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Q&A: The Upstart Newspaper Exposing Corruption in Afghanistan

Zaki Daryabi
Zaki Daryabi, the editor in chief of Etilaatroz, in the newspaper’s Kabul, Afghanistan, office in January 2018. © Zaki Daryabi/Etilaatroz

Etilaatroz is a small, youth-led investigative newspaper that is exposing government corruption in Afghanistan. Murtaza Meraj, a media and communication program officer at the Open Society Foundations, spoke to the paper’s founder, Zaki Daryabi, about its history and accomplishments.

Why did you start a newspaper in Afghanistan?

In 2009, I was at Kabul University and working at a local newspaper. I published a report that showed university officials used expired food in dormitories to take a cut of the operating budget. My report led to significant changes, and officials were appointed to examine the issue.

Six months later, I reported on a corrupt government official. That official happened to be friends with the newspaper’s owner, who was also a member of the National Assembly. The report was never published, and I left that newspaper. This experience inspired me to be an independent, professional voice for the new generation in Afghanistan.

Can you tell me more about the newspaper you launched and how it works?

My newspaper, Etilaatroz, was created in 2012 when no media platform existed for young people working towards a better Afghanistan. We are led by young, educated, and professional Afghans, and we are different from other local media who, because of their factional media ownership and monopolies, struggle to represent the ethnic, religious, and political diversity that exists in Afghanistan.

We’re based in Kabul, where 14 employees prepare and publish the newspaper’s daily content. There are an additional 15 staff members who work in marketing, administration, finance, and daily distribution.

You published a story in May 2017 exposing inappropriate land dealings by Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president. What did you find, and how was your report received?

Etilaatroz received access to documents that were part of an illicit and unclear deal between a private company and Afghanistan’s government. The papers detailed government plans to sell state-owned land to the company at a 90 percent markdown in exchange for campaign donations. After this report was published, the Afghan House of the People declared the deal illegal.

What lessons did you learn from the whole episode?

The experience demonstrated why independent news media is critical to a more open society in Afghanistan. First, it reinforced that when we have a free and independent press, it becomes difficult for the government—which is hoping that its details will be not disclosed to the public—to carry out these secret deals.

This report also gave us confidence that Etilaatroz could be one of the most important and influential media outlets in Afghanistan, and that our reporting could assist the country in the fight against corruption and in support of the rule of law.

How has your life changed since these stories were published?

Through my career as a journalist, my life has had pleasant and unpleasant changes. Etilaatroz’s investigative reports have put pressure on me, my colleagues, and my friends, which has made me more careful. That’s why I am looking to prevent any risks by taking security more seriously at our newspaper. But this is just a small part of the change. The big one is what’s happened for Etilaatroz.

How has Etilaatroz changed?

Over the past two years, our online readership has increased by 200 percent. We have become a main source of information, and we are respected as a national media organization. Government and other officials are quick to respond to calls from our journalists—and more journalists are eager to work with us, too.

We have also seen that the bad guys, both inside and outside of the government, are more worried about Etilaatroz and our investigative reporting. What is most exciting to us is that more Afghan people, especially young Afghans, follow, read, and like our content. They have become eager to tell their stories.

What is the biggest unanswered question for the future of quality, independent journalism in Afghanistan?

The biggest question is how to keep independent, professional media functioning and active when insecurity, political instability, and a poor economy are intensifying. To protect and support quality reporting, we need a legal foundation for timely access to information from the government so that journalists can produce accurate and reliable reports. And if officials or agencies refuse to provide information, there should be legal consequences for their failure to be transparent with the public.

It is also extremely important for Afghan media and journalists to get access to vocational and professional training, which will prepare them for the challenges ahead.

Etilaatroz is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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