The dangerous life of a journalist living and working in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
In international journalism, a local journalist hired by foreign reporters for his or her special knowledge of the local area, culture, and language is called a fixer. This series explores the untold stories behind their largely unrecognized work. You can read about fixing in China here, Mexico here, and Belarus here.
This past June, an American NPR journalist named David Gilkey and his Afghan translator and fixer, Zabihullah Tamanna, were killed on assignment in Marjah, a district of Afghanistan’s expansive and volatile Helmand Province. Tamanna’s death was a reminder that in Afghanistan, being a fixer remains a potentially lethal and largely invisible role. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 26 journalists have now been killed in Afghanistan since 2001; this statistic likely underestimates the true toll, especially for local journalists.
I spoke to Rauf Mehrpoor, a journalist who lives and works in Helmand Province. By his reckoning, he is the only fixer currently active in the area.
In the two years since he began working as a fixer, he has contributed reporting on everything from exposés on the Afghan National Army [ANA] to investigative reports on the Taliban’s field operations. He spoke to Roads & Kingdoms about government corruption, the threat of violence, and the responsibility he feels to work in media despite the risk.
Roads & Kingdoms: How long have you been a fixer?
Rauf Mehrpoor: I have been working as a fixer in Helmand Province for the last two years, since the end of 2014. Before that I was an interpreter.
R&K: How did you decide to become a fixer in addition to interpreting?
Mehrpoor: In Helmand, I was the only journalist who spoke English and also Dari and Pashto. My native language is Dari but I can speak Pashto because I have been living in Helmand for the past fourteen years, and my English is not too bad. As an interpreter, I gained a lot of experience speaking with the locals as well as commanders and high-ranking officers.
R&K: Do you also work as a journalist?
Mehrpoor: I work as a freelance journalist for a magazine called Sada-E-Azadi that is published by the ISAF [the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] in Kabul. I’m not the only one; there are some other freelancers working for this magazine across Afghanistan, in other provinces like Kandahar, Herat, and Kabul. But I’m the only freelancer in Helmand.
R&K: What is the local media situation where you’re based?
Mehrpoor: There are some local journalists, and some foreign journalists who are working for international news sources as well. One of my colleagues works for Reuters. His name is Zainullah, and he is the head of the journalist’s association in Helmand. There’s also a guy who works for Tolo TV, one of the most popular TV channels in Afghanistan. There are some fixers in Kabul, but not in Helmand.
R&K: Why is that?
Mehrpoor: The other journalists prefer that a fixer be a journalist as well, because a journalist has communication with officials and they know the area very well. If they find out that a fixer is not [already] a journalist, probably there will be more problems communicating with the officials and civilians who are traveling in the area. I have been working as a journalist in Helmand for two years, and I know the area, so I know the officials and commanders. I have numbers for most of them, and when I need them I just call them, or I travel to the checkpoint before I call them and I let them know and they say, “Yes, they’re waiting for you, you can come.”
Taliban members are using schools as checkpoints
R&K: What type of stories are the foreign journalists you work with usually covering?
Mehrpoor: It’s actually very hard to find stories. Sune Engel Rasmussen, who works for the Guardian, has traveled to Lashkar Gah [the capital of Helmand Province] many times—he’s supposed to be coming again in a few days—and we worked together on some articles about child soldiers. I worked with him a lot on that. We had another story about schools that are supposed to be educating children, but, unfortunately, Taliban members are using them as checkpoints. But the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] are also using the schools as checkpoints.
R&K: Have you faced intimidation while reporting on those types of stories?
Mehrpoor: Finding such stories and working with foreign journalists is not easy. We don’t feel very safe in Helmand Province. Still, I think for a journalist there is a responsibility for them to work—even if they receive intimidation or things like that. This is our job—we have to tell the truth, we have to find out what the problems are across the country, what the people need for us to report to the world, so that we can tell the world what is going on in Helmand.
But in Helmand, we are frightened. The security situation in Lashkar Gah and some districts of Helmand is not very good. Nowadays some districts are being captured by the Taliban. We’re trying not to work a lot in the most [dangerous] areas.
You probably heard that [in June], an American journalist and his fixer were killed in Marjah. I don’t know why they decided to go there—we knew the Marjah situation was not really appropriate for foreign journalists after an operation was conducted by the ANSF there. I don’t know why they chose to [cover it]. We wanted to go to Marjah but knew that the situation there was not really good for journalists.
R&K: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for those working in media in Afghanistan?
Mehrpoor: Sometimes we travel to areas where the local people assume, “Oh my god, these are very rich people, they work with foreign journalists so they probably get lots of money,” things like that. Most of the people treat us very well, but there are some people, I imagine, who think we’re very wealthy, which is not really true.
When foreign journalists are coming to Lashkar Gah or into Helmand, I tell them to be very attentive, respect the people, treat them well. There is a specific culture for the Afghan people, and we have to follow this.
And of course, one of the [biggest] problems that we have in Afghanistan, in Helmand, is a security problem. We have to be very alert, very attentive, especially when we go out of the area. We have to be clever—not tell anybody what we’re doing, where we’re going, things like that.
R&K: Is there a story you’ve worked on recently that was particularly striking?
Mehrpoor: Last year, [Jad] Sleiman, a journalist who was working for the Stars and Stripes, came from Kabul because he wanted to go to Camp Bastion [now called Camp Shorabak]. It was the oldest military base in Helmand. We traveled 43 miles by car and stayed there for three days. We wanted to go with them and see the ANA guys patrolling in the village like the ISAF forces [had been] doing, because they were trained by the ISAF forces, trained very properly to do patrols in the village and maintain the proper security.
We did go with them out of the [camp], but they did not do a proper patrol. They just paused their 20 vehicles out of Gereshk [a village near the camp] and did not do anything. Not even speak with the local people. After half an hour of staying there, they came back. It was horrible.
I was sad to learn that. We came there to see the ANA guys patrolling very properly and we wanted to take some good photos and videos and show to the world that the ANA guys were serving the people even after the ISAF forces [left] Helmand. But the ANA commander didn’t want to go to the area, so we came back with nothing. That was a very bad memory. In the Stars and Stripes, Jad wrote an article about it.
R&K: Do you think the Afghan government is transparent with its people?
Mehrpoor: I don’t think that the government of Afghanistan is very transparent with the people of Afghanistan. Corruption in Afghanistan is a very big problem—thousands, millions of dollars have been stolen by officials. I don’t think that such a government can be very transparent with its citizens.
R&K: Is it possible to report on that corruption?
Mehrpoor: If you find out that somebody is corrupt, because of the security situation we sometimes cannot publish [an article]. Another problem we have is that when we make the report, we have to think about both sides: the government, but also the Taliban. When the Taliban attacks an ANSF checkpoint, they send messages to journalists telling us that they have killed ANSF forces, this kind of thing. Sometimes it’s not true, sometimes it is true. Since we cannot be sure, it means that we have to be transparent. We should just tell the truth.