Unlikely Stories, or the Making of an Afghan News Agency

Pajhwok Afghan News director Danish Karokhel, center, leads an editors' meeting at the news agency last month. Image by Kathleen Flynn. Afghanistan, 2010.

Javed Hamin Kakar, senior regional and international editor at Pajhwok, prays at the news agency in Kabul last month. Image by Kathleen Flynn. Afghanistan, 2010.

Danish Karokhel, director of Pajhwok Afghan News, stands in front of a wall of photos in his office. A picture taken in 2008 shows him accepting an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists for promoting press freedom in Afghanistan. In the past, many Afghans "didn’t know what is exactly going on," Danish said. "They are in dark." He became a journalist to change that. "Otherwise, if we build a school and tomorrow it is burned, or if we have a clinic and people not go there, I think it will not work. It’s better first we inform Afghans what is the reality here, what will be their future." Image by Kathleen Flynn. Afghanistan, 2010.

Staff members and neighbors linger outside the office of Pajhwok Afghan News on the morning of Afghanistan's parliamentary election in September. The news agency employs 150 people, including reporters in almost every province. Image by Vanessa Gezari. Afghanistan, 2010.

Danish Karokhel, the director of Pajhwok Afghan News, stood in his office one recent evening, gazing with puzzlement and dissatisfaction at a story about the latest diplomatic brawl between the Afghan president and the American ambassador. "I am not happy with this story," Danish told me, excusing himself to talk to the reporter and editor who had produced it. I was momentarily relieved that I hadn't written the story myself, but I suspected that Danish's irritation would pass. He has an uncanny ability to grasp the gravity of a situation and its absurdity in the same moment. During my most recent visit to Kabul, I came to view his capacity for black humor as perhaps the most necessary qualification for running Afghanistan's largest independent news agency.

I had known Danish since before he led Pajhwok, before 150 staffers called him "Mr. Danish," before he flew to New York City to accept an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists for promoting press freedom. We had met in 2004, when we worked together in Kabul with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in conflict zones and developing countries. Some newly minted Afghan journalists had to be taught the benefits of questioning authority. But Danish – whose name is pronounced with a short, open "ah" sound, its first syllable rhyming with the first half of the word "honest" – has the instincts of a natural born investigative reporter. Even back then, he had no problem afflicting the comfortable

In 2009, I visited Pajhwok's sprawling compound in a residential neighborhood of Kabul. Danish proudly described the news agency's coverage of Afghanistan's recent presidential election, which had been marred by vote rigging and fraud. "We did real civic journalism," he told me recently. "And there was pressure. There was warlord pressure, there was local authority pressure. But Pajhwok team [did] not care about that, and they [reported] the Afghan election in a good way."

This past spring, I began working several hours a week as a long-distance mentor to Pajhwok reporters who were writing investigative and feature stories. I was initially paid an hourly rate for this work, but when I realized that I wanted to write about what I was learning, I stopped accepting payment. When I returned to Kabul this fall, my first stop was Danish's office. As I sipped tea on his couch the afternoon before the parliamentary election, I occupied a dual role: part mentor and unabashed supporter, part journalist seeking to document the progress of a fledgling news agency in one of the world's most complex information environments.

I had my own selfish reasons for hanging around with Pajhwok reporters. After reporting for years in Afghanistan, I had come to believe that westerners, particularly the U.S. military and American policymakers, fail to understand how information moves here, how storytelling differs from information, and why narrative skill is critical to survival in a place like this. Much of our national effort is focused on winning the support of the Afghan people, which wasn't so hard back in 2002, after American bombs forced the Taliban from power. Afghans liked us pretty well back then. But our utter failure to understand them cost us. It may have cost us the war.

As a reporter, I'd tried to explain Afghanistan to a western audience. As a journalism trainer, I had taught Afghans to convey information in ways that were recognizable and comprehensible to the west. But the more time I spent with Afghan journalists, the more interested I became in what they could teach me about storytelling, rather than what I could teach them. Danish agreed to help me. "It is very difficult for you guys to understand the reality," he told me, laughing in his characteristic way. "Sorry for that!"

Danish is 34 years old, with dark eyes, a prominent nose and a steadiness of temperament that has kept him grounded in Afghan culture despite a powerful intellectual engagement with the west. While some young Pajhwok staffers wear jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with risqué slogans, I have never seen Danish in anything but conservative button downs or traditional Afghan clothes. After years of working with foreigners, he still speaks rudimentary English.

He spent his early childhood in a village on the outskirts of Kabul. The mujaheddin were fighting the Soviet occupation, and Danish's family helped the guerrillas, he told the Belgian magazine Mondiaal Nieuws last year. When Danish was 8, his father and six other relatives were killed in an ambush. He and his surviving relatives fled to Pakistan, where they lived in a refugee camp. The school in Danish's village had been closed because of the fighting, and he was thrilled at the chance to study. "One of the first things we learned was the importance of the jihad," Danish told Mondiaal Nieuws. "In fourth grade, we learned how to recognize and use different kinds of firearms."

In 1989, the Soviets left Afghanistan, and the mujaheddin turned on each other. In the refugee camps, various factions handed out newspapers that offered highly politicized accounts of the war. Alert to the dangers of propaganda, Danish started writing for Wahadat, a Pashto-language paper in Peshawar. It was 1996, the year the Taliban rose to prominence in Afghanistan. Danish returned to Kabul and enrolled in university classes, faxing his dispatches to Pakistan via the single satellite line in the Taliban communications ministry. The government charged him $7 a minute to use the fax, so Danish cropped the bottoms of his pages and wrote as small as he could. If the transmission lasted even 65 seconds, they would charge him $14.

Journalists were scarce in Afghanistan then. A few correspondents for Reuters, the Associated Press and other international news agencies worked in Kabul, while the indigenous media consisted of a government-run newspaper and the Taliban's Radio Sharia. During regular business hours, when Taliban officials worked in the communications ministry, Danish sent his editors interviews with Taliban leaders and other government-friendly news. After hours, a friend operated the fax machine, and he sent his more critical stories then. For his safety, these were not published under his byline.

Even so, his work soon got him into trouble. In 1999, Danish learned about a Taliban district commander who had kidnapped, robbed and killed hundreds of Afghans returning home from Iran. There were few jobs under the Taliban, so many Afghans lived and worked for extended periods in neighboring countries, returning with money in their pockets and suitcases stuffed with gifts. The Taliban commander would send a van to the border, offering the returnees free rides home.

It took a while for anyone to catch on to what the commander was doing. At some point, three friends who had gone together to Iran to find work boarded the van to return to their village in Wardak Province. One of the men fell ill on the way. When the driver refused to stop, the worker jumped from the moving van and vomited on the side of the road. He made his way home alone, reaching Wardak several days later. His friends never arrived. The man complained to the Taliban, who investigated and quietly fired the predatory commander.

Danish heard the story from a friend and decided to check it out. He went to Delaram, the district in western Afghanistan where the killings were rumored to have occurred, and found his way to an old, abandoned compound near a river. Inside, tractors had torn up the ground to dig mass graves. The earth was littered with Iranian blankets, household goods and children's clothes that the workers had been carrying home to their families. Danish wrote about what he had seen. The story was published anonymously, but the Taliban arrested him anyway. They questioned him for three days, asking where he had been during the period when the story was reported. Danish knew he was in acute danger. He told them that he had been at home the whole time. Finally, unable to prove he was responsible, they let him go.

In 2001, when American bombs began falling on Kabul, Danish started working for NBC TV. He had good sources in the Taliban government, and was granted permission to film in the city. He documented the air attacks and civilian casualties. He was almost killed by a U.S. missile, and Taliban police kept trying to arrest him, not realizing that the government had allowed him to film. "They stopped me at the end of each street and asked, 'Why do you have a camera?' and I had to show my letters," Danish told me. "In three places, I'm very close to die, but our God saved me."

Shortly after the collapse of the Taliban, Danish joined the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, first as a reporter, then as a trainer. He and his Afghan and foreign colleagues trained hundreds of journalists in Kabul and other big cities. In 2003, Danish and a group of Afghan print and radio journalists filed daily dispatches from the constitutional Loya Jirga, the grand meeting to frame Afghanistan's new constitution. There was already a state-run news agency in Afghanistan, Bakhtar, but the Afghans and their international trainers decided the country needed an independent, Afghan-run news service. They applied to the U.S. Agency for International Development for funding, and launched Pajhwok in 2004, ahead of Afghanistan's first presidential election.

During its first two years, Pajhwok was entirely funded by U.S.A.I.D. I asked Danish if he ever had concerns about the source of the funding. "That money is for the freedom of speech," he told me, adding that U.S.A.I.D. had never tried to influence Pajhwok's content. By 2006, U.S.A.I.D. funding began to wane. Sales and subscriptions had picked up, but not enough to cover the shortfall, and Pajhwok was forced to lay off staff. Last month, Pajhwok's core U.S.A.I.D. funding stream ended. Ad sales and subscriptions accounted for more than 60 percent of the news agency's budget last year, but it continues to receive substantial funding from the Open Society Institute and the U.S. embassy. Pajhwok employs about a dozen reporters in Kabul and 35 in the provinces, as well as five video journalists, five photojournalists, editors and support staff.

Some Afghan journalists criticize Pajhwok for failing to report stories as quickly or comprehensively as international news agencies do. Starting a wire service in a one of the world's poorest countries in the middle of a war is no one's idea of easy, and Pajhwok is very much a work in progress. It hasn't entirely figured out what an Afghan news agency should look like, or how news might be reported from a uniquely Afghan perspective. But its best reporters are focused and hungry, its finest editors thoughtful and quick, the whole undertaking admirably brave. Pajhwok is a critical topographic element in Afghanistan's emerging journalistic landscape. Its name means "echo" in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's two main languages, or, as Danish translated it for me, "the reflection of voice." "We claim that we are the raised voice of Afghans," he told me. "When people see something wrong, they share with us, and we publish."

My presence in Danish's office the afternoon before Afghanistan's September parliamentary election was an imposition he could ill afford. Three candidates, eight election workers and a dozen campaigners had been kidnapped that day. Insurgents had attacked a provincial governor's house. NATO forces said they had killed 11 Taliban, a claim that would be hard to verify, and that the Taliban would almost certainly dispute. To complicate matters, Pajhwok had just launched a new web site, which wasn't working properly. The landline on Danish's desk and the mobile phones in his pockets buzzed incessantly. Editors and staffers rapped at his door and presented him with Election Day plans, screen shots from the web site and sheaves of receipts.

Danish dealt patiently with each interruption before turning his attention to me. I had come by to find out which reporter I would be shadowing during the election, but I couldn't resist asking Danish what he thought about foreign journalists who parachuted in to cover big events like this. "They don't focus on what is the ground reality, what is exactly going on," Danish told me. "If some weak source tells them something and they think it is right, they publish."

Figuring out what was really going on in Afghanistan and explaining it clearly were the only ways Danish knew to bring peace and freedom to his people. But these were extraordinarily hard to accomplish in a place where, as he put it, many people don't have "access to reality." "When people have less access to information, they are misused by political groups, by intelligence networks, by foreigners," Danish said. He mentioned the Florida pastor who had threatened to burn Korans on Sept. 11. Earlier that week, two people had been killed and several hurt in Kabul at a protest against the Koran-burning. "We interviewed so many people, and they tell us, 'They burned the Koran.' People didn't know, is 11 September coming after 10 days? After five days? Or tomorrow?" Danish laughed ruefully. Afghans don't use the western calendar, and many demonstrators told Pajhwok reporters that Sept. 11 was still to come, not realizing that the day had passed and the pastor's plan had been scrapped. "Pajhwok wrote a lot about that," Danish told me. "We tell to the people: 'Don't kill yourself, it is stopped.'" Many Afghans paid no attention.

Afghans don't yet trust their own press, Danish told me, and with good reason. Journalism here is still young and relatively weak, and reporters are unable to answer some of the most critical questions posed by their countrymen. Why have international military forces stayed in Afghanistan so long with so little to show for it? Why did they really come, and when will they leave? "They have so many questions, and we cannot answer that kind of questions," Danish said. "It takes hard work, more work."

Danish had described the international trainers who worked with Afghan journalists after the U.S. invasion in glowing terms. He had benefited greatly from his association with them, and they had helped bring Pajhwok into being. But I wondered whether, in teaching Afghan journalists to report and write to western standards, we had inadvertently hindered the evolution of an authentic, indigenous form of contemporary Afghan storytelling. The rigidity of western journalism can force reporters to make false choices, to call a thing black or white when it was really gray. In Afghanistan, stories hew to the murky middle, a condition that western journalism, in its most basic news agency form, is ill prepared to handle. "Sometimes you don't know what the fact is," I told Danish. "One person says one thing, one person says another. I think Afghans are more honest about those complications than western people are. We want everything to be clear, but sometimes things are not clear."

Danish gave me a pained look. "I don't think so, [that] all Afghans are honest," he said. Political leaders and warlords constantly changed their stories to suit their own interests. He mentioned a factional leader from the Hazara ethnic group who had been a strong supporter of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but who had recently changed his mind, and now went out of his way to insult him. "The truth is not like that," Danish told me. "If Karzai is a bad person, he will be a bad person after one year, after two years, after five years." Danish was quick to note that this wasn't a uniquely Afghan problem. The international community's attitude toward Karzai was much the same. "If Karzai follows the U.S. way, he's a good guy. If he crosses that way, he's a bad guy."

Foreign journalists sometimes buy what Afghan power brokers say, hook, line and sinker. But if journalists are confused about whom to believe in Afghanistan, international military forces are even more so. In the crucial early years of the war, U.S. soldiers and military intelligence officers who knew nothing about the country's ethnic fault lines and fractured internal politics had been mercilessly played by rivals who used the newcomers' military might to settle old scores. Americans, particularly American soldiers, tend to be extremely literal thinkers. When they ask a direct question – "Where are the Taliban?" – they expect a direct answer. In Afghanistan, they almost never get one.

A stunning example of Afghan indirection can be seen in this video by Guardian journalist John D. McHugh. After rockets are fired at their base, a group of American soldiers and their interpreter question an elder in a nearby village. Instead of answering them, the old man tells a story, which the military translator fails to pass on. The title of my Pulitzer Center project is an homage to McHugh's piece, but I also want to suggest that "translation" means more than the transmission of words from one language into another. Many have viewed McHugh's video as a critique of military interpreters, and it certainly is that. But something else is going on. The old man answers the soldier's question not with information, but with an allegory. The soldier never hears the story because the translator doesn't share it, but it clearly isn't the answer he's looking for. Yet the old man's story is revelatory.

"In America, we expect if somebody tells you something, it will be straightforward," I told Danish. "But in Afghanistan, you guys have a way of talking where you tell stories, and we have to be good at understanding you." Pajhwok – indeed, the whole concept of a news agency – was built on the idea that information could be delivered clearly, concisely and directly. But what if information didn't work that way?

Danish agreed that Afghans are given to speaking indirectly, but that doesn't mean western journalism won't work here. It just meant that reporters have to work a lot harder. "When you hear something, you don't just double check, you triple check, or four times," he told me. He liked working with documents for this reason; anytime you could get something in writing, your story gained solidity. But even documents had to be rigorously questioned. Recently, someone had given Pajhwok documents indicating that a Kabul parliamentary candidate had been part of a scheme to steal government-owned land. "We welcome that kind of document," Danish told me. "But our first question is: 'What is the interest of that guy that he shared that information?'"

Danish assigned a reporter to look into the story, telling him to focus primarily on the interests of the man who had supplied the document, not on the accusation itself. The reporter learned that the source worked for a competing candidate. A closer examination of the paperwork showed that the accused candidate wasn't personally implicated in the land grab, though several of his relatives were. Danish knew that if Pajhwok published the story in the days before the election, the accused candidate could be disqualified or pressured to step out of the race, opening the field for his competitors. "When we look to what we learn from journalism, we finally agreed that Pajhwok will not publish the story," Danish told me. The reporter would keep working on the story, but they wouldn't print it until they had confirmed the facts and the election had passed.

The document drop was a textbook case of election-eve dirty tricks. But many manipulations to which journalists and foreigners fall prey are far subtler. Even an Afghan government source can't be trusted to speak on behalf of the government. "People working in government, they belong to so many religion and political parties, and they want to create problems for the government," he told me. "If a foreign journalist meets with a government worker, he will think, 'Oh, it's a good source.' But that person will try to create problems for the government. It should be checked with second or third source as well."

I suggested that foreigners' inability to understand Afghanistan had contributed to the disastrous situation in which the international community now found itself. Danish agreed. "Forty-five countries are here. Why they fail?" He smiled grimly. "Now maybe we accept that they fail, that there is no way to resolve the Afghan issue. We fight for nine or 10 years, and after nine or 10 years, the security is worse, and our foreign friends didn't know how to leave us, how to support us, how to help us. Now they lose their way."

Danish saw the foreigners' mistakes as clearly as any other Afghan, but he took no pleasure in them. "During Taliban time, there was no media, there was no journalists, and there was a difficult life," he told me. "By the presence of foreign troops, now we have everything." He didn't mean material things so much as the chaotic openness that had become as necessary to him as oxygen. "If tomorrow, for example, the Taliban come, what will be the future of Pajhwok? What will be the future of Afghan journalists' work? Are we allowed to something publish? Is there will be 25 TV channels to be broadcast?"

Danish paused to let these questions sink in. "Now we criticize very well the Afghan government," he said. "We investigate great stories, we investigate so many important issues and we explain that it is wrong, it is against the Afghan constitution, it is against our law. But if Taliban came, what will happen? If the foreign troops go away from Afghanistan, I think there will be no life and no freedom. I think there will be nothing."