“The government, police and security services have a duty to protect journalists and media outlets,” said Réza Moïni, the head of RSF’s Iran-Afghanistan desk. “Guaranteeing the safety of the Afghan people includes guaranteeing the right of journalists to provide them with news and information. “We call on President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to implement appropriate measures for the protection of journalists. At this time of danger, the NATO democracies present in Afghanistan must also face up to their responsibilities. We must not let Afghan journalists be discouraged by the Taliban threats and by the international community’s silence.”
The Taliban and Islamic State are freedom predators and one of their leading goals is to deprive the public of independently reported news and information by creating a climate of terror and reducing the media to silence.
Despite courageous efforts by journalists to do their duty to provide news coverage, Afghanistan’s war zones – the provinces of Helmand, Kunduz, Baghlan, Nangarhar, Takhar, Ghazni and Farah – are in the process of becoming news and information “black holes” in which media freedom is disappearing.
Gen. Charles Cleveland, one of the US military’s spokesmen in Afghanistan, said at a news conference on 22 August that the Afghan forces were moving in the right direction and that Helmand and Kunduz provinces would never fall into Taliban hands. The media report that there are 100 US military personnel in Helmand province.
Around ten media outlets and scores of journalists are currently operating in these provinces under direct threat from rebel forces and sometimes under pressure from local authorities. At least 100 journalists – including both those working for national media and those working for provincial media (three privately-owned TV channels, one state-owned TV channel, eight radio stations and five newspapers) – are currently besieged in the city of Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital.
“We are working but we are worried,” one of these journalists told RSF on condition of anonymity. “Some radio journalists have for some time been refusing to be recorded for their reports for fear of being identified. We have not been able to do any reporting outside of the city since the Taliban advance on the city. They used to threaten us by telephone from a distance but now they are just 2 kms away. So the threats are now serious.”
Shah Hussain Mortazawi, the president’s spokesman and a former editor of the newspaper 8 Sobh (LINK), told RSF: “The president’s office has asked local officials and those responsible for national security to protect journalists. To facilitate the work of journalists, we have decided to activate media centres in the conflict zones. In Helmand, for example, the centre is open every day and there are political and military representatives there to inform journalists.”
Several journalists in the besieged cities of Lashgar Gah and Kunduz say that they have warned the authorities of the danger of new attacks and a repetition of the disaster in Kunduz in September 2015 (when the Taliban captured the city and held it for two weeks). But no action has been taken.
The Afghan Journalists Federation organized a meeting in Kabul on 22 August between security officials and media executives to discuss the protection of journalists in war zones.“Both sides talked about the difficulties, especially as regards the protection of journalists and the little information provided by the authorities in certain regions,” said Fahim Dashty, the spokesman of the National Union of Journalists of Afghanistan (which is part of the Federation).
“Some of the officials deplored the publication of inaccurate and even dangerous reports. In many cases, especially regarding security and violence, I can say that the authorities have until now cooperated well with us (...) We proposed the creation of mixed committees comprising officials and reporters in order to better manage the difficulties in conflict zones.”
Shafiqa Habib, the head of the Afghan Women Journalists Union (which represents a total of 400 women journalists located in 14 of the country’s provinces), was not optimistic.
“Overall the situation of women journalists has worsened in recent years, even in the calmest and safest provinces,” she said. “In Helmand, for example, there are no women journalists at all. Women are the leading victims of the decline in the security situation, especially women journalists. Several women journalists have left the city for Kunduz out of fear or simply because it was impossible to work.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official responsible for national security recognized that journalists do not receive sufficient protection but he also insisted that some were “incompetent.”
“They call people in the region to get more information without knowing who their sources are. Sometimes they publish inaccurate information or even disinformation of Taliban origin. I don’t want to generalize, but we are at war and war reporters need to check the information they receive.”
According to the information obtained by RSF, journalists working in these war zones are under pressure from both sides. They are threatened by the Taliban, who accuse them of not being neutral, and they are accused by local officials of exaggerating and portraying the situation in overly negative terms.
Rahimullah Samander, the head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, is currently visiting Pol-e Khomri, the capital of Baghlan province, to look at the situation of journalists, which he regards as disturbing.
“All of the journalists I have seen are worried,” he said. “There is intense fighting in the three strategic provinces of Baghlan, Kunduz and Takhar. There are at least 50 local journalists and around ten reporters working for national or foreign media in these provinces. The local journalists do not enjoy the support of national or foreign media and are less well regarded by military and political officials, who also accuse them of putting out alarmist reports.”
The National Security Council adopted a Procedure for the Safety and Protection of Journalists during a meeting chaired by President Ghani yesterday. Drafted jointly by the Afghan Journalists Federation, the National Security Council and presidential advisers, it had been discussed for months. RSF has yet to see the wording but welcomes the adoption of measures that should help to improve the situation of journalists.