Afghan cleric who defied Covid-19 lockdown threatens woman journalist
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Afghan authorities to protect Vida Saghari, a journalist and women’s rights activist who is being threatened by a fundamentalist cleric in the western city of Herat because she criticized him for holding a religious gathering in violation of the coronavirus lockdown.
Saghari became the target of Mullah Mujib Alrahman Ansari’s anger after she, like many other social media users, posted critical comments on Facebook alongside a photo of the gathering of around 100 Muslims that he organized in Herat on the first day or Ramadan, 1 May, ignoring a ban on religious gatherings by claiming that “the coronavirus is for infidels, not for Muslims.”
The outcry about the gathering is all the greater because Herat is the epicentre of the Covid-19 epidemic in Afghanistan. It was to the epidemic’s many victims that Saghari alluded when she wrote, “Ask the gravediggers to dig a tomb for Mullah Mujib Alrahman Ansari, this ignorant plague lord who wants people to die.” She added that “people have a normal brain” and the leaders who guide them must be “responsible.”
Within hours, Ansari responded with a Facebook post attacking Saghari: “Who holds the leash on Vida Saghari, this woman who poses as a civil society activist in Kabul? Sorry, I’m going to be insulting about her. She is impolite and unveiled, ugly words issue from her mouth and witnesses say she prostitutes herself (...) She has written several times about me and Muslims in the past few days, saying we must not pray together because our gatherings will spread the coronavirus. Vida Saghari is more dangerous than the virus.”
The post marked the start of a violent cyber-harassment campaign against Saghari, who has been the target of hate speech, insults and death threats by Ansari’s supporters on social media ever since.
Ansari often expresses reactionary and misogynistic views. In January, he created a “committee for the regulation of good and the prohibition of evil” with the aim of enforcing the Sharia in Herat. The committee took a particular interest in women, calling for them to wear the veil and not work outside the home. He banned women from attending a press conference on 16 January on the grounds that “Islam does not allow women to be present at work alongside men.”
“In response to the behaviour of the fundamentalists and the threats to press freedom, which the constitution guarantees, the silence of the Afghan authorities is unacceptable,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Afghanistan/Iran desk. “Whether or not you appreciate Vida Saghari’s criticism, the harassment and attacks to which she has been subjected are completely intolerable and everything must be done to guarantee her protection.”
The Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ), which is also calling for protection for Saghari, points that more that 20% of women journalists have lost their jobs since the start of the lockdown.
Afghanistan is ranked 122nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.