WASHINGTON — The Biden administration says it is working to secure safe passage for more than 500 Afghan reporters and their families working for Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded media outlets after attempts to evacuate them failed during the final days of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Officials tried to fly out the Afghan journalists via a U.S. military aircraft or chartered planes without success but the administration remains committed to bringing them to safety, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.
“They have served the American people, with their journalism, with their work. We absolutely do have a commitment to them,” Price said.
“We are working on all possible options to affect their safe departure from Afghanistan,” Price said, adding that he would not share the advice provided to the Afghans to protect their safety.The Biden administration has come under sharp criticism from lawmakers and veterans groups over its handling of the evacuation from Kabul and specifically over the plight of the Afghan journalists who work for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, news outlets funded by the U.S. government.
The Afghan journalists were not immediately available for comment.
Representatives for the broadcasters had raised concerns about the safety of their journalists repeatedly and senior administration officials had reassured managers at the news outlets that the Afghan reporters and their families would be given a priority for evacuation, according to Jamie Fly, president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Amid chaos at the airport, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees the media outlets, tried to organize chartered flights for their journalists using Czech aircraft. But the Afghans could not gain entry at the airport’s crowded gates, and the Czech planes had to depart after waiting on the runway for several hours, Fly said.
USAGM then chartered three planes to fly the Afghans to Spain. But a suicide bombing by ISIS last Thursday outside the airport led the U.S. military to cancel all chartered flights, according to Fly.
“I urge the Biden administration to move expeditiously to work with partners to establish safe passage routes out of the country for all who wish to take them and ensure that the Taliban allows them to do so,” Fly told NBC News.
One evacuation attempt succeeded. The Ukrainian government flew a number of Afghan journalists with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on a military flight out of Kabul, Fly said.
A spokesperson for the USAGM said efforts continued to help the Afghan journalists.
“Our focus continues to be getting our people to safety. USAGM continues to coordinate with the Department of State and others. This is a life and death matter for many of our journalists and their families, and their safe passage remains our highest priority,” the spokesperson said.
In recent weeks, executives at the news outlets had appealed to the Biden administration publicly and privately to ensure the safety of the journalists who faced threats from the Taliban due to their association with the United States.
The acting head of USAGM, Kelu Chao, wrote a letter to President Joe Biden on Aug. 23 saying that her employees were not able to get into the airport and warning that her staff were in danger from Taliban retribution.
“Hundreds of those who are left are particularly vulnerable to being targeted by the Taliban, including our woman journalists and a number of reporters who are highly visible and who, along with their families, have received specific threats from militant groups in recent months,” Chelo wrote.
In the last few years, five of the agency’s journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, including one in a targeted assassination last year, Chelo wrote.
A group of 67 lawmakers from both parties wrote a private letter to the president on Aug. 25 appealing for him to take action to protect the journalists, and noted that the administration had worked to help other Afghan reporters working for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
The Afghan journalists with VOA and other U.S.-funded outlets “have been and will continue to be a target for the Taliban due to their association with the United States government,” the lawmakers wrote.
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said it was “unacceptable” that the reporters were not evacuated.
“The US has a responsibility to help get these journalists out of Afghanistan and protect independent media remaining in the country. This is the best way for the Biden administration to express its support for press freedom,” Simon told NBC News.
Dan De Luce
Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.