Afghanistan’s journalists, whose professional risks already include kidnapping, insurgent attacks and violent reprisals from Afghan officials’ bodyguards, face a brand new peril: snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency.
On May 23, WikiLeaks revealed that Afghanistan was the previously unnamed country where the NSA conducted mass phone surveillance. The surveillance in Afghanistan goes far beyond the NSA’s controversial metadata collection program in the United States. According to WikiLeaks, since 2013 the NSA has been recording and storing almost all phone calls — including those made by Afghan journalists — in the country and to other countries. Earlier documents released by online news website the Intercept showed that the NSA has been recording all phone calls in the Bahamas as well as gathering all phone call metadata in Mexico, Kenya and the Philippines.
While specific, targeted surveillance may be warranted for national security reasons, collecting the phone calls of an entire nation cannot be justified. The bulk surveillance invades the privacy of millions of Afghans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. And it chills the work of journalists who use phone calls to gather information for their stories.
The U.S. government claims to support free press in Afghanistan, but the NSA’s practices undermine the work of Afghan media at a crucial time. The NSA phone surveillance has raised concerns among local reporters whose newsgathering responsibilities include contact with representatives of insurgents, the director of one of Afghanistan’s largest news agencies in Kabul told me in an interview last week.
Reporters in Afghanistan have long operated under the assumption that they are watched by Afghan and regional spy agencies. To mitigate the risk and eschew perceptions of sympathies for the insurgents, that news agency trains its reporters how to conduct phone conversations with the Taliban, including what words to use or avoid. However, reporters still fear that an analyst sitting thousands of miles away, with no context, might misunderstand the NSA recording of their conversations with the militants and unfairly implicate them in insurgent activity.
The concerns are not unwarranted. Since 2002, U.S. forces have detained 220 Afghans at Guantánamo Bay and thousands of Afghan nationals at the U.S.-run Parwan Detention Facility without charge or trial. Those unjustly detained include Jawed Ahmad, an Afghan journalist who was held for 11 months at Parwan as an unlawful enemy combatant, though he was never formally charged. After his release, Ahmad alleged that his U.S. captors tortured him with beatings and sleep deprivation.
The surveillance revelations and the Afghan media’s efforts to mitigate their risks complicate what is already a very difficult and dangerous job. For example, the 2014 index of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York–based journalism watchdog, lists Afghanistan as the world’s sixth-most-dangerous place for reporters in term of murder and impunity. In the five targeted killings of journalists over the last decade, none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. Afghanistan trails Iraq, Somalia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Syria, all countries with high levels of violence, on the CPJ impunity index. To minimize risks of surveillance, some news organizations deploy various means of communication (for example, shifting among BlackBerry Messenger, messaging services such as Viber and phone calls) during potentially sensitive conversations with colleagues and sources. The revelation of NSA mass snooping is a reminder for them to take even more stringent and costly precautions, including expediting major information technology security upgrades.
In the post-Taliban era, the rise of vibrant media is one of Afghanistan’s more notable success stories. That success is largely due to the courage of Afghan journalists, a relatively accessible regulatory environment and development assistance from foreign governments, including the United States. As international forces prepare to withdraw from the country by the end of 2014 and with a new government taking office in August, Afghanistan’s journalists have more than enough to worry about without the threat of NSA spying.
All Afghans — and Afghanistan’s journalists in particular — deserve better. The NSA should immediately cease all bulk surveillance and clarify how it has used phone calls and the metadata acquired in Afghanistan. By reining in the NSA’s phone surveillance in Afghanistan, the U.S. government can show that it is responsive to the concerns of journalists and others unfairly affected by its mass surveillance program.
Ahmad Shuja is a research assistant for Human Rights Watch based in Kabul, Afghanistan.