Who persecutes journalists in Afghanistan?
After journalists were endangered by this week’s heavy fighting between the Taliban and Afghan army in Farah, capital of the western province of Farah, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterates its concern about the decline in the security situation for journalists and media outlets throughout Afghanistan and lists the country’s press freedom predators.
Taliban forces attacked and entered part of the city of Farah shortly after midnight on 15 May after an offensive outside the city that had intensified over a period of several days. The Taliban attack put many local journalists and media outlets in direct danger.
At least 30 journalists are based in the city, working for two TV channels (one commercial, one public), five radio stations, two newspapers and for national media. Farah province was already regarded as one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan.
RSF has tried to help find a solution for the safety of Farah’s journalists, working with local journalists’ associations and the authorities. “Until now, no attack on media outlets and journalists has been reported,” a journalist inside the city told RSF. “Most have found a refuge, while waiting for the city to be secured.”
The Afghan authorities meanwhile report that army reinforcements have been sent to the city and claim that the situation is under control.
Mounting death toll
According to RSF’s tally, a total of 36 journalists and media workers have been killed since the start of 2016 in Afghanistan in bombings and other forms of violence by the country’s two main press freedom predators, the Taliban and Islamic State (Daesh).
Other journalists have been the victims of violence by the police and security services in various parts of the country. Militias working for provincial strongmen and governors also threaten and harass media outlets and journalists.
“We call on the authorities to do their duty to ensure the safety of journalists and respect for the right to inform,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran-Afghanistan desk. “The government must regulate the militias, which nowadays play a major role in harassment of the media. We also deplore the mistrust and accusatory attitude that the police and military display towards the media and journalists, endangering the freedom to inform. The authorities must end the threats to the media and the impunity for those who attack journalists.”
At least 11 dead in a single week
Last month, ten journalists were killed in a single day – 30 April. Nine of them were killed in a double suicide bombing in Kabul, the second of which deliberately targeted the media. It was the deadliest single attack on the media since the fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001 and was claimed shortly afterwards by Islamic State.
The tenth journalist to be killed on 30 April was Ahmad Shah, a journalist with the BBC’s Pashto section, who was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in eastern Khost province. The police investigated the murder and the province’s governor, Hokam Khan Habibi, announced on 10 May that the killers had been arrested and would soon be brought to trial. He also called Shah’s murder a “terrorist act” but did not elaborate.
Abdulmanan Arghand, a journalist with the Kabul News commercial TV channel, was gunned down on 25 April in the southern province of Kandahar. RSF learned that the Kandahar police had warned him on 5 March of an imminent Taliban threat against him and his father because of their anti-Taliban activities. Arghand met on 13 and 15 March with the Kandahar police chief (the provincial head of the National Directorate of Security), who confirmed the threat. In a phone message afterwards, Arghand expressed his concern and his dissatisfaction with these meetings.
The Kandahar police chief announced on 26 April that a “Taliban member” had been arrested for murdering Arghand, and the police released a video in which he made a full confession. Taliban spokesman Zbiollah Mojahed nonetheless insisted that the detainee was not a Taliban member and that the Taliban were conducting their own investigation into the Arghand murder. He also denied any Taliban role in the Shah murder.
Threat from unofficial militias
The past year has seen a major increase in attacks on journalists, who are targeted not only by the Taliban and Islamic State, which seek to enforce their hatred of press freedom, but also by the police and army and by the unofficial militias.
These militias act as enforcers for warlords and strongmen in various parts of the countries. They are armed by the government or by ruling politicians and their main job is to resist and combat armed opposition groups, above all, the Taliban. But many journalists say that most of these militias have also become one of the main sources of danger to the media.
Where the forces of the state are either powerless or absent, these militias are the new masters, confiscating land, taxing cars on the main highways and pressuring the media to say nothing. Covering the criminal activities of these groups is out of the question, even for the national media.
In several regions, they even collaborate with those they are supposed to combat, namely the Taliban, especially in Ghor province, where two radio stations were recently destroyed, and in Najrab, a village in Kapisa province, where the head of one of these militias is also a senior member of the parliamentary committee on national security. In some provinces, such as Balkh, it is not uncommon for influential individuals, including the former governor, to have their own private armies.
Ghazni is a good example of the situation now prevailing for journalists. In Ghazni, journalists are harassed by the Taliban, whose presence in the province is growing, by the security forces, which want to control media coverage for security reasons, and by the unofficial militias, which suppress any independent reporting.
“The threat from these armed groups has compounded the threats already imposed by influential politicians, the mullahs, the police and the governor, although they have no official power, legally,” a Ghazni province journalist told RSF on condition of anonymity. “It is irresponsible of the government to tolerate the illegal actions of these groups.”
The level of impunity is high in the regions controlled by these militias. There has been little progress in the investigation into the attacks on two radio stations in Firuzkoh, the capital of Ghor province – Sedai Edelat (Voice of Justice) on 21 January 2018 and Radio Sarhad (Frontier) on 23 December 2017. Abdlvodod Samim, the journalist who was at Sedai Edelat when it was attacked, was arrested by the police as the main suspect although the station’s director and many other journalists insist that he was not involved. The police do not as yet have any other leads.
Harassed by governors, police and army
Three National Directorate of Security agents used force to prevent four journalists – 1TV’s Farhad Joya, the news agency Khohandej’s Nazir Ayoubi, and Firouz Mashouf and Yahya Fouladi from the commercial TV channel Tamadon – from covering an Islamic State attack on a mosque in the western city of Herat on 25 March. Although an official communiqué condemned the action of these three agents, no measures were taken against them, the journalists say.
When Radio Salam Watandar reporter Erfan Barzegar went to police headquarters in the northeastern province of Takhar on 29 March to do a report on terrorism, he resisted the provincial counter-terrorism chief’s attempts to intimidate him, with the result that he was threatened with arrest and imprisonment. It was only thanks to the presence of other officials that he avoided being jailed.
Farhad Tuhidi was beaten by police in Herat on 15 March for trying to cover a road accident for which the military were to blame. After filming a brawl between policemen during the Nowruz (Persian New Year) festivities in Ghor province on 23 March, Radio Salam Watandar’s Marouf Seiedi was himself beaten by police officers, with police chief Ziaedin Sagheb’s support after Sagheb had arrived at the scene. Ghotbedin Khohi was insulted and hit by special security forces in Meymaneh, Faryab province, on 25 March just for filming a street.
The Coordinating Committee for the Safety of Journalists and Media reported in a statement on 7 April that, of the 1,072 cases of violence against journalists registered during the past 15 years, only 172 had been investigated and, of these, 68 were closed without any action being taken. The investigation into three murders of journalists – in Balkh in 2005, Nangarhar in 2008 and Helmand in 2009 – are still open.
Afghanistan is ranked 118th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.