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.