June 8, 2015 - Updated on June 9, 2016

Afghan authorities must end impunity for crimes against journalists

During a week that has seen the anniversaries of the still unpunished murders of two well-known journalists, Zakia Zaki and Abdul Samad Rohani, Reporters Without Borders reiterates its condemnation of the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for crimes of violence against media personnel in Afghanistan.

During a week that has seen the anniversaries of the still unpunished murders of two well-known journalists, Zakia Zaki and Abdul Samad Rohani, Reporters Without Borders reiterates its condemnation of the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for crimes of violence against media personnel in Afghanistan. Rohani’s body was found seven years ago today. The eighth anniversary of Zaki’s murder was two days ago.

Although Afghnistan’s national unity government has taken measures designed to improve freedom of information, including dissolving the commission for the verification of press offences and adopting a law on access to information, journalists are increasingly the targets of acts of violence and intimidation.

In one of the latest examples, Haji Asheghalah Vafa, a parliamentary representative for the northern province of Baghlan, threatened the head of local Tanvir TV, Shir Mohammad Jahesh, on 26 May, saying: “Your life will end on this Saturday, 30 May, when I arrive.”

Jahesh told Reporters Without Borders he was terrified by the parliamentarian’s threat and had sought refuge in Kabul. “All this just because of a report about a police commander who was removed and transferred to another region,” he said.

President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has nonetheless written a letter of commitment to support free media and journalists that has been endorsed by Abdullah Abdullah, his chief executive in the national unity government. It aims to render justice and end in impunity, and to reopen the cases of journalists who have been murdered in the past ten years.

Reopening cases of murdered journalists

At a meeting with prosecutors on 30 November 2014, First Vice-President Abdul Rachid Dostom formally asked the attorney-general to reopen all the cases of murdered journalists. He also requested the creation of a commission to monitor these cases and asked to be kept informed about progress in the investigations.

“I have promised to inform journalists on the International Day Against Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists,” he said. The attorney-general responded that “the cases will be carefully studied so that those responsible are identified and punished.”

But so far, the prosecutor’s office and the vice-president have not provided any information about the state of these investigations.

The reopening of the cases of murdered journalists is an important step by the government and the judicial system,” said Reza Moini, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Afghanistan desk.

Impunity reigns in the immense majority of murders and physical attacks against journalists, and the authorities have a duty to be as transparent as possible about the progress of the investigations. We must not forget that the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators encourages them to continue violating human rights and freedom of information. The murders of Afghan journalists are not just crimes against freedom of expression but also war crimes that must be severely punished.”

Journalists have paid a high price in Afghanistan since 2001. At least 33 have been killed in connection with the work. They include 15 foreign journalists – four German, two French, two Italian, two Swedish, one Australian, one Canadian, one Norwegian, one American, and one British. Most of these murders are still unpunished.

Anniversaries of two unpunished murders

Most of the crimes of violence against journalists occur outside the capital. They include the two murders whose anniversaries were marked this week, one today and one two days ago.

Zakia Zaki, the director of Sada-e-Solh (Voice of Peace Radio) in the province of Parwan, was gunned down in her home, in front of her two-year-old son, on 6 June 2007. Her killers have never been publicly identified or brought to justice. Her death has never been properly investigated.

Reporters Without Borders said the following about Zaki’s death in the report entitled “Presidential election in Afghanistan: local media on the front line” that it published in March 2014:

“According to the information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, the murderers were followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the founder and leader of the Islamist group Hezb-e-Islami (HIA). Several sources said that, several months before Zaki’s murder, Hekmatyar issued a fatwa against her, saying: ‘If you want to protect Islam, you must silence this woman’s voice.’ A radical fundamentalist group, HIA is an ally of the Taliban in their fight against the Afghan government and the foreign military forces. At the same time, it has representatives within the government.”

The report quoted a senior police officer as saying: “The first suspect, the head of the commando implicated in the journalist’s death, was killed by foreign forces a year after the murder. He was one of the assailants who attacked a military base in the region. The government knew full well that he was one of the local Hezb-e-Islami leaders but did not know he was involved in Zakia Zaki’s death. We determined that when we found his gun on him. It was the gun that was used to kill the journalist. As for the other two assailants, one is in prison for other crimes and the third is also apparently in prison.”

The former information and culture minister told Reporters Without Borders on 29 September 2013 that the murderers have been punished. He said that they had been arrested in other cases, that two of them were dead and that a third was still in prison. He provided no further explanation.

The body of Abdul Samad Rohani was found on 8 June 2008, a day after gunmen detained him on the outskirts of the southern city of Lashkar Gah. He had been shot three times and, according to a forensic doctor, he was tortured before being killed.

Aged 25, he was a Helmand province reporter for the BBC’s Pashto and Persian language services and had worked for the Afghan independent news agency Pajhwok since 2004.

During a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of his death, Pajhwok editor in chief Danish Karokhel told Reporters Without Borders: “We have been asking the same thing over and again for the entire year, namely, can we at least know the identity of those who killed our colleague? We know the Afghan government is too weak to arrest and try those responsible. At least we could hope that the media would be able investigate the murder. But they cannot. Why is everyone so afraid of looking into this case?”

War crimes

Destabilized by an increasingly violent civil war, Afghanistan finds its extremely difficult to protect journalists. Since the start of this spring, Taliban attacks have been directly targeting foreign civilians, regarded by the Taliban as “citizens of occupying countries” and as “state collaborators.”

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported a record high number of 2,937 civilian casualties during the first four months of 2015 (974 civilian deaths and 1,963 injured) – a 16 percent increase over the same period in 2014.

On 31 May, UNAMA human rights director Georgette Gagnon described these attacks as war crimes.

Unfortunately, a sector of the government is simultaneously holding peace talks with these criminals. Most of the slain journalists were directly killed by the Taliban, who are waging a war opposed to the Afghan people’s desire for peace and democracy. Afghanistan’s recent history has clearly shown that peace is impossible without justice.

Afghanistan is ranked 122th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.