On Wednesday night, the New York Times announced that it had evacuated a group of Afghan colleagues and their immediate families — a total of 128 people — days after the Afghan government collapsed to a precipitous advance by the Taliban. “We really want to express our deepest appreciation and respect for those who were on the ground, and who kept their heads during some very scary moments,” Michael Slackman, an assistant managing editor at the paper, said in a statement. “They never gave up hope.”

The Times was one of many U.S.-based media organizations rushing to get Afghan colleagues they’ve relied on over the past 20 years to safety this week — a process that has been frustrating and riddled with red tape and confusion over a rapidly changing set of eligibility criteria, as well as logistical challenges like getting to and through the airport. While State Department officials have stepped up their efforts to get as many people to safety as possible, some critics questioned why it took so long, and why the process continues to exclude categories of people, like subcontractors, whose work for U.S. media put their lives at risk.

Earlier this week, the publishers of the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post wrote an open letter to the Biden administration, asking for officials’ support to facilitate access to the airport for their Afghan partners, as well as to secure safe passage to a protected access gate. The letter came as some of the papers’ Afghan reporters had been unable to board a flight out of Kabul on Monday, one day after the Taliban entered the capital.

“For the past twenty years, brave Afghan colleagues have worked tirelessly to help The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal share news and information from the region with the global public,” the publishers wrote. “Now, those colleagues and their families are trapped in Kabul, their lives in peril.”

Over the last several days, as foreign and local journalists continued to cover breaking developments, many also worked around the clock to get their colleagues to safety: pulling strings with senior government contacts and scrambling to find countries that might take people without visas and, in some cases, even without passports.

“It’s been a massive effort on the part of news organizations here. I mean, they’ve moved mountains,” a Western journalist on the ground in Kabul told The Intercept. “I constantly deride this idea of access journalism, of this elite of reporters who rub elbows with the elite of government and business around the world. But in this case, it literally saved lives.”

In a July letter to the Biden administration, many of the country’s largest news organizations estimated that the number of Afghans who worked with U.S. media organizations and their immediate family members would be under 1,000 people. That’s a fraction of the number of Afghans who worked directly with the U.S. government and with a wide array of government subcontractors and NGOs, many of whom are also scrambling to find a way out of the country. The U.S. government says it has so far evacuated nearly 5,000 people, including both U.S. and Afghan citizens, ahead of an August 31 deadline for final military withdrawal, though President Joe Biden has now indicated U.S. troops might stay longer to ensure all Americans have been evacuated.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has fielded hundreds of requests for assistance by Afghan journalists working for both local and foreign outlets; so far it has registered and vetted nearly 300 journalists who are attempting to leave the country. It has identified 45 as “high priority” cases with a clear and imminent threat by the Taliban, many of them female journalists reporting on women’s rights.

Even as some Afghan journalists who worked with U.S. media have made it out so far, others have been unable to leave, some stranded as they navigate a complex web of requirements to qualify for priority referral for refugee status in the U.S.

Under pressure from news organizations and press freedom groups, the U.S. State Department has repeatedly updated criteria for eligibility. The rapidly changing guidelines and mixed messaging have, however, complicated the process, especially for individuals who worked with U.S. freelancers, rather than directly with news organizations, and for those employed on an assignment basis, like fixers, translators, and other contractors.

Azmat Khan, an American journalist who has reported from Afghanistan and who has put together a package of resources for foreign journalists trying to help their Afghan colleagues, told The Intercept that “contracted workers are falling through the cracks.”

The industry needs to rethink its relationship to the local journalists it relies on.

“What we’re seeing right now is a failure of policies and procedures,” she added, noting that for many local journalists who worked as stringers, getting on a chartered or military flight out is coming down to the personal connections of the U.S. journalists they worked with. “I wish that there were some more formal mechanisms.”

The current situation underscores what has long been true, she noted: The industry needs to rethink its relationship to the local journalists it relies on and recognize the imbalance of power at play.

“Western journalism and American journalism especially has had a problem in which people too often are very exploitative of locals they hire,” said Khan. “People often talk about it in terms of fair pay, or fair credit, but they don’t usually think about it in terms of, what’s the way in which I’m investing in you. … If you want to leave, if I’m putting you in danger, how can I help you secure those opportunities?”

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- AUGUST 17, 2021: The media wait for a press conference hosted by Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman for nearly 2 decades who worked in the shadows, and who is making his first-ever public appearance to address concerns about the Taliban' reputation with women's education, appearance and rights, television music and executions, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)

Members of the media attend a press conference hosted by Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 17, 2021.

Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Rushing Against Time

Television networks, newspapers, and magazines that brought Americans coverage of their government’s two-decade involvement in Afghanistan relied on scores of local reporters, photographers, interpreters, and drivers to get the story — a job that came with far greater risks to the locals than to their American counterparts. At least 53 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, according to a tally by CPJ, most of them Afghan nationals.

Now, as they continue to report through the crisis, many Afghan journalists are stuck, fearing reprisals against them and their families from the Taliban, who have long viewed the media as a legitimate target and who have threatened and killed journalists. The Taliban have sought to strike a conciliatory tone in a series of public statements this week, but many Afghans remain skeptical and scared, even as they are in a holding pattern, waiting to see how things will change in coming days and weeks. The Taliban reportedly raided the homes of at least four journalists this week, according to CPJ, while Taliban militants reportedly beat two other journalists who were covering protests in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan.

“Over the past 20 years, independent media has proliferated in Afghanistan, producing national outlets as well as top-flight Afghan journalists who do the lion’s share of the reporting for international news organizations, which have shrunk their bureaus as the American presence has diminished,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon wrote in a recent op-ed. “But unless the U.S. government intervenes to bring them to safety, an entire generation of reporters will be lost.”

Media organizations and other U.S.-based groups are particularly calling on the Biden administration to maintain control of Kabul’s airport until all eligible people are evacuated, as they believe that the Taliban will not allow civilians to leave once it takes control of the airport.

Kabul’s international airport has been the site of chaos and desperation since the Taliban entered the city on Sunday — a stark contrast with the rest of the country, where for the most part, the situation has so far remained relatively calm. Hundreds of people trying to flee rushed the tarmac and surrounded departing planes, resulting in a brief pause of evacuation flights on Monday. The streets surrounding the airport are now under Taliban control, and chaos erupted there on Wednesday, with heavy gunfire reported as people tried to reach the airport. U.S officials declined to say whether they are doing anything to help people get there — but warned those waiting for flights out to shelter in place until notified by embassy staff.

“We appreciate the efforts of the US government to reopen Hamid Karzai International Airport,” Steve Severinghaus, a spokesperson for the Wall Street Journal, wrote in a statement sent to The Intercept. “While some journalists have been able to leave, the situation on the ground remains extremely perilous. We continue to request immediate assistance in facilitating safe transport for remaining Afghan colleagues from our own and other organizations into the airport, where access continues to be limited by Taliban checkpoints.”

Meanwhile, stranded Afghans’ fears of Taliban reprisals against journalists have intensified.

“Once they have a government and specific people are responsible for specific areas, I believe they will go house to house, door to door, and asking people who they are,” Zubair Babakarkhail, an Afghan journalist who throughout the last week has continued to report while hiding from home, told NPR. “I believe even if the Taliban government say there is free speech in Afghanistan, and media can work, the local fighters will be — when you are interacting with them on a daily basis, they will call you with different names that — because of my background. I believe that. So I see myself not being happy anymore here. I will have problems.”

A Marine assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) processes an evacuee at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15. U.S. Soldiers and Marines are assisting the Department of State with an orderly drawdown of designated personnel in Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell)

A Marine assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit processes an evacuee at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 15, 2021.

Photo: Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/U.S. Marine Corps

Confusing Criteria

Even before the tumultuous events of the last week, it was clear that the Taliban would seize on the U.S. withdrawal since Biden announced in April that the U.S. would pull all its forces out of Afghanistan by September 11. Officials have known for years that tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with foreign governments, media, and NGOs would be at risk under a Taliban regime.

While a system was already in place for Afghans who worked directly with the U.S. government to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa — a process that has been riddled with delays and a yearslong backlog — there were no provisions in place for many other Afghans, including journalists, until it became clear the Taliban were advancing much faster than U.S. officials believed they would. A State Department spokesperson said that U.S. officials have brought more than 2,000 Afghans to the United States under the recently announced Operation Allies Refuge. In total, the U.S. government has resettled more than 76,000 Afghan special immigrants since the start of the program in 2009, the spokesperson added. Still, at least 19,000 more had pending applications in 2020 — with waiting times reported to range between two and eight years.

Some critics note news organizations were also slow to realize the risks their Afghan colleagues faced, though in the last several weeks, many of them have put enormous pressure on the U.S. government to do more. In some cases, news organizations waited until after the Taliban’s advance toward Kabul to act with urgency on behalf of colleagues with viable paths out of the country.

“Nobody really had a contingency plan,” said an American journalist who has been helping an Afghan colleague leave the country in fear for his safety. The Afghan journalist, who was eligible for a visa, has been going through the bureaucratic process to obtain it for nearly half a decade but received little support from his U.S. employer until this month.

“Here’s a guy that has risked his life to do this job,” said the American journalist, who asked that he and his Afghan colleague not be identified so as not to hinder the latter’s chances to escape by publicly criticizing his employers. “They thought things were going to work in one way and they didn’t. And their incompetence and complacency put this guy in a really bad situation.”

The U.S. government has responded to the crisis by incrementally expanding criteria for eligibility for Afghans trying to leave the country. In early August, the State Department broadened eligibility for a priority referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, known as P-2, to include Afghans who worked with U.S.-funded programs and as employees of U.S.-based media organizations. The expansion also included Afghans who had worked directly with the U.S. government but were not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa. The change came after a coalition of some of the largest U.S. news organizations and journalists rights groups urged the Biden administration and leaders in Congress to support the creation of a visa category for Afghans who have worked with the U.S. media, citing a similar initiative in 2008 granting special immigration consideration to Iraqis. First Look Institute, The Intercept’s parent company, signed the letters.

But applying for P-2 is complex, because of a rule that requires people to be in a third country before they apply — effectively precluding that possibility to anyone currently in Afghanistan and unable to leave. The criteria originally included proof of employment with a U.S. organization for an extended period of time — something that effectively excluded those working on a more temporary basis, like freelancers, stringers, and contractors, a majority of media workers in many countries.

“This approach is at odds with how the news industry operates,” a coalition of news organizations wrote in a second letter to the Biden administration on August 13. “For some American media companies, [it] means all their Afghan staff are excluded from the P-2 program, including photographers and journalists whose bylines have appeared for years in American publications.”

On Tuesday, State Department officials announced new changes to expand the number of Afghans eligible for relocation to the U.S. Notably, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said some previously excluded categories of media workers — like stringers and those with comparable arrangements — are now included. (The department had previously informed some news organization of the change without updating its publicly available guidelines, leading to confusion and some people incorrectly believing they were not eligible.)

Additionally, the State Department introduced a broad new category of Afghans whom officials would prioritize for relocation. The “Afghans at risk” category includes women and girls, human rights defenders, journalists, and other civil society actors who might not qualify through other channels, officials said. It’s unclear how a category that seems to include half the country’s population — all women — could be effective in such a short period of time.

Still, a provision in the P-2 eligibility guidelines excludes “sub-contractors,” a category that could include many people who worked for U.S. government agencies contractors and stringers who worked with foreign freelancers, rather than directly with news organizations. With the exception of major news organizations, on-the-ground reporting from conflict zones has long been the work of freelancers, many working with little support from the publications they end up writing for. These freelancers often hire stringers — effectively subcontractors — who often operate with even less support and protection.

A State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to The Intercept that Afghan nationals who work or worked for U.S.-based media under freelance, stringer, and comparable arrangements are also eligible for the P-2 program. The spokesperson did not answer questions about whether stringers working with freelancers are also eligible.

The lack of clarity around the guidelines has been a problem.

Jen Brick Murtazashvili, director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, is leading a team of volunteers to help Afghans who worked for U.S. organizations, including media, connect with their former employers in order to get referrals for P-2 status. While most of the hundreds of people reaching out for help were employed by NGOs or U.S. government contractors, some were media professionals, she said, including some working for major U.S. publications.

“The hard part is we’ve been getting a lot of fixers,” Murtazashvili told The Intercept this week, before officials announced the expanded definition of employment that now should include them. “And they are not eligible, as far as you can tell under these rules … Fixers, they’re not continuously employed, they may work for someone here, someone there. So they don’t fall easily under these rules.”

Telling people they were not eligible under the existing options, Murtazashvili told The Intercept, “has been heartbreaking.”