Publish and Perish in Afghanistan

The Taliban is targeting journalists as part of an ongoing insurgency against the government. But militants are not the only threat to media freedom in Afghanistan.

Afghan journalists seek cover at the sce
Afghan journalists seek cover at the scene where clashes between Taliban-linked militants and security forces occured in Kabul on January 18, 2010. At least 18 civilians were wounded when fighting erupted between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in the centre of Kabul on January 18, a health ministry spokesman said. The Taliban launched a string of attacks on government buildings and shopping centres in commercial and political heart of the Afghan capital, triggering gun battles with security forces. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL — There are no walk-ins at the Kabul office of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee. Visitors to the media advocacy group are screened through a slit in a heavy iron door, submit their belongings to careful inspection, and undergo a pat-down body-search for concealed weapons or suicide vests under the steely gaze of an assault rifle-wielding guard. The new security measures are a response to a warning issued by the Taliban in December that it would specifically target journalists and nongovernmental organizations as part of its ongoing insurgency against the Afghan government.

That’s no empty threat. Insurgent attacks, including suicide bombings, killed a total of eight journalists, including two foreign correspondents, in 2014, an increase from three such killings in 2013. And the body count continues to rise. On January 16, radio journalist Mohammad Aqil Wiqar became the first journalist to be killed in 2015 when two unidentified men with AK-47 assault rifles shot him at close range at a wedding celebration in eastern Nangarhar province. Police have not arrested any suspects and there have been no claims of responsibility for Wiqar’s killing.

But Afghan journalists have more to fear than attacks by Taliban insurgents. A Human Rights Watch report this week documents how reporters and media outlets are also increasingly subject to harassment, threats, and violence from government officials, Afghan security forces, and pro-government warlords. Their targets are journalists whose reporting exposes official links to issues including land grabbing, corruption, and human rights abuses.

The police routinely fail to respond to threats against journalists or take action against those who carry out their threats. On July 26, 2013, the provincial governor of Parwan province ordered his personal bodyguards to severely beat Bokhdi News Agency reporter Nasratullah Iqbal. The journalist had incurred the governor’s wrath by critically reviewing the governor’s book, and for news coverage that had exposed the governor’s alleged corruption. When Iqbal sought police assistance in arresting his attackers, they refused and said, “The governor is going to apologize, let’s put this behind us.”

Police failings are all too often compounded by government agencies that heighten reporters’ vulnerability to harassment and threats rather than protect them from such abuses. The official Media Violations Investigation Commission (MVIC) exemplifies an Afghan government agency that undercuts media freedom rather than protects it. The MVIC is tasked to examine complaints about the conduct of journalists and the accuracy of their reporting to determine if they merit criminal investigation. Far too often, the MVIC forgoes any such evaluations. Instead, the agency directly forwards such complaints to the Attorney General’s office to initiate legal action against journalists — regardless of the credibility of such accusations.

An Afghan news agency editor told Human Rights Watch that she has been called to the MVIC and Attorney General’s office “dozens of times” over the past two years to answer complaints from government officials about stories her reporters have covered. On one occasion, Afghan lawmakers demanded that the MVIC and the Attorney General’s office force the news agency to “apologize” after reporting on a July 2012 gunfight between bodyguards of two rival members of Parliament. The MVIC and attorney general opted to not pursue charges against the news agency only after being shown graphic evidence of the gunfight — including photographs, video, and audio recordings — backed by a Kabul police report of the incident.

Confronted by a corrosive combination of intimidation, violence, and government complicity with such abuses, Afghan journalists are resorting to self-censorship to protect themselves. Well aware of their government’s willingness to turn a blind eye to abuses against them, or worse, to side with the perpetrators, journalists now must weigh the personal risks of covering issues that might incur violent reprisals. A Kabul-based senior newspaper editor told Human Rights Watch that reporting on certain politically connected mujahidin warlords — veterans of the conflicts against both the Soviet occupation and the Taliban — were effectively off limits for his reporters. “We censor ourselves for the security of our staff. These people don’t file a complaint — they might kill us.”

Since the international intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, hundreds of newspapers, television, and radio stations, and web-based media outlets have emerged in the war-torn country. These outlets have played a crucial role not only in shaping public opinion, but also exposing corruption, drug-trafficking, and other destabilizing criminality that continues to flourish. Protecting journalists and ensuring the vitality of the country’s media sector requires the new administration of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to side with journalists against those seeking to silence them.

In a meeting with Human Rights Watch in Kabul on January 19, Abdullah praised the blossoming of Afghanistan’s media sector as “one of our prides” and pledged that attacks on journalists “will be taken seriously” by his government. But he and Ghani need to back that rhetoric with decisive responses to violence and intimidation against journalists, including investigating attacks, and disciplining or prosecuting any government officials, police, or military personnel implicated in such violence.

That official support is no antidote to the violence of Taliban insurgents who will kill to undermine the principles of a free media. But it will provide desperately needed reassurance to journalists that their government will defend their rights rather than actively undermine them.


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