Journalists in Afghanistan want a free pass from Joe Biden

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File

This should be interesting. If you’ve been following all of the latest news from Afghanistan, you’re likely aware that many of the larger American media outlets still have reporters on the ground in that country. It’s a dicey situation, however, and the sort of fluid story that could take a sharp turn at any moment. With that in mind, the publishers of three of the nation’s largest newspapers, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, penned a letter to President Joe Biden yesterday, informing him of the potential danger facing these journalists and asking for “three concrete steps” to ensure the safety of their people on the ground.

The letter describes how these journalists and their families are now “trapped in Kabul, their lives in peril.” They would like the President to take precautionary measures to ensure that their people can make it out of the country safely if the need becomes immediate. Here’s the main part of the pitch and what they are asking for.

As employers, we are looking for support for our colleagues and as journalists we’re looking for an unequivocal signal that the government will stand behind the free press. In that light, we ask the American government to move urgently and take three concrete steps necessary to protect their safety.

What We Seek

● Facilitated and protected access to the US-controlled airport

● Safe passage through a protected access gate to the airport

● Facilitated air movement out of the country

Perhaps there were more details than what we’re seeing provided via private channels, but there are a few unanswered questions in that letter. First, are they talking about all of the American journalists in the country or just the ones from those three newspapers? If it’s the former, that’s understandable. If it’s that latter, that seems a bit selfish.

Also, are they talking about journalists from the United States who were sent to Afghanistan on assignment or Afghan natives that they hired to work on a local basis? I ask this because the letter specifies “those colleagues and their families.” If you’re based out of Washington or New York City and you draw an assignment to go to Kabul to cover the war, do you generally take your family with you? Into a war zone? That makes me think that they’re probably talking about some of the locals who are working for them. I know that CNN has at least a few American reporters over there providing reports, but the print outlets no doubt make use of some local talent.

Why does that matter? Because every American citizen – even those with dual citizenship – who is in Kabul is already on a list of people who will be shipped out when possible if they want to leave. If these employees are in that category, they are already on the list. But if they are Afghan citizens only, they will probably need to apply for an SIV and likely be sent to a third country to wait for the request to be processed just like anyone else. Drawing a paycheck from the New York Times doesn’t get you any head-of-the-line privileges.

Getting back to the “three concrete steps” mentioned above, that’s really quite the list of demands, isn’t it? If I’m reading that correctly, they want to have a special, protected gate set up for the journalists to use to gain access to the airport instead of moving through the swarms of other people, both Americans and Afghans alike, who are desperately trying to get to the tarmac. And then they want “facilitated air movement” out of the country. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that sounds as if they want head-of-the-line privileges to take seats on the first available plane.

I’m honestly not trying to sound like a total jerk here, but that’s what everyone swarming the airport wants. Despite the respect that we all (or at least most of us, I hope) have for the First Amendment, reporters are not some special, protected class of citizens. The embassy workers were sent there by the government because it’s their job. The same is even more true for our soldiers. They weren’t given any choice in the matter in most cases. If you’re an American reporter who took an assignment to go cover the action in Kabul, you accepted that assignment knowing that you were going into a war zone and things can fall apart quickly in such situations.

I completely sympathize with anyone who is stuck there right now and trying to get out. I’m confident that the military is doing everything it can and moving heaven and earth to get everyone out of there safely. And if the situation in the streets of Kabul remains quiet and stable for another week or so (a big “if,” I know) they may still pull it off. And yet I can’t help but feel that anyone penning a letter like this doesn’t have any more of a claim to unfettered access to the airport and priority boarding than any other American citizen who was over there working in any legitimate fashion.