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Episode 6 ● Part 1

Amie Ferris-Rotman

Sahar Speaks: Empowering Afghan women to share their stories

Amie Ferris-Rotman has spent years of her journalism career working as a foreign correspondent. So when the London-based reporter refers to the press’ habit of parachuting white, mostly male reporters into developing countries as “a bit faded” and “old-fashioned in its approach,” it’s obvious that she means it. And despite the fact that journalists in first world countries are still fighting for a fair, livable wage, Ferris-Rotman perceives the exclusion of local reporters as detrimental to the quality and breadth of stories that make their way out of these developing and often war-torn regions.

Sahar Speaks is Ferris-Rotman’s answer to the sad fact that Afghan women are severely underrepresented in the media both locally and internationally. The program’s stated goal is “to train, mentor, and publish the work of Afghan female journalists in major global news outlets.” The participating journalists will publish their work in the Huffington Post and, ideally, apply their new skills and confidence to future journalistic endeavors.

In exchange, the world gets a more thoughtful, thorough picture of what’s happening in the corners of the world that are intensely scrutinized and then often largely forgotten. Rather than turn her attention elsewhere, as the international media and governments supplying aid have done, Ferris-Rotman is using her privilege, power, and skill to once more turn toward Afghanistan, and the voices least frequently heard there.

Update:Read stories published by Sahar Speaks participants: saharspeaks.news.

Photo Credit: Joel van Houdt

About Amie
Foreign Correspondent and Founder of Sahar Speaks

Amie Ferris-Rotman’s career as a journalist has taken her all over the world. As a foreign correspondent, she’s written about energy and politics in Moscow, the war in Ukraine, and the earthquake in Nepal and written for the likes of the Atlantic, Politico, Vogue, and Foreign Policy. But it was her two years as a senior correspondent in Afghanistan that helped shape the British-American journalist’s present efforts to empower female journalists as the founder of Sahar Speaks. Her professional and social efforts were recognized in 2013 and 2014 when she was awarded the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, and in the spring of 2016 when she won a Georgina Henry Women in Journalism Award for Innovation.

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The Interview

Why Afghanistan?

Why did I go to Afghanistan? I suppose I wanted to go there because it was the height of the U.S.-led war. I wanted to participate in a major news story. I’m a total news hound, so I was drawn to that. I was in Russia, which had its own 10-year disastrous war in Afghanistan. I knew about that, and it seemed kind of like a natural next step.
Initially I went out there for six weeks. In those days, we had all sorts of reporters coming in and out for Reuters, and [I] loved it, I loved everything about it. I thought it was insanely interesting. I also loved the access journalists had. In Russia, you don’t have a lot of access to officials. In Afghanistan, they let all the journalists have great access to top officials, so it was brilliant. It was a great story.

I think there was a lot of access for journalists because there was propaganda involved. I first went there in 2011, during Obama’s surge. A lot of attention was being paid to the country. It was in the spotlight. I think that the U.S., the U.K., NATO countries — the main players that were there — wanted press. They wanted good press. They were spending literally a trillion dollars on this war, so it made sense that the journalists were given this access.

I also think it’s because it was a very small, protected situation, unlike being in Russia. Afghanistan … didn’t have a lot of sovereignty. It was an occupation of sorts, so there was a lot more control over what was going on.

Amie’s desire to travel

When I was 11, I moved to the states from London. My mum’s American and my dad’s English. I guess that juxtaposition, being abroad, made me want to travel. Even though they speak the same language, they’re totally different worlds, and it was quite difficult growing up across the pond, initially. I think that’s what instilled in me this kind of innate interest or obsession with other cultures. I love traveling. I’ve always wanted to be abroad. I fell in love with Russian as a language and as a culture, as a teenager. It was always a place I wanted to go to. Then, from Russia, I started going to other countries, including Afghanistan, because they have a connection. That’s basically how I got into it.

What is Sahar Speaks?

Sahar Speaks is a project to train, mentor, and publish the work of Afghan female journalists in major global news outlets. So far, despite 14 years of the war, despite the billions of dollars spent on gender training and female empowerment, there’s not a single Afghan woman working for any of the foreign news outlets in Kabul. It’s absolutely outrageous.
We’ve just selected the pilot round of participants. Almost four times as many people applied as we have spaces. We had to narrow it down. We’re going to begin the training next month in Kabul, and then their work is going to be published throughout the spring in The Huffington Post. It’ll be the first time Afghan female journalists are consistently published by a major news outlet in the West.

I became aware of the lack of female journalists in the Kabul foreign media scene when I went to a rock concert. These were different days in Kabul, and there was an all-female rock concert organized by an Australian man who worked in an NGO. It was a great idea. Afghan society is very strictly divided according to genders, so this was a rock concert by women, for women. Only female journalists were allowed to film it.

I was there for Reuters, but we had no female photographer, we had no female camera crew. It wasn’t just us. The BBC was in the same situation, the New York Times was in the same situation, AP, everybody. That’s when it really struck me that, with the ban on the male press, no one ended up covering it.

I found it a very poignant metaphor. Here was this first-ever female rock concert in Kabul, organized for all these women, and loads of women showed up, Afghan women. Screaming teenagers, all different walks of life, enjoying this rock concert, and no one was there to document it. This kind of became, in my mind, symbolic of Afghan women’s rights, and their lives in a way. If their work is not relayed, and their voice, and their words, then we won’t know about it, and it will go unnoticed, in the way the rock concert did.

That was in, I think, in April 2012. The kernel of the idea was in my head. Then I went to Stanford. I was a journalism fellow through 2013-2014, and that’s when I developed the idea into a reality.
At Sahar Speaks, we’re interested in helping and promoting the work of Afghan female journalists, promoting their capabilities and what they can do. It’s not citizen journalism, it’s actually taking journalism students or journalists, and giving them confidence, getting them published in the Huffington Post, abroad, giving them a global reach. To do that, we’re going to have training, very specific gender-specific training, lessons on how to pitch to the Huffington Post in the future, how to pitch to the New York Times, how to pitch to a major foreign news outlet. And the training will be for only women, of course.

I think that’s what’s been missing from the media landscape over the last 14 years, 15 years in Afghanistan. There has been women-only training, but it hasn’t focused on getting them an external reach, a global reach. A lot of the Afghan female stories stay within the region. This is wonderful for the Afghan media scene, of course. I think the Afghan media scene is one of the great success stories of the war, if not, perhaps, one of the only true success stories. In order for the world to hear their stories, it needs to be more global. It needs to have a global reach, as indeed Afghan men’s stories do. There are plenty of Afghan men who work in every single foreign news outlet in Kabul.

What we’re going to do after the training is pairing each participant with a mentor, who is an experienced female international correspondent. We’ve got women already lined up from various places. Bloomberg, The Hindustan Times, Buzzfeed, CNN, all over the world, and they’re going to guide them and help them through their stories, which will then be published. They’ll also answer questions, offer peer-to-peer support, and have a private space where they can actually have dialogue and have their questions answered.
The problem that Sahar Speaks is solving is the lack of Afghan women’s stories in the global media. There are almost none which are being reported by Afghan women. There are plenty being reported by foreign women, such as I did, and foreign men, and Afghan men, but what a lot of people don’t understand is, Afghanistan, as I said earlier, is a very strict society. It’s very patriarchal. The genders are separated, so most Afghan women cannot speak to most Afghan men, and vice versa.

You can’t send a team of men out there to interview a bunch of Afghan women and talk about their lives. All sorts of things are happening in their lives, from their health to being widowed, — there are actually some really interesting grassroots war widow groups. All sorts of stories are coming out. Harassment, access to justice … Men and foreigners will not get the accurate story if they go out there and try to speak to the women. By having these Afghan women journalists actually going out there and getting the story, you’re getting the other half of the story, and it’s being told on a global level. That’s what we’re solving.

Success for Sahar Speaks is having these women’s stories told to the world. That sounds very simple, but I’ve always maintained that this is a simple project. It has a very simple aim. I’m shocked that it hasn’t been done before. If we can get a good group of women’s stories from Afghan female journalists up on the Huffington Post, if they’re being talked about, shared, tweeted, and are being used as conversation points around the world, that’s success. Additionally, success is if some of the women then get employed, or do internships, or work in some capacity for the foreign news outlets in Kabul. Then we will have done a complete circle and they will then be working where they should be working, or where they want to be working.

The problem with foreign reporters

I obviously have nothing against foreign women reporting in the world. I’m a foreign reporter, and I believe that we do a very good job, but that’s not what this is about. This is about plugging into another part of society, and seeing what they can come up with as well. It’s their culture, their country.

I also think this can be applied on a broader sense, to men as well as women. I think that we don’t use enough local journalists, around the world, and that goes for everyone. I think the old method of parachuting in, usually white people, usually white men, but also women, from abroad into developing countries and having them report, I just think that’s getting a bit faded. It’s getting a bit old-fashioned in its approach. I think it’s a really bad message to not utilize local press, who are extremely good at their jobs and deserve to be promoted, and deserve to be telling stories about their own countries.

I definitely believe that the local press, in every country, needs to be supported, and needs to be implemented if it’s not, and also needs to be represented globally. I’ve dubbed it “white savior journalism,” which is this very colonial approach to journalism which we’ve had since day one of our profession, which is sending in white people, usually white men. Now I am a white person who has reported abroad, so I’m not trying to point fingers at anybody specifically. We’re all involved in this. I find it, quite simply, uninteresting to see the news relayed that way. When I see a local journalist relay news about their country, I’m always kind of like, “Ah!” I’m always more interested in it, because they have local knowledge, local context, and because they’re there. They’ve lived it their whole life. They’re in the pulse.

There are negatives to this. A lot of people have told me, and it’s a very good point, that you need foreigners to have a fresh perspective, and I think that’s very valid. I also believe that about beats. I think people need to not stay in the same beat forever, because they simply can’t see things that other, new journalists see. I think it is very important to turn over. Of course, I’m not saying only have local journalists that cover the story forever, but I definitely think we need more than we have right now, because right now it’s pretty bad. It’s also expensive, how we’re doing it. It’s a bad model.

What challenges do female Afghan reporters face?

The challenges Afghan women are facing as journalists today vary. There’s loads of them. Human Rights Watch put out a very lengthy report at the end of last year, saying Afghan journalists are facing more threats than ever before, and that’s women and men. They added a very crucial paragraph saying that, for women, the threats are considerably more. Considerably more in number, but also in severity.

The main problem for Afghan journalists in general, but especially women, is security. How are they actually going to go out and report, and how is it going to be safe? Afghanistan is experiencing a power vacuum at the moment. Foreign troops have mostly left. The new government is struggling. The police and army that have been trained by the international forces for the last 14 years are struggling. There’s a record number of civilian casualties. So, security.
Another issue for women, specifically, is, they’re not taken very seriously, so it’s very difficult for them to interview ministers, who are almost exclusively men, or other officials. Although I do think also that’s less of a problem in the sense that they have access to women’s stories, so it’s a whole different layer of society they’re dealing with. That, of course, is a problem if they want to work in mainstream media.

Security, harassment, being taken seriously, and also being able to work in a place where their voice is unrestricted. It’s a culture which relies largely on word-of mouth. There’s a lot of gossip as well. It’s very difficult for women to go out and work if certain members of their family disapprove, and often that is the case.

I’ve seen this with women who have applied for Sahar Speaks. There are women who, some of the men in their family support them, and others do not, so they have to kind of play this balance. How do they report, making sure that they’re not seen in a certain place, or with certain people? They’ve got to constantly juggle that. That’s also a reason why I’m a strict believer in giving them stipends on Sahar Speaks. They’re all getting salaries. I think that’s extremely important for them, but also for the men in their lives. They have to okay this. We can’t go into this as we went into a lot of gender development programming in Afghanistan with our Western ideals. It doesn’t work like that. You can’t just go into a country like Afghanistan and say, “Oh, here’s democracy, and you have rights,” overnight. It’s stupid, and it’s proven it doesn’t work.

Things have changed, they do have more rights. Things are better, but it’s very slow. You have to get the men on board. I think that’s crucial.

Challenges all female reporters face

There are many challenges for women working in journalism today. I do think it’s interesting to note that women in journalism have problems globally, and that’s something I’ve really noticed in my various assignments around the world, whether it’s in Nepal, whether it’s in California, or whether it’s in London, or Russia. In number, there’s more and more of us, but in terms of who gets the top bylines, who’s on the front page, who does the main stories, who does the more interesting stories, and who gets better paid, it’s still very male dominated. That’s across the board, whether you’re in the West, or whether you’re in a developing country. I think it’s appalling. I’m very angered by this, and I’m fed up of it. I think most women are fed up of it.

In the developing countries around the world, female journalists have a much tougher time than their male counterparts, and a much tougher time than their female counterparts in the West. They’re dealing with, often, much more family pressures, which we don’t understand or even think about. It’s very normal in the West to want to be a journalist. It’s very normal to want to be educated as a woman. They have these additional problems that they’re having to deal with.

They also have security issues. Wherever there is insecurity, there’s more violence towards women. That’s been proven by the U.N., over and over again. Any war-like situation, any situation of social and political upheaval, which is a lot of the world at the moment, puts women journalists more at risk than men. Of course, they’re more at risk to sexual violence than men as well, although of course, men are also at risk for sexual violence. They just basically have a tougher time, but I have been surprised and impressed that when reporting everywhere, I find local female journalists who are really, really kickass, and impressive. They’re extremely impressive, and get stories that the men don’t get, which is what, I think, is their selling point, and why they’re crucial, necessary in any society.

I think things are getting better for female journalists around the world. There are more initiatives out there to help them. There are more grants which are becoming female specific. They’re still far and few between, but they exist in a way they didn’t exist when I was starting out. Feminism, the F-word, is increasingly debated, which I find tiresome. I think it’s a very basic definition. However, the fact it is increasingly debated, I suppose is good, that it’s in the public consciousness. I think more media, especially new media, young media, is addressing feminism. They’re appointing more women in senior editorial roles, and also they’re doing more stories about women’s rights. Young media, and social media, as well, has contributed to this enormously.

Social media has been amazing. All sorts of women’s rights groups, the kind of anti-women-shaming groups that have come about on social media have been extremely powerful and effective tools. There’s a lot more conversation to do with gender, politics, and how women are treated now in the media than there was. When I started out, there was no social media. It didn’t actually exist, so that’s been all very positive, but what we have seen is, it hasn’t moved to the legacy media yet, the big guys, and I think this is a huge problem, one that I haven’t really seen much movement in, and something that makes me quite angry. It’s still seen as an experimental new thing to discuss women’s rights, and have female reporters everywhere, yet it hasn’t moved to the big names yet.
I hope the future of news will be more diverse in the topics we cover, and more diverse according to who is reporting it.

I always think of the success of Orange Is The New Black as a perfect example to what I think needs to happen to the news industry. That show came out and everyone realized it was so interesting. It was like this crazy big hit, and it was a big hit because it involved all these lives, and all these people who we’re not used to seeing on mainstream TV. The lives of women, women who were in prison, women who have been sexually abused, black women, Hispanic women, white women who are broke, white women who are posh but in prison, and lesbians. It kind of exploded, and involved all these people that people are not used to seeing, and it was extremely popular, because people are interested in that. That’s how I see the news changing as well, and I hope it does become more like that.

The importance of paying female journalists for their work

[Afghanistan is] within one of the 20 poorest countries in the world, despite the war, despite a trillion dollars poured into it. It is still extremely poor, and money talks, and money goes a long way, but also money is security. By giving salaries, or stipends, to the participants, I think it makes it that much easier for them to tell their husbands, their brothers, their fathers, and maybe some disapproving female members as well, although they have less power. To tell them, “Look, I’m going out. I may be working for the Huffington Post, I may be working for this Western outlet, but look at the money I’m bringing in.” That goes a long way. You get a lot of approval. Fair enough, right?

They should be paid for their work. All journalists should be paid for their work. We’re reaching a point globally where journalists are expected to work, increasingly for free, or for tuppence, at least in the text field and photography. Because they’re Afghan women in a poor country doesn’t mean they should work for free either. It’s a profession.

It’s very difficult in Afghanistan for women to work without the approval of their families. Work, being educated, doing anything outside of the traditional role is hard. That is why, especially in journalism, they have to have supporters from the men, the power makers, the decision makers, the power brokers in their family, so, their husbands, their brothers, maybe even their sons, although most of the participants are quite young, and their fathers. They need to have that sort of support. There is varying support. I noticed a lot of the support may not just be approval, but some of the men are also genuinely concerned about their welfare.

I noticed that quite a few of the participants who applied to Sahar Speaks had sent their applications from a male family member’s email account. That had surprised me. Initially, I was slightly horrified, thinking, is the situation so bad that they’ve got to seek permission in every corner of their life? But then I thought, actually, this could go either way. This is perhaps positive, because it means the men are protecting them and also are totally down with what’s going on, and they’re totally involved.

In fact, one of the male family members replied when I sent out the congratulatory emails yesterday, and said, “I can’t wait to tell my sister this amazing news.” I kind of thought, “Okay, this is great. These are family members who are simply being protective, which you need to be, in a place like Afghanistan, of what their women are doing.” It could go either way. Maybe they’re being controlling and monitoring in a way that is not pleasant to the women, I don’t know. All I do know is you can’t go into a country like Afghanistan and pretend to empower all the women without involving the men. I think that holds true for any form of feminism. Same for the suffragette movement in the U.K. and the U.S. You have to have the men on board, otherwise things won’t progress.

How journalism can make the world, and women’s lives, better

When I lived in Afghanistan … it was a very strange sensation to be in a country where I was from one of the countries that had invaded this country that I was in. I feel that the development of media has been such a success in Afghanistan, and that we—the international community and the international press—owe it to Afghan women to let their stories be told globally as well. It is two fold. It’s for them, the Afghan women will benefit, and the international community will benefit from this endeavor, from Sahar Speaks. It’s like how any press functions in any country. It should be global. It should make a difference. It should be a talking point. It should be part of democracy. Hopefully, it will tick all those lovely boxes.

That is what journalism’s about. I’m a passionate journalist. That’s what actually gets me very excited about this project, is the idea that these stories are going to be up in the Huffington post, the biggest news site in English in the world, and they’re going to be shared, and tweeted, and they’re going to be talking points from Afghan women, not from the foreign press, or from Afghan men.
I made all of the participants and applicants give their ideas for a story, and the stories they’ve come up with are brilliant. Really hard-hitting stories about access to justice, inheritance, all sorts of really important things that they want to relay to the world. Hopefully, we’ll all benefit.

I think it’s important to empower female journalists anywhere, all over the world, not least Afghanistan, where they suffer enormous injustices. The situation for women in media right now is reaching a critical juncture. I mean, globally, there was a lot of outrage two days ago when the British Press Awards nominations were announced. One fifth of the nominees are women. Actually, less than a fifth. There’s five categories where there’s no women at all, including feature writing, which I just think is appalling, and totally inaccurate. It doesn’t reflect the industry at all. I have a very global outlook about how women in journalism should be represented. The voice they’re providing, and also the opportunities they should be given.

I believe that should take place in Britain, where I live and where I’m from, but also in America, where it’s very bad, and all over the world. It’s especially important, of course, in Afghanistan, because it’s a country notorious for its poor treatment of women, for the low status of women, how women are treated. It remains, according to the E.U., one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. That’s measured according to health, access to justice, access to education, and freedom from violence and oppression.

Having female journalists is key. It gives them a voice. It also gives an idea, to the world, of what’s happening to them and what they’re interested in. It’s part of a fully functioning society, and of course, women are half the world, half of any country, half of any, usually, any family. I mean if they’re producing them normally, if there’s no femicide involved. They’re not going anywhere, you can’t deny the role of women in media.

Sahar Speaks is going to produce stories of which we already are obviously aware of, the maltreatment of women in Afghanistan, but it’s also going to create and produce stories that we don’t know about in the West. One of the themes which I think is really interesting, which, it has been covered somewhat by BBC, who have done a good job of it, but except for BBC, it hasn’t really been covered that much, which is the war widows’ grassroots networks.

There’s loads and loads of war widows. How are they coping? They don’t receive much help from the government, but they’ve actually set up these support groups. These are women who’ve lost their men to the Taliban, and they’ve come together to help each other. It’s kind of a wonderful story of human resilience and human empathy, and also the effects of war, which we don’t usually see portrayed. That’s a main theme.

Also, there are a lot of stories to do with access to inheritance, and women’s legal means of actually acquiring wealth. I think this is a very interesting story and one we don’t really think about at all, globally. When we think of Afghanistan, we think of war, and gore, and bombs, and of course, in any war, in any conflict, in any country, there’s so much more to it than that. There’s also the social side. There’s the impact on how people actually live, and of course, the women often fare worse, and in Afghanistan, definitely fare worse.

Now that the foreign troops have essentially left, have officially left, and Western support is leaving as well, Afghan women are really fighting hard to actually maintain the rights that they were meant to be given over the last 14 years. I think we’re going to focus on that as well, but again, the stories that the women come up with are the stories they come up with. I’m an editor in the sense that I’ve selected them, but I haven’t told them what to do, so these are the themes that they’re interested in, which I think is really interesting.

I must say, I was surprised by how many women did apply. So many that we actually had difficulties choosing, proper difficulties that were hair-pulling moments of trying to choose the top candidates. I was really impressed by how many photographers there were. Photography in general tends to be male dominated. I don’t think I ever saw a female photographer … Actually, I saw one the entire time, who’s Afghan, I mean, in Afghanistan.

We got loads of photographers. One of them had a brilliant series that she’d come up with, which she gave as her example in her portfolio. She followed a woman around who was a successful Afghan business woman in her kind of daily life, but also, it beautifully captured the safety she has to create all the time, the kind of safety networks, because she’s been targeted. She captured her in her professional sense, when she was extremely confident and full of life, and kind of bossing people around, and that’s how she got to become a huge success story, but she also captured the vulnerability of how this woman actually has to kind of hide herself when she goes shopping. She’s a public figure, she’s been targeted by the Taliban.

For this young female photographer to capture that, I was really impressed by it, and I thought, “What a brilliant way into this woman’s life, that we don’t necessarily see, we almost never see when men are shooting that, simply because they’re not given access.” It’s nothing against men, but they’re not given the access into that world. This woman followed her over months, including into her home, into very intimate settings, and it was wonderful to actually see Afghan women in a normal way.

You do see these strong leaders, and then you see the burqa-clad, impoverished victims, and I think this kind of dichotomy is … I find it really annoying, and really boring, and grating and very false, and very insulting to these women. They’re not either strong and crazy and trying to run for president or in their burqa, and illiterate. They’re people, they’re very complex, and there’s loads in between. That gets me really fired up and really angry, but also really excited when I see such great applicants, and that they’re going to actually make them more textured, make them more realistic, because that’s what journalism’s about, what it should be about.

What’s going on in Afghanistan right now

Afghanistan is trying very hard to stand on its own two feet. The donor fatigue for Afghanistan is really high. I was shocked when I saw the other day that $10 billion had been pledged for Syria, which I think is wonderful. I just thought, “Wow, that’s obviously where the new interest is, of the world.” I’m not saying it’s not right, or wrong. Of course it’s right. We should always, I believe, help those who are worse off than us, but there’s almost no money being committed for Afghanistan. There’s a very little amount, and compared to 2010, which was the peak year of aid, almost nothing is being committed.

It’s heartbreaking, and it’s sad, but also, people are fed up. They are tired of corruption, they’re tired of not seeing results. The Norwegians have done a very interesting job of actually withdrawing aid until they saw specific pledges coming to reality, including enshrining women’s rights, which is in the constitution. Yet, we haven’t seen any progress. I think Britain and the U.S. should do similarly with their now quite small pledges.

[Afghanistan] is on its own, and it’s becoming really dangerous. There’s also new factors which are happening there. ISIS has entered Afghanistan. I can’t even stress how awful that will be if that continues and if it becomes a real threat. They make the Taliban look kind of like teddy bears.

Afghanistan’s media scene has been a veritable success story of the foreign intervention in Afghanistan, without a doubt. It’s been mostly supported by the U.S., but everyone has pitched in, all the countries of N.A.T.O. which participated in the war, and also the neighbors: Pakistan, Iran, have also helped bolster and create a relatively large free press. Afghanistan has an estimate of 9,000 journalists, 2,000 of whom are women. That press saturation is huge. That’s the same press saturation we have in the United States, in terms of journalists versus general population. That’s great. I can’t say enough good stuff about it, except for I wish there were women working in the foreign newsrooms in Kabul. The Afghan press scene is very, very impressive, not to make a pun.

They’re also increasingly under threat by, namely, the Taliban, who have come out with statements specifically targeting the press in recent months. This is extremely disappointing, and rather upsetting. Unfortunately, the Taliban have decided, in recent months, to target the Afghan media scene, much to my utter dismay and incomprehension, because it does nothing but good, and can be also good for any future form of power-sharing government. It is the media, after all.

Afghan media is facing one of its biggest challenges since it was revitalized 14 years ago after a long period of darkness and war. It’s something to watch. I hope it will continue to thrive, because it’s been absolutely amazing. If you look at the stories they’ve reported on, how successful they’ve become, the scope, the professionalism. It was basically a media scene that was created, essentially, overnight, and it’s thriving, and that’s great. Every country should have that.

The Afghan media scene was essentially created out of a vacuum, out of darkness and literally, almost nothing. It had a thriving media scene before the recent troubles beset the country, which was essentially started by the Soviet invasion in 1979, which has set the last 35 years of trouble and turmoil for the country. They did have established journalists before, they had great newspapers. All of it went away during the Soviet occupation. Then there was a civil war which basically decimated anything that was left, and then that was replaced by the Taliban, who, famously had one radio station called Radio Mullah. As you can imagine from the name, it wasn’t very wide ranging in its coverage.

In a similar way that we have legacy media, and we have many journalists who’ve emulated or tried to become what their parents became, Afghanistan of course has the same. Not many, but some of the top journalists today want to become journalists in the new Afghanistan because their parents had been successful journalists in the 60s and 70s. It is great to see the tradition following on.

The future for Sahar Speaks

The plan is to continue the project. It was always designed to be a model, which can be replicated around Afghanistan, but actually I’ve received some interest from neighboring countries. There’s been interest in Iran, India, and Pakistan, but we’ll see. This is the inaugural round, which I’m about to embark on, the pilot round which I received seed funding for. Then I’ll need to fundraise again, which I’m going to do through CrowdRise, on the Huffington Post site, and then hopefully we can replicate it. I would love to get women in other cities. Right now, we’re focusing on English speaking, Kabul-based women, so it’s a very small sliver of society, and I’m fully aware that it is a unique and a very small part of what Afghanistan can offer, but, you know, baby steps. It would be great to have other cities. Herat, Mazar … It would be fantastic to do it in Kandahar, although, again, the security situation in Afghanistan is pretty bad at the moment, so we’ll see. Hopefully it will be replicated. That’s the plan.

About the Sahar Speaks applicants

They’re pretty young. Well, because almost all are unmarried, and that is a problem, because when they’re married, even if they’re journalists, they often have to leave their work. It’s kind of like how we lived in the ’50s, I guess. If you got married, you had to give up your profession, which is sad, but I’m not trying to change their culture. A lot of young women applied, although they also live differently than us. They finish university by 20. It’s a different education system. A 35-year-old woman there would be, how we view a 50-year-old woman. They have their kids very early. We have some in their 30s. We’ve got a pretty good range. We’ve got one who is 18. She’s a journalism student, and then we’ve got two in their 30s.

Time and time again, throughout this whole process, coming up with the idea for it, creating it, and then getting funding, and now implementing it, which I’m doing, I’ve had a range of emotions. Obviously, it’s been a roller coaster. Emotions going from kind of feeling very protective of my project, but also the women, protective in the sense that I’m very cautious of being that kind of the “white savior” that I hate so much. I don’t want to be caught into that kind of trap of giving these women a platform and encouraging them, only for them to get into more danger, or get more unwanted attention. That is something I’ve grappled with since the beginning. It’s been up and down.

Obviously, now that so many applied, and that we’ve chosen the candidates, now I actually feel at rest, and I feel great now, because all my fears have kind of been quelled in the sense that they are stronger than I thought. It is their country. They know how to deal with the security a lot better than I do. They applied. No one’s pulled the wool over their eyes. I feel a lot better now, and I’m excited. I just can’t wait for their stories to come out.

On the future of news

When thinking about the future of media and news, I can’t help but be positive. I’m a journalist, I want to be a journalist forever.I think journalism provides an essential function to any normal country which has a democracy to support, or any government. Obviously, I’m positive.

I do also think we’re in transition though. Everyone talks about it. We’re currently experiencing the death of print, whether people like it or not. Not the death of books, which is good. That’s made a comeback, but we are experiencing the death of print journalism. Obviously we have to have journalism, and we have to have good content, so we have to come out of this, unless we all become strangely stupid overnight and uninterested in the world, which is not going to happen. Things will change. It’s going to take a while, and it’s going to be painful. We’re going to see some massive closures of print versions, absolutely.

I think we’re going to see a lot of crossovers in journalism, going forward. I think journalism is going to become more entrepreneurial. There are a lot more self-starters out there. Journalism isn’t like it used to be in the sense that you learn the skill, and then you join a company, and you work your way up. It doesn’t seem to work like that anymore. It seems that people are going to have to think more on their feet, be more innovative. I know that’s the buzzword in journalism, but it is true, as well. People do need to be innovative. They need to come up with new ways to sell themselves, to sell their abilities. Photographers are increasingly moving to doing film, as well. Print journos are increasingly having to do photos. I don’t particularly agree with that, because I think everyone has their own skill that they excel at, but unfortunately that is what’s happening, so people are having to learn how to do different formats.

Also, becoming entrepreneurial doesn’t mean making lots of money or creating a business, which is often what people think. It means being innovative, and coming up with new ideas, so if you want to create a new journalism project, go for it. Create a new way of being in the journalism world through that, do it that way. People are not having traditional roles as they were.

Talking about what’s at stake with the future of journalism, I think the main thing that’s at stake is accuracy. That’s something that is extremely important to journalism, obviously, but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t do it. Accuracy costs money. Being an accurate reporter involves people being properly trained, it involves journalists being properly paid, and it involves proper editing. This doesn’t come overnight, and it doesn’t come from people who are fresh out of high school. You’ve got to have professionals. If we don’t pay the industry properly, and have support schemes for journalists, or journalists who are coming out of university and want to get involved, then we’re at risk of losing accuracy, because then things are produced quicker.

People are also used to receiving their content in a really quick fashion right now, and it’s very difficult to make sure things are accurate. When I was at Stanford, lots of people were creating accuracy projects, which, actually, I thought was fascinating. Ways to actually get a computer to do a human job, although the computer, of course, costs lots of money, so we still need to invest in journalism, but actually getting computers to have algorithms to see how accurate certain amounts of data or paragraphs were. If we lose accuracy, we lose journalism, and I think that’s a pretty heavy statement, but it’s also true. You can’t have accuracy if a bunch of people are running around, doing stuff for free in a half-assed way. Excuse my French.

Advice to her 18-year-old self

If I had to give advice to my 18-year-old self, I probably would have told myself to be more involved in my university newspaper, actually. I was involved in it. I was a restaurant reviewer. I love food, and that was also a way to get free meals in London when you’re at uni.

In retrospect, I would have told the 18-year-old self to be more involved. Also, I didn’t know I wanted to be a journalist then. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but journalism was not … it was there, but wasn’t very specific until I finished university. Then I started out as a business journalist, and then I kind of thought, I wish I’d pursued that more, and didn’t just do restaurant reviews to get free food, honestly.

For journalists aspiring to be foreign correspondents, I would give them the advice to tackle everything, and I really mean everything. To not only go for stories that you think will get you a foreign correspondent job. That’s not how it works. I started out as a steel journalist, reporting on the steel industry, and while it was very dry, and lots of data crunching, I really think it actually prepared me to be a foreign correspondent. It really did. It taught me to make stories out of dry as dust material, and create stories that were engaging enough to be sold, for people to actually pay for, and to be interesting enough for me to write. It was a great skill, because when you’re a foreign correspondent, it’s not all glamour and gore.

You’re going to go to Russian budget meetings, which go on for days, and going to have to write them up in comprehensive ways that tells the rest of the world why the Russian budget is important. What better way to learn to do that by having tackled really, really dry subjects and things that you don’t initially think are interesting? I think it’s the best kind of training that you can give yourself. Don’t always go for the interesting feature stories which you know are going to be interesting and easier to do.

Everything could be interesting if you make it interesting. I remember reading something [that an] octogenarian writer at the New Yorker said, which is, “What we do at the New Yorker is we don’t write interesting features, we write features in an interesting way.” I think that’s really true about journalism. The world is interesting. It can be really, really interesting, if you make it that way, if you write it in a certain way, or do the right anecdotes, or tie it into some other idea, because that’s life, and it’s not all boom, something’s happened, bomb, or this crazy event. That’s kind of instant news. That’s news that’s already created itself. There’s ways of finding stories out there that you’ve just got to kind of dig and connect the dots, and then you can come up with much more interesting things. It’s a much more interesting job, as well.

In order to make stories interesting from really dry material, I have to make it worth my while, which is what I’ve found, and I think I have a pretty good barometer, as a normal person, about what’s interesting. Going out and interviewing 20 steel CEOs, who are always the same age, definitely the same gender, and are really not very interesting, was a challenge. You can speak to oil execs about all sort of fun stuff, but for these guys, it’s just steel. Actually, having to extract from them and come up with interesting stuff is a skill in the sense that you’re more alert to what they can potentially say that’s interesting, so you’re kind of grasping at straws, desperately trying to hold onto golden quotes. You begin to learn very early on what a golden quote is, which a lot of people have to be taught, but actually if you’re reporting on coal and steel, you learn when something jumps out, because you’re wading through so many numbers, and so much dry dust, basically.

Also, I was always trying to connect the steel industry to the real world, and I think that was instilled in me a real skill. People talk about, “Oh, so we’re producing more and more coil,” or some kind of steel product, but then I would find out coil was used for cars, and then you would connect which countries have the most cars, and it would turn out, they like driving because of their history to do with the motorway, or whatever. All of a sudden, human stories start to pop out. Actually, that was a way of engaging. It creates engagement. All these skills are things you learn about in journalism, but if you’re having to take dry material and make it interesting, I think it makes you a better journalist, earlier on than you would be.

Also, I think people want stories they can relate to. This doesn’t necessarily mean, “Oh, but how can you go to a war zone? I’ve never been to a war zone, so how can I relate to that?” That’s not what it’s about. Something that I learned in Afghanistan is that all people are the same, everywhere. We all have the same desires. We all want to eat well, and be healthy and have a nice family. We want peace and security, and these are all kind of very basic human desires, which we all want. It doesn’t matter if you’re living in a country which is essentially in the middle ages in terms of its infrastructure development and education system, or if you’re living in a super-high-tech place like California.

I think being able to have engagement, being able to relate to a story, human values are what makes it interesting. Not necessarily hopeful stories, but things that people can actually relate to.

How the world benefits from including more voices

I think the world benefits enormously from seeing stories that have previously been overlooked, or untold. That’s the great success story of Al-Jazeera, giving a voice to the voiceless. That’s their motto, and I think it’s proved enormously successful. It goes back to what I was saying about accuracy. I do think telling untold stories is presenting the world with a more nuanced view, but also a more accurate view. Journalism is a very powerful, obviously, tool, but it’s very easy to present things in a way that’s not the real way. It’s very easy to present things in a way that’s easier, not using local voices, not giving women a chance to tell their stories. By enabling different sections of society to tell their stories, I think we’re doing the world a favor. We’re also making it way more interesting. It goes to that idea of having more diverse news audiences, but also a more diverse news media landscape. It shakes things up a bit, but also it becomes, essentially, way more interesting.

Also, I think it encourages engagement in a way that’s different. That’s why I’m delighted we’re partnering with the Huffington Post. They have a huge reach, and I want these stories to be talking points. I think the world will benefit by having these talking points. By having things to relate to in the world, which is not the common viewpoint, which is not the commonly presented view. I think when we think of Afghanistan, we think of a messed-up country that’s really poor, where women are stoned to death, and men are warlords. All those things may take place, obviously that’s not what’s going on all the time. It’s a much more nuanced place, as indeed any place is, because it’s on this earth, this planet. We’re all here together. We should know about each other.

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