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Afghan Reporter on Risks of Covering Sensitive Stories

Local politicians pledge support after journalist investigates alleged misappropriation of land.
By Abdul Maqsud Azizi
  • Members of Logar provincial council and village leaders at a meeting held to discuss the IWPR report and its implications. (Photo: Abdul Maqsud Azizi)
    Members of Logar provincial council and village leaders at a meeting held to discuss the IWPR report and its implications. (Photo: Abdul Maqsud Azizi)
  • (Photo: Abdul Maqsud Azizi)
    (Photo: Abdul Maqsud Azizi)

For several months, I had been hearing about how part of the Abchakan desert had been leased out to international forces, and I had stored it away in my mind as a story idea. I was certain that no local or national media outlet in Afghanistan would want to investigate it.

An area of land just south of Pol-e Alam, the main town in Logar province, has been leased out to international military forces who have a compound there and are planning to build an airstrip and other facilities.

But people told me that the purported owners – local Afghans – in fact had no right to rent the land to anyone, as it was government property. I also heard that a sum of 2.6 million US dollars was paid to six local men in 2009, and that some of the cash was given to the Taleban.

Investigative Report: Disputed Ownership of Afghan Site Used by NATO

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I pitched the idea to Munir Mehraban, the editor who heads up IWPR’s investigative reporting project in Afghanistan. He approved it and gave me a lot of encouragement to take it on. He shaped a work plan for pursuing the investigation, which listed all the things I would need to do – which sources to interview, and what hard documentary evidence to get hold of.

The editor likened me to a sea captain embarking on a long voyage, with a work plan to chart my course.

Undaunted by the seemingly impossible task of tracking down the documents I would need, I got started.

I began by talking to local residents. The first interview went off easily, but subsequent ones were more of a challenge as word had spread to tribal elders that a “spy calling himself a reporter” was in the village asking about the money paid to lease the land.

When the local chief, Awal Khan, got wind of my inquiries, he made himself unavailable, moving to five different locations as I looked for him over the course of a month. I eventually caught up with him and secured the interview.

The report, Disputed Ownership of Afghan Site Used by NATO, was finally published two months and 16 days after I began.

It was republished almost immediately by the international Asia Times newspaper, and Dari- and Pashto- language versions went out on RFE/RL’s popular Azadi station. The Khedmatgar newspaper carried it on November 2 under a big first-page headline, and the Tand news website also published it.

The article, and the issues it raised, became a hot topic for discussion both in Logar and at national level.

I can honestly say that in the four years I have been working as a journalist, I have never received so many serious threats – but nor have I ever had such encouraging and supportive responses.

On December 9, I received a text message saying, "British spy! You published your report for money. Since you sell other's honour and dignity, there is no salvation for you. You will be punished and killed like provincial council chairman Abdullah Ahmadzai, who also interfered in this matter."

Within half an hour, I received two phone calls from an unknown number, threatening me with death.

Abdullah Ahmadzai and four others had been shot dead, apparently – as the phone text suggested – because he had shown too much interest in the Abchakan affair.

Friends and media colleagues advised me to come to Kabul for a few days for security reasons, but I refused to do so.

I live in a village 15 kilometres away from Pol-e Alam, and to get there I have to walk through a stretch of forest. It is here that I become most afraid that I could suffer the same fate as Ahmadzai.

I have, however, been buoyed up by the broad support I have received in Logar. The provincial council was so pleased that the Abchakan issue had been aired that it convened a meeting attended by 60 assembly members and village leaders to pledge support for me.

“Now it’s for the provincial council to address the matter via the legal and judicial institutions," the council’s deputy chairman Gholam Yahya Ahmadzai said. "We will pursue this case seriously."

Reactions from local residents have been similarly uplifting.

After hearing my report on Radio Azadi, Zohur Ahmad, who works for the provincial labour and social affairs department, said he never believed the media would be able to cover something like this.

Nek Mohammad, a tribal elder from the village of Ali Khan village also heard the story on the radio.

"We are now waiting for the government to hold these men accountable," he said.

Abdul Maqsud Azizi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan.

Note: At the request of IWPR staff, Abdul Maqsud Azizi visited Kabul to discuss concerns about his personal security. He turned down a request to spend an extended period in the city, saying that based on information he now possessed, he no longer felt at risk. IWPR staff talk to him by phone on a daily basis, and will take additional precautions if the situation changes.

The report Disputed Ownership of Afghan Site Used by NATO was produced as part of IWPR’s Afghan Critical Mass Media Reporting in Uruzgan and Nangarhar project.

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