For the first time, RSF held seminars in Mazar-i-Sharif (in the northern province of Balkh), Herat (in the western province of Herat) and Charikar (in the central province of Parwan). And for the first, RSF conducted a seminar in Kabul specifically for women reporters in conflict zones at the request of the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ).
In all, 65 journalists (including 26 women) from 60 independent Afghan media outlets attended the seminars, which were based on the new Pashto and Persian-language versions of the Safety Guide for Journalists, published by RSF in partnership with UNESCO. Some of the journalists came from nearby provinces, above all Kapisa, Panjshir, Kunduz, Farah, Samangan, Jowzjan, Ghor and Badghis.
At these seminars, RSF met journalists who are not only threatened by armed non-state groups but are also harassed by local politicians including provincial governors.
"Self-censorship is the rule in order to survive," said a journalist from Balkh province who asked not to be identified. "You can talk about a lot of things but not corruption. For example, it's forbidden to talk about the seizure of state land or property by governors or their associates or allies. And 'forbidden' means there's a danger of being killed!"
The governors of Balkh and Herat provinces did not respond to requests from the RSF delegation for meetings to discuss journalists' safety.
Fewer and fewer women journalists
RSF and its local partner, the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists, held a press conference in Kabul on 20 November on the situation of women journalists. The CPAWJ presented the findings of a survey of women journalists at 74 leading national and local media outlets (29 TV channels, 35 radio stations, four news agencies and six newspapers) in 22 provinces, and at four NGOs that defend media freedom and journalists.
The survey found that altogether these media outlets employ a total of 1,037 women, including 474 women professional journalists, and it confirmed that the security situation in Afghanistan is having a direct impact on the presence of women in the media.
The security challenge and the importance of women in the media were central themes of the opening addresses that Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Mohammad Rasool Bawari, the acting information and culture minister, delivered at the press conference.
CPWAJ director Farida Nekzad and Reza Moini, the head of RSF's Iran/Afghanistan desk, emphasized the danger that women could disappear altogether from the media sector. To prevent this, they urged the government and parliament to provide women journalists with more protection, especially in the remoter provinces.
The CPWAJ and RSF also called for amendments to the law banning violence against women, so that it gives them better protection against psychological and sexual harassment in the workplace, and for a newsroom code that protects women journalists.
Violence, chief foe of women journalists
Many women journalists have abandoned their jobs because of growing threats and the climate of violence against women. Six women media workers have been killed since the start of 2016.
The situation of women journalists in the provinces of Kunduz and Nangarhar – which have seen violent clashes between the Taliban, Islamic State and the Afghan armed forces for the past two years – is indicative. Kunduz had at least 100 women journalists and media workers in 2016 but, after the Taliban attacks there, the number has plummeted.
The situation is similar in Nangarhar. "Forty women journalists used to work in the Nangarhar region but now there are just a handful and they only work in the newsrooms," local journalist Rahmatullah Ziarmal said. "As well as the war, the violence, the Taliban and Islamic State, local politicians and organized crime are to blame for this."
The CPAWJ survey also establishes a link between the number woman journalists and coverage of women: the fewer the women working for newspapers, the fewer the articles about women.
Government efforts to protect journalists
In response to the threats, the Afghan authorities and media representatives have jointly launched a system of coordinating committees for the safety of journalists and media. This initiative has been a real success and could be an example for many other countries.
Created in September 2016, the committees have already had a positive impact, helping to reduce threats against the media and to combat impunity. Vice-President Sarwar Danish chairs the top committee, which consists of senior government and judicial officials and representatives of journalists' and media associations. Sub-committees monitor individual threats and abuses against journalists and media, the trends and the success of efforts to combat them.
"In the past year, this entity has successfully dealt with around ten cases involving threats against journalists and media," said Hujatollah Mujadadi, one of the representatives of the Federation of Afghan Media Organizations and Journalists who are members of the top committee. "In several of these cases, senior governmental or military officials were asked to apologize to media outlets or journalists or were even punished by their superiors. In the event of a disagreement, the committee transfers the case to the prosecutor's office, which can initiate judicial proceedings."
The local committees – in which the security forces, including the National Directorate of Security (NDS), are represented – meet once a month in the different provinces to seek solutions to the security problems that some journalists face.
At a meeting with Vice-President Danish on 22 November, RSF praised the committee's achievements while pointing out the need to provide women journalists with more protection. Danish reiterated his commitment to supporting RSF initiatives aimed at protecting journalists.
Afghanistan is ranked 120th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.