Features | Society | South Asia

Afghanistan’s Investigative Journalists

Daily newspaper Etilaat Roz makes an impact in the chaotic Afghan democracy.

By Ezzatullah Mehrdad for
Afghanistan’s Investigative Journalists

In this Jan. 18, 2015 photo, Afghan workers arrange copies of the 8 a.m. newspaper at a printing facility in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

While studying politics at Kabul University, Zaki Daryabi investigated the meal budget and the use of outdated oil in meal services for dorm students. After his report appeared in a weekly publication, a commission was tasked to look into the matter and eventually increased the quality of meal services for the students.

That experience inspired Daryabi to run his own newspaper. He printed the first edition of Etilaat Roz in January 2012, after graduating from university. Daryabi, however, saw his paper shut down by December of 2012 and his mother threw away the archived prints over the winter. The second time, he printed Etilaat Roz under a contract with a printing company, for which Daryabi’s team produced content. This time, Etilaat Roz lasted.

Etilaat Roz, or Daily Information, has established itself as a torchbearer investigative newspaper in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The daily hunts corruption, stirring what’s increasingly becoming a chaotic Afghan democracy, which suffers from ethnic frictions, messy elections, and insurgency.

In 2017, for example, Etilaat Roz exposed a deal between the Afghan government and a campaign sponsor of President Ashraf Ghani during the 2014 presidential race. Ghani had signed a deal to sell off real estate to the private company at a 90 percent discount. Following the newspaper’s report, the contract was halted.

In a country where power relies less on law and more on patronage, and power is distributed based on ethnicity, Etilaat Roz exposes the wrongdoings of politicians and holds them accountable. Etilaat Roz published a memo from a senior member of Ghani’s administrative office, highlighting how members of non-Pashtun ethnicities should be sidelined in the administration. That report began a public discussion over ethnic discrimination within the presidential palace.

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Etilaat Roz’s reports are not always appreciated. In July 2019, the paper published an investigative report on a contract between the Afghan defense ministry and a private company. The ministry had signed a contract for repairing electric generators with the private company, which calculated the cost of repairing a generator at twice that of purchasing a new generator.

Instead of the government reviewing the contract, however, Etilaat Roz and the reporters behind the story were introduced to the country’s attorney general for interrogation. The private company levied the accusation that Etilaat Roz’s reporters had asked for bribes from the company.

“We relied on ethical conducts of professional journalism to dig [up] truths and expose truths to the public,” said Elyas Nawandish, one of the two investigative reporters that worked on the story. “I published a report and I was introduced to the attorney general. The next time, I might be imprisoned. It’s a huge mental pressure,” added Nawandish, who is also online editor of Etilaat Roz.

Lately, Etilaat Roz, in partnership with The Daily Beast and The Bureau, published a report on Afghan politicians who had millions of dollars in assets in luxury Dubai real estate. One of politicians, Ahmad Zia Massoud, accused Etilaat Roz of being in a conspiracy with the presidential palace.

And two days before the 2019 presidential election, Etilaat Roz published a report on the use of code 91 to siphon off funds from the budget of the Afghan government, which is under the direct control of President Ghani. A spokesperson for Ghani called the report “political.”

“My colleagues were persuaded to accept bribes in a bid to walk away from reports and received threats,” said Jawid Maliki, editor-in-chief of Etilaat Roz. “Etilaat Roz is committed to defend democracy and human rights in Afghanistan” through investigative reports, feature articles, analysis pieces, and profiles of successful people who give hope to the country, Maliki said.

Leaking documents and hunting corruption has a downside: remaining on the brink of bankruptcy. During seven years of printing, Etilaat Roz has struggled to pay the rent, dig up $250 for printing, and pay staff members, who are editors and reporters at the same time. Publisher Daryabi often came to the crumbling office of the newspaper with a bundle of money, distributing it to the staff after months of delay.

“I am proud that I have contributed to the establishment of Etilaat Roz, though there were times that I did not receive a salary for nine months,” said Esmatullah Sorosh, a 27-year-old political reporter at Etilaat Roz, where he has worked for five years now. “Eitlaat Roz is an organization that Afghanistan today needs.”

Despite the financial burden, Etilaat Roz resisted the temptation of accepting funds from warlords and politicians, the government, and media companies. On one occasion, Etilaat Roz did accept $3,000 from former President Hamid Karzai. The money went to pay the rent as the staff of Etilaat Roz worked on a report about the patronage system and how the family networks within the government — including Hamid Karzai’s relatives — control public resources.

The newspaper has sought funds from various international nongovernment organizations, like Open Society, as its advertisement revenue covers only a portion of the cost of printing 3,000 papers four days a week and paying 30 staff members. But all the while, the daily has been rich in something else: ideas, words, and commitment.

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Difficult years of messy elections, both presidential and parliamentary, combined with uncertainty over a peace deal with the Taliban, call into question the role of news organizations like Etilaat Roz and whether they can make a real difference in Afghanistan’s politics. In September, the country held a presidential election; the election commission has not yet finalized the number of valid votes cast, much less declared a winner.

Presidential Candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who serves now as chief executive of the Afghan Unity Government formed in 2014 after a previous election dispute, questions the validity of a portion of 1.8 million votes. His rival Ghani’s team has been demanding the election results. Amrullah Saleh, Ghani’s first running mate, posted on social media that Abdullah’s team was meeting to plan a public demonstration over the election.

Saleh also claimed that he had an audio recording of the meeting, in which a senior member of Abdullah’s team had made racist remarks about the Hazaras, an ethnic group similar in appearance to East Asians. Saleh vowed to release the audio clip of the meeting for investigation.

However, Saleh did not release a new transcript or audio of the meeting, saying that the public could access the “jokes” made by Abdullah’s camp in Etilaat Roz’s article. Indeed, Etilaat Roz published an article on the meeting, including a reference to a senior member of Abdullah’s team’s racist joke that “Hazaras were late when noses were being distributed.”

News organizations like Etilaat Roz often remind politicians of the role of media in politics. Afghanistan’s news organizations, however, might be short-lived as the Afghan government and the Taliban have again intensified their efforts to make a peace accord to end the 18-year insurgency. The government and the Taliban recently exchanged prisoners in a bid to restart peace talks, after U.S. President Donald Trump had called off a potential peace deal with the Taliban group in September 2019.

The Afghan government demands a ceasefire before any peace talks, and the Taliban are waiting to finalize a deal with the United States first. But the issues at stake go beyond a ceasefire. One potential sticking point is the fate of media organizations.

During the Taliban government, sharia-based radio and publications were the sole media in the country. Now, nearly 60 TV channels broadcast Hollywood movies, Turkish series, and open debates. Around 300 publications, including Etilaat Roz, provide places for elites to publish their opinion pieces, openly disagree, and criticize the peace talks with the Taliban. The media boom in Afghanistan has been one of the major achievements of the post-Taliban era. The question of the media’s fate under a potential Taliban peace deal looms large.

“The real challenges lie ahead of us, and we are going to have more responsibility,” said publisher Daryabi. “Whatever the outcome of a peace deal will be, we will continue printing Etilaat Roz.”

Ezzatullah Mehrdad is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. His work has appeared in The Diplomat Magazine, South China Morning Post, Times of Israel, and many more.