By S. Binodkumar Singh*
Afghanistan, after the ouster of the Taliban in the last quarter of 2001, started developing a free and vibrant media led by a generation of brave, capable reporters, many of whom received training sponsored by Western Governments and news organizations. Today, the country has passed into a phase where media professionals are under increasing threat.
On June 3, 2021, Mina Khairi, a news presenter for Ariana Television Network, her mother as well as two other passengers were killed when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) hit the van they were travelling in, in Kabul.
On March 2, 2021, three women journalists – Shahnaz Roafi, Sadia Sadat, and Mursal Wahidi – were shot dead by unidentified gunmen on their way home from work in Jalalabad city, Nangarhar Province. All three victims worked for independent television and radio station Enikass.
According to the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC), at least five media professionals have already been killed in the current year (till July 11, 2021) so far. Eight media personnel were killed in 2020. Prominent among these were:
December 10, 2020: Malala Maiwan, a reporter for radio and television broadcaster Enikass and her driver Mohammad Tahir were killed by unidentified gunmen in Jalalabad city, Nangarhar Province. Maiwand had spoken publicly about the challenges facing female journalists in Afghanistan and was also a member of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television.
November 12, 2020: Elyas Da’ee, a reporter for Azadi Radio was killed when a sticky bomb attached to his vehicle detonated in Lashkargah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province. Three others persons, including Da’ee’s brother, a child, and another man, were wounded in the attack.
May 30, 2020: A reporter for local broadcaster Khurshid TV, Mir Wahed Shah and television technician, Shafiq Amiri, were killed when the company vehicle they were travelling in with other employees of the privately-owned broadcaster was hit by a bomb in Kabul.
Number of Media Workers killed in Afghanistan
|2021 (Till July 11)||5||4|
According to AFJC data, while 29 media professionals were killed in 12 years – between 2002 and 2013 – when foreign troops were in charge of Afghanistan Security, 81 media professionals were killed in eight years (including the current year) after 2013, when responsibility for security increasingly passed on to Afghan Forces. In 2001, nine media professionals, including two women, had been killed.
Evidently, the situation for media professionals, as for all Afghans, declined alarmingly from 2014 onwards, when most foreign troops left the war-ravaged country and the country’s nascent Security Forces (SFs) took charge nationwide.
Journalists in many parts of Afghanistan say they no longer feel safe amid the increased killings of fellow journalists. Sami Serat, a journalist working with a local radio station in Helmand Province said,
Similarly, Walwala, who worked as a journalist in Baghlan Province but left her job because of security concerns, stated,
She added that she would “only start working as a journalist again when the security situation gets better in the country.”
Afghanistan has more than 2,000 officially registered media outlets as of March 2021. Reports indicate that at least 100 media outlets have shut down since 2014.
On May 3, 2021, AJSC, in collaboration with United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), celebrated the World Press Freedom Day in Kabul, Afghanistan. All keynote speakers highlighted the challenges to press freedom, journalists’ safety as well as the measures needed to overcome existing challenges. AJSC President Najib Sharifi noted,
Deborah Lyons, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan noted that “when any Afghan reporter is gagged or hurt, the media sector is wounded and Afghanistan itself is seriously damaged,” She called for violence to abate and the ‘impunity gap’ to be closed.
Earlier, on March 10, 2021, in a letter to the UNSC and UNAMA, AFJC and 40 other civil society organizations from around the globe highlighted the wave of journalists’ killings in Afghanistan and urged these organisations to stand in solidarity with Afghan journalists to help ensure their safety and media freedom. The letter emphasised the role the Afghan journalists were playing in a peaceful and democratic transition during and after the ongoing peace negotiations.
On July 1, 2020, in an open letter to President Ashraf Ghani, 204 Afghan Journalists had demanded the Government to pay due attention to journalists’ safety and security and to seriously follow up on the cases of violence against journalists and media personnel, especially the cases that resulted in deaths of journalists and media personnel since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001.
It is pertinent to recall here that Taliban ‘commanders’ and fighters have long targeted the media, accusing them of aligning with the Afghan Government or international military forces. If journalists report ‘unfavourably’ about Taliban actions or military operations, the Taliban often accuse them of being spies. District and provincial-level Taliban ‘commanders’ have also criticized journalists for not reporting incidents such as civilian casualties from Government airstrikes.
Journalists also point out that the role some of them play as influential and prominent figures in many communities has made them targets of the Taliban. By attacking them, the Taliban effectively threaten all local media. Between November 2020 and March 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed 46 members of the Afghan media, seeking information on the conditions under which they work, including threats of physical harm. Those interviewed included 42 journalists in Badghis, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, Wardak, and Zabul Provinces, as well as four who had left Afghanistan due to threats. In a number of the cases that HRW documented, Taliban terrorists had detained journalists for a few hours or overnight. In several cases they or their colleagues were able to contact senior Taliban officials to intercede with provincial and district-level ‘commanders’ to secure their release, indicating that local ‘commanders’ are able to take decisions to target journalists on their own, without approval from senior Taliban military or political officials.
Journalists in Afghanistan face extraordinary threats, and the targeted assassination campaign against them is undoing one of the great achievements of the post-Taliban era. The killings have spread fear among Afghanistan’s media community, prompting some to stop working or flee or self-censor, to avoid angering armed fighters or Government officials. The fear is even greater because the perpetrators remain unknown and unpunished, a sign of the country’s fracturing security situation.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).