WASHINGTON – The Biden government says it is working to ensure safe passage for more than 500 Afghan reporters and their families who work for Voice of America and other US government-funded media outlets after recent attempts Days of US troop withdrawal failed to evacuate from Afghanistan.
Officials tried unsuccessfully to fly the Afghan journalists out on a US military or chartered aircraft, but the government remains determined to get them to safety, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“They have served the American people with their journalism, with their work. We are absolutely indebted to them,” Price said.
“We are working on all possible options to prevent their safe departure from Afghanistan,” Price said, adding that he would not share the advice given to Afghans to protect their security. The Biden administration has been harshly criticized by lawmakers and veterans groups for handling the evacuation from Kabul, and in particular the plight of Afghan journalists working for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, US government-funded news agencies.
The Afghan journalists were not immediately available to comment.
Broadcaster officials had repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of their journalists and senior administrators had assured news agency managers that the priority evacuation would be given to Afghan reporters and their families, said Jamie Fly, President and CEO of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE) / RL).
In the midst of the chaos at the airport, the US agency for global media (USAGM), which oversees the media, tried to organize charter flights for its journalists with Czech planes. But the Afghans were unable to enter at the airport’s overcrowded gates, and the Czech planes had to take off after waiting several hours on the runway, Fly said.
USAGM then chartered three planes to fly the Afghans to Spain. But an IS suicide attack outside the airport last Thursday led the US military to cancel all charter flights, according to Fly.
“I urge the Biden government to work swiftly with partners to create safe routes out of the country for anyone who wishes to take them with them and ensure the Taliban allow them to do so,” Fly told NBC News.
An evacuation attempt was successful. The Ukrainian government flew a number of Afghan journalists on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty on a military flight from Kabul, Fly called.
A USAGM spokesman said efforts had continued to help Afghan journalists.
“Our focus remains on keeping our people safe. USAGM continues to coordinate with the State Department and others. For many of our journalists and their families, it is a matter of life and death and their safe passage remains our top priority, ”the spokesman said.
Over the past few weeks, news agency executives have publicly and privately appealed to the Biden government to safeguard the safety of journalists threatened by the Taliban because of their ties to the United States.
USAGM’s incumbent chief Kelu Chao wrote a letter to President Joe Biden on August 23, saying that her staff could not enter the airport and warned that her staff were at risk from the Taliban’s retaliation.
“Hundreds of those left behind are particularly at risk of attack by the Taliban, including our journalists and a number of reporters who are widely visible and, along with their families, have received specific threats from militant groups in recent months,” Chelo wrote.
Five journalists from the agency have been killed in Afghanistan in recent years, including one in a targeted attack last year, Chelo wrote.
A group of 67 lawmakers from both parties wrote a private letter to the president on Aug. 25 asking him to take action to protect journalists from the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Afghan journalists from VOA and other US-funded media “have been and will be a target for the Taliban because of their association with the US government,” lawmakers wrote.
Joel Simon, executive director of the journalists’ protection committee, said it was “unacceptable” that the reporters were not evacuated.
“The US has a responsibility to get these journalists out of Afghanistan and to protect the independent media remaining in the country. This is the best way for the Biden government to show its support for freedom of the press, ”Simon told NBC News.
Abigail Williams contributed.