Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Other Women Braver Than Me – Afghan Media Head

Najiba Ayubi wishes there were more female journalists around to report on challenges facing Afghanistan.
By Mina Habib

Despite repeated threats, Najiba Ayubi is determined to direct her team of journalists towards in-depth reporting on sensitive subjects.

Now 45, she has spent nearly a decade as managing director of the Killid Group, an Afghan media network encompassing press, radio and online outlets.

In October, Ayubi’s achievements were recognised with the Courage in Journalism Award, presented by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

She sees it important for female journalists to focus particularly on the challenges facing Afghan women. While describing the years since Taleban rule ended in 2001 as a “golden opportunity” for women, she regrets the fact that far too little has been done over that time to protect their basic rights.

“Afghan women have thousands of untold stories of tragedy in their hearts. Female journalists can give them a voice to tell their stories, but unfortunately few women are working in this area,” she told IWPR.

Women are poorly represented in all areas of work, but particularly so in the media, Ayubi says. Families often object to them going into journalism because of the dangers, and the pressure mounts after they get married.

"This issue pains me a lot, but I believe these women are at fault themselves – why don’t they resist?" she said.

When Ayubi was presented with the 2013 Courage in Journalism Award at a ceremony in New York in October, she was overwhelmed by the applause from the audience.

“It was such a special moment; something beyond happiness,” she recalled. “I was very nervous and speechless for a few seconds. All the problems I’d had in my life flashed through my mind. And meanwhile, tears of happiness and pride filled my eyes.

“I thought, “This is a proud moment not for me, Najiba, but for my country.’”

She received thousands of messages on Facebook from Afghans congratulating her on the prize, and just two saying she did not deserve it.

“I am proud that I received messages of congratulation from all ethnic groups of Afghanistan without exception. It was kind of a nationwide acclamation for the award,” she said.

She says the award should be really seen as a tribute to all the women who go out to work and who fight for their rights in Afghanistan.

“I believe that any woman or girl who leaves home to pursue an education, to work, or to speak out in unsafe parts of Afghanistan with confining cultural traditions and a male-dominated society deserve the title ‘courageous’ before I do,” she said. “Women and girls working for media outlets in difficult, unsafe provinces are more deserving of it, so I say this award is for all them, not just for me.”

Ayubi was born in Charikar, a town north of Kabul, and after graduating from college she taught in schools in the surrounding Parwan province. When the Taleban arrived in Kabul in 1996, she and her family went to Iran as refugees. There she set up a school for Afghan émigré children who she felt were losing out on their education.

After the Taleban were driven out of power in 2001, Ayubi turned down a long-cherished opportunity to move to Europe, and instead went home. She worked for Save the Children before joining the Killid Group as managing director. She also holds a second job, as a board member of the NGO Development and Humanitarian Services for Afghanistan.

During her time with Killid, Ayubi has been on the receiving end of threats from government officials, members of parliament, warlords and insurgents, following the publication of investigative reports on human rights abuses.

Intimidation goes with the territory, she says, "This is a profession in which you have to struggle with threats forever."

One message left under her car warned her to stop airing a report about atrocities committed in 1993 in Kabul’s Afshar district during the bitter civil war.

"My family members and I were threatened with death in that letter. I wasn’t thinking about myself at that moment, but the threat to my family made me suffer, because they were entirely innocent. They phoned me several times as well. They threatened me, but I continued working,” she recalled. “All media work is replete with both pleasant and unpleasant memories. When you face obstacles to working and when you receive threats and insults, it’s all unpleasant. But when people appreciate your work… it makes for a wholly pleasant memory."

Above all, Ayubi prizes in-depth investigative reporting as the best way of pushing for societal change and for respect for democracy and rule of law.

"Unfortunately, most media outlets in this country pay little attention to this genre of journalism. They just publish stories on everyday matters. Yet in a country like Afghanistan, where both the international community and the people are constantly pressing [for action] on allegations of corruption, injustice, drug smuggling, embezzlement and so on, investigative reporting should form a major part of what the media publish.”

Colleages say Ayubi is a good but tough manager to work for.

"No man had the management skills that Najiba had,” said Marzia Ahmadzai, a reporter for RFE/RL who used to work for Killid Group. “She was a very brave, hard-working woman. And she demanded the same of her employees – to work as hard as they could and be accountable. When someone’s work was not adequate, she would put them under pressure at meetings…. This sometimes left staff upset."

Ayubi is married but has no children.

"I don’t want children because they’d interrupt my media activity. I want to work most of the time," she said. "My family has been alongside me since the beginning. They have supported me. I consider myself lucky in that regard."

Mina Habib is an IWPR reporter in Kabul. 

More IWPR's Global Voices