Next Generation Leaders

The Truthteller in the Eye of the Storm

Lotfullah Najafizada on the risks of leading Afghanistan's first 24-hour news station

On many evenings after work, Lotfullah Najafizada, the head of TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s largest 24-hour news station, sleeps in the channel’s compound in the Afghan capital Kabul. “I spend most of my time in the compound. I don’t want to take the risks I face [as a journalist here] to my home,” the 28-year-old says. “It’s not just about my safety, it’s also my family’s safety.”

A decade and a half after a U.S. led invasion displaced the Taliban regime from Kabul, ensuring his own safety and the safety of his 100-plus staff has become an increasingly critical concern for Najafizada. He started out in journalism as a designer on a small newspaper in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. “I was still a student. It was a new Afghanistan [after 2001], and we all felt we had to do something to make things better for our families, our society,” he recalls. Design soon led to writing and reporting, and then a job in the online department at Kabul-based media group MOBY, the force behind TOLO TV, the country’s most popular television station. “I was in the online department when this idea came up to start Afghanistan’s first 24-hour news channel [in 2010], and it was decided that I was the person who should run it,” he says.

Andrew Quilty for TIME

From the start, the project was a risky one. “You cannot operate in a volatile environment like Afghanistan without risks,” he explains. But the nature of the threats against Najafizada and his colleagues began to change when the Taliban briefly captured the city of Kunduz in late September 2015. Najafizada’s journalists were on the scene and reported on claims of female students being raped at a university hostel after Kunduz was overrun by the insurgents. The story put TOLOnews in the crosshairs of the Taliban’s brutal military wing. “We had two sources… and we had a denial from the Taliban… But for the Taliban it was too much,” Najafizada says. “It was a new kind of threat.”

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What happened next has left a lasting scar on TOLO and the wider journalistic community in the country. ‪On Jan. 20, Najafizada was in a meeting in the TOLO compound when one of his colleagues rushed in to report that a Kabul minibus had been attacked by a Taliban suicide bomber. “We actually ran that story, saying a bus was hit,” recalls Najafizada. “And then five minutes later we realized that it was our bus.”

Seven of Najafizada’s colleagues perished in the attack, which came as Afghanistan struggles to maintain security following the departure of most foreign troops from the country at the end of 2014. Civilian casualties have climbed to record highs, and estimates suggest that the Taliban now controls a larger swathe of Afghan land than at any time since the 2001 invasion. “After the attack, we had to decide: are we going to shut down, or are we going to stay and cover the story of our country objectively and truthfully? If you want to go to 100% safety, you have shut it down and go to your homes.”

Led by Najafizada, TOLO has decided to stay. “It was a unanimous decision. We said we are going to remain objective, we’re going to remain critical. The concerns are always there, but our resolve is stronger.”

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