound freedom of expression. Several months later, Mursal was a pioneer women’s magazine in Afghanistan.

These magazines acted as ‘WikiLeaks’ in the Afghan media landscape, providing weekly publications and pushing the boundaries of free expression. They circulated in substantial quantities, a notable achievement in a country where the media faced numerous challenges. Along with Killid radio, the cultural weekly, Sapida, Mursal and The Killid formed the ‘Killid Group’.

Boasting the first free radio service in Afghanistan, Ayubi saw hope in the Killid Group. In 2002, she joined the Killid Group as head of the radio station. No one had envisaged how quickly and how far the Killid Group would expand its reach and impact. Despite challenging security conditions, she and her colleagues ventured afield, setting up studios, recruiting and training staff, and overseeing programme production. Programmes in Pashto, Dari, Uzbek, Turkmen and Pashai were broadcast. Their tireless efforts resulted in 11 radio stations across the country.

‘Most of the time there were dangers. I could not sleep all night and was concerned about reprisals.’

At its peak, boasting a customer base of about 12 million, the Killid Group was no stranger to threats from all entities. From figures of authority to warlords, anyone accused of wrongdoing targetted the Killid Group.

‘It was my job to report and my right to defend my colleagues.’

The introduction of investigative journalism in Afghanistan was a game-changer. Hiring BBC-trained journalist Kate Clark to train a group of Afghan investigative journalists marked a critical milestone. However, this also came with risks. Their reporting on war crimes and corruption invited much backlash and threats to life. In response the Killid Group took security measures seriously. They fortified their office with high walls and implemented robust security protocols. Despite the dangers, Ayubi and her colleagues refused to back down. They documented every threat, archived their information meticulously, and strategised on how to protect themselves while continuing their vital work.

But why did she take such unimaginable measures at the risk of her life? 

Friends, family, and well-wishers around the world ask this. ‘The bravest are those who have the clearest vision’.  Like many, Ayubi and her team saw hope in Afghanistan and its people.

The trust that the Killid Group earned resulted from their dedication to bring the truth to the Afghan populace and shed light on the grim realities. In times of crisis, such as suicide attacks, the Killid Group’s rapid response and open discussions resonated deeply with the Afghan audience. Their ability to provide immediate and candid insights into unfolding events garnered thousands of calls, reinforcing the fact that people were not just listening but trusting them as a reliable source of information. ‘People had a lot of trust in us. They trusted us and listened to us and that was how we measured our success.’ 

Appropriately, Ayubi recalls this as the ‘golden period’ of Afghan media. There was media awareness, freedom, inclusivity, and courage. Afghanistan’s media landscape showcased a multifaceted composition. Governmental media, warlord-controlled outlets, truly independent media, and business-driven media all coexisted. While each had its own agenda, the truly independent media stood as a beacon of impartiality, aligning solely with the Afghan people’s interests.

Misplaced confidence and the fall of Kabul

‘We lost everything in one hour. We lost our country and our homeland. We lost our identity. We lost our colleagues, our office, our job, and everything.’

By 2021, Kabul had fallen. As a director of the Killid Group and DHSA, Ayubi saw events unfold agonisingly. All the progress seen in an era of democratic stability was eroding.

Ayubi believes that the US-Taliban deal in Doha was deeply flawed and undermined the Afghan government. The Taliban was emboldened. Corruption within Afghanistan worsened matters. The fall of Kabul and the Taliban’s resurgence marked a turning point in Afghanistan. Freedom of the people suffered a huge blow. In such a political landscape, free media is very hard to come by.

Those who worked in the free media space and were interested in reporting independently on matters of public interest were compelled to leave the country under the new regime, fearing for their lives.

So, what did this remarkable era of Afghan media achieve?

‘Hope.’

‘20 years is a very short time, especially in a country like Afghanistan, but people have now tasted democracy, they know what freedom of expression is.’ 

The brief period of democracy in Afghanistan brought about significant positive changes. With newfound freedom of expression, a robust media landscape, and progressive media laws, Afghan society underwent a transformation. The media’s role in exposing government corruption contributed to heightened public awareness about rights and the importance of transparent governance. Women, for the first time, felt like equal stakeholders in a deeply conservative society. These years created an informed and engaged citizenry, empowering people with knowledge. A generation began to yearn for something better. They see hope, stresses Ayubi. And that just might be enough to bring about change in the future.

Personally, she may not be actively involved in the daily working of the Killid Group but she continues to advocate the rights of the Afghan people in the West. With her speeches and lectures she keeps reminding the world of the inhuman conditions that her people have to endure under the Taliban. Even though she lives in LA now, it is her homeland that consumes her entire being every single day. ‘I miss everything about my home. My work, my office, my colleagues, and having editorial meetings, and reporting on news.’

Her cherubic face and bright demeanour give no inkling of the struggles and attacks she witnessed in her years as a journalist at home. The dreams of a free and democratic Afghanistan continue to fuel her activism. ‘I never lose hope. I will never lose hope.’ The words come from a woman with equanimity who has been through darkness while miraculously preserving her inner light.


About the author: Najiba Ayubi, an award-winning Afghan journalist and human rights activist, boasts over two decades of experience in media. As Managing Director of The Killid Group, she oversees influential magazines and radio stations, resisting calls for censorship. Co-founder of the Afghan Independent Media Consortium, she supports independent journalists. Ayubi received the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2013 and was honoured as one of Reporters Without Border’s 100 Information Heroes in 2014. A skilled trainer and documentary director, she’s dedicated to freedom of expression and women’s rights.


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