Five years ago, Mortaza Rahimi decided to follow his dream and become a journalist in his home country of Afghanistan. But this dream would come at a high price.
Rahimi was just 20 years old when he began working as a reporter for the independent daily, Rah-e Nejat, a popular newspaper in Kabul. In just two short years, he became a well-known journalist for his reporting – both among the Afghan people, the authorities and the Taliban. And, it was not long after that that death threats became a part of his everyday life.
Journalism Is Not A Crime spoke to Mortaza Rahimi – now 25 years old – about embarking on a passion that would eventually force him to leave his family behind and seek out a safer life in exile.
What’s it like working as a journalist in Afghanistan?
Life in a war-torn country is difficult and dangerous in itself, but it is especially hard as a journalist. You run into many issues, such as a lack of job security and rampant lawlessness and crime.
In a country where guns have the final word, rather than the law, you must be prepared for anything, especially if you want to communicate the views of those who challenge government bullies or non-governmental armed groups. They pressure you in various ways and by various means to shut you up. So you can’t express your views freely. This is the situation for all journalists in Afghanistan, without exception. Those who can’t hack the pressure or don’t want to take any risks resort to self-censorship.
I encountered many problems from the very first day that I started working as a journalist in Afghanistan—from threats to unexplained temporary arrests. Sometimes the pressures of government officials forced me to self-censor and sometimes old generals directly threatened me with death if they disapproved of my reports. Terrorists and armed groups like the Taliban only added to these threats.
Were you aware of the dangers of being a journalist in Afghanistan?
Even before working as a professional journalist, I had a special interest in journalism and writing. I started a blog before most Afghans knew anything about blogging. So I chose this profession even though I knew it was a dangerous one. I believe that journalism is the most powerful tool to create communication between leaders and the people. I belong to an ethnic group that has always been subjected to deprivations and discrimination. That’s why I wanted to convey the voices and wishes of the people, especially those who belong to deprived minorities, to the Afghan leaders – through journalism. With this motive, the potential dangers didn’t matter.
What forced you into exile?
I was too fearless in my writings and spoke too freely. I simply wrote the truth. Of course, it had its own rewards: I advanced rapidly and became a well-known journalist.
But the threats became much more serious as I wrote more and more stories exposing the legal violations of politicians, crimes by the Taliban against the people and the discrimination of specific ethnic groups in Pakistan. The threats became so serious I eventually had to leave Afghanistan to continue my journalistic activities – and to save my life.
What kind of threats did you receive?
For journalists in Afghanistan, threats are a part of everyday life. The government, warlords and armed groups threaten journalists so much it becomes a matter of routine, so the journalists ignore the threats and continue their work. It’s normal for a journalist in Afghanistan to receive 10 threatening phone calls a month. It was the same for me. But sometimes these threats are serious. And it means that some journalists who’ve not taken the threats seriously are no longer among us. They lost their lives.
Likewise, I didn’t take threats over the phone or social media seriously until one morning when I found a threatening letter by my door bearing the seal and signature of the Taliban. The letter accused me of being an infidel and said my writings were against Islam and the Muslim mujahedeen. The letter said they would kill me as soon as they had the opportunity. It also threatened my family. I knew then that it had become serious. They’d found out where I lived and had been to my house.
Because of this increasing risk, I was forced to leave my country. I thought, at the very least, I could be sure that in Germany I wouldn’t be in danger and I’d be able to enjoy the freedom of expression that was taken away from me in Afghanistan. But even in Germany, once in a while, I receive insults and threats through social media.
Unfortunately, my parents and two brothers, who are in Afghanistan, still frequently receive threats. It reached a point where my family had to leave Kabul and move to Kunduz in the north. But in June, the situation in Kunduz worsened, and now my family is forced to constantly move from one part of Kabul to another because of the threats.
What’s the situation of freedom of expression in Afghanistan, and what are its prospects?
Freedom of expression is still an experiment in Afghanistan, and it has yet to be institutionalized. As a result, journalists are still in constant danger. It will take a long time for freedom of expression to be truly institutionalized in Afghanistan, and unfortunately this could claim many victims. Since 2001, 41 journalists and media activists have lost their lives in Afghanistan.
How is Germany different from Afghanistan?
Here I experience no limitations to freedom of expression. But there are other issues that pain me as an exiled journalist: homesickness and loss of identity. Throughout the three years I have lived in Germany, I have constantly fought homesickness and I’m still trying to recover my lost identity but I have no idea when I’ll find it.
Do you still write?
Yes, I still write—even more than before and with more peace of mind. My writings are published in various Kabul newspapers, and sometimes BBC Persian. I’m also editor-in-chief of the news website Salsal News, which I put together with three other journalists.