Afghanistan journalism continues to suffer after its deadliest attack

The funeral of AFP photographer Shah Marai. Photo courtesy Andrew Quilty.

Journalism in Afghanistan, once the source of a major post-Taliban success story, is under attack. On April 30, a suicide bomb killed nine reporters and photographers; it was the deadliest incident of many in recent years that have been aimed at silencing a young, fearless, and aggressive news sector that proudly holds power to account.

In a region marked by repressive regimes, from Beijing to Tehran, that keep tight control over what passes for news, Afghanistan has been a beacon of free speech and freedom of the press. Starting from almost nothing during the reign of the Taliban, media outlets proliferated and flourished after the US-led invasion of the country in 2001 ended six years of fundamentalist power. International aid and investment helped create dozens of radio, television, and print outlets. The country’s post-Taliban constitution guarantees that “freedom of expression shall be inviolable.”

ICYMI: Journalism as jihad in Afghanistan

Yet many journalists who have enthusiastically and selflessly pursued their craft in that spirit now fear that the light under which they thrived is fading. The April 30 strike, aimed at journalists—the bomber wore a media ID, mingled with reporters as they covered an earlier attack, and possibly hid the bomb in a TV camera—was the first mass killing of the press since the end of the Taliban era. (The Islamic State claimed responsibility.) The bombing compounded a pattern of intimidation, harassment, beatings, shootings, and murders of journalists, not only by insurgent groups but also by security forces, politicians, warlords, and others who operate in the shadows of a nation that the Berlin-based organization Transparency International ranks as one of the most corrupt in the world. It rammed home a message that news professionals are a target in Afghanistan’s complex mosaic of violence and vested interests.

Investigative reporters and high-profile, outspoken journalists and photographers are regularly attacked and threatened. Many leave their jobs for fear that they or their families will be killed. Human Rights Watch examined the pressures on media in Afghanistan in 2015, and Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher there, noted in an article for PRI that “many journalists shy away from reporting on the most important issues that face Afghanistan and thus put at risk many of the gains in media freedom that have emerged since 2001.”

Parwiz Kawa, the editor-in-chief of a respected daily newspaper, Hasht-e-Subh, which translates to “8:00 am,” tells CJR that because of “security-related concerns,” he has lost “at least eight of my good staff in the last three years.” Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, the managing director of Nai, an organization supporting open media in Afghanistan, says the April 30 attack intensified violent trends he has observed in recent years. “Journalists are not daring to go for immediate cover of explosions and suicide attacks,” he says, and “some journalists and media are not covering gatherings at all,” while “some are using vests and helmets.”

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Nai—whose slogan is “Violence Against Journalists Should Stop”—has estimated that “at least 500 journalists and media staff have left Afghanistan since 2014, mainly because of safety,” Khalvatgar tells CJR. In 2016, Nai recorded the deaths of 21 journalists and registered 141 cases of violence against news professionals. “When it comes to the environment for doing better journalism, the most important thing to consider is the threats” to journalists, Kawa says. “Sometimes the source of the threats is known, but you can’t talk about it because the consequences are too risky, too dangerous. Sometimes it is unknown, like the Taliban.”

In late July, Kawa received a death threat by text: “When you leave your house you will be killed,” the message warned. He reported it to the national security agency but was told, he says, to “take it easy, as people who make these sort of threats are not going to kill you.”

Kawa’s newspaper, Hasht-e-Subh, publishes in a shed in the garden of a house in the Kabul suburbs and sells around 12,000 copies daily. Sales have been down since 2012; like many Afghan news outlets, the paper has struggled since the drawdown of US and NATO troops in 2014, and the subsequent departure of aid organizations. International media attention has left with them.

These days, international news bureaus in Afghanistan are staffed almost exclusively by local journalists. I was the last foreign bureau chief for the Associated Press in Kabul—I left in late 2016, after receiving a death threat signed by the Islamic State. The BBC closed its English-language bureau in 2015; no US broadcast network or British newspaper now has a full-time foreign presence in Afghanistan.

In recent years, organizations have cropped up to encourage women to pursue journalism; among them are Sahar Speaks, a charity that trains female reporters and photographers, and Zan TV, a news station that is staffed by women. In addition, social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are hugely popular and have opened a vibrant avenue for criticism and commentary.

But Afghan politicians and officials regularly criticize media coverage. Ashraf Ghani, the president, has questioned the truth of reports about his administration. And President Donald Trump’s “fake news” jabs and characterization of the press as the “enemy of the people” likely aren’t helping: David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression, has expressed concerns that Trump’s attacks “increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.”

Many Afghan journalists (along with women’s groups) are concerned that as Ghani seeks to be a peace broker ahead of presidential elections in 2019, he may make concessions that erode press freedoms and other constitutional rights to appease rivals and enemies. Some journalists are already feeling the pressure. “The ‘fake news’ story is now repeated by some senior officials, and it discredits media outlets,” Kawa says. “I think that if we move forward with the current political situation, it might lead us to lose some of our freedoms. There might be formal limitations imposed by the government on media just to please the Taliban.”

On the same day as the April 30 bombing, a BBC reporter was shot dead a few hundred miles east, in Khost Province. Days earlier, on April 26, Abdul Manan Arghand, a reporter with the Kabul News television station, was shot dead on his way to work in the southern city of Kandahar. And a month earlier, on March 28, Massoud Hossaini, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the Associated Press’s chief photographer in Kabul, survived an attack in which unknown gunmen fired at his vehicle.

After past incidents, Kabul’s press corps have asked the government for protection. But now, says Sharif Hassan, a Washington Post correspondent, “We know the government cannot protect us. How can they? We have to be our own protectors.”

Within a week of the April 30 attack, about 20 journalists gathered at the office of 1TV, which lost a cameraman and a reporter in the bombing. They represented local and international organizations, including the AFP, whose photographer Shah Marai was killed; Al Jazeera; The New York Times; the Associated Press; Khurshid TV; Pajhwok Afghan News; and others. At the meeting, the AFP representative announced that the agency would no longer do spot coverage of attacks, a staffer confirmed. That represents a transformation in coverage of the war. “No others have made that decision yet,” Hassan says.

In addition to the Islamic State, the Taliban also has a history of threatening and attacking media employees. In 2016, they made good on a promise to Tolo TV and blew up a bus transporting production staff to their homes, killing seven. This attack followed a Tolo report on the Taliban, which station executives acknowledged was factually incorrect but refused to retract.

Nevertheless, for years, journalists have worked with the Taliban, who have recently allowed reporters to journey into and report from their turf. With the arrival of a new regional player, the rules have changed, but no one knows what they are. “With ISIS, we don’t know how to negotiate with them,” says Hassan. “The problem with ISIS is that they don’t have an address, and they never negotiate.”

Hassan, who is 28, returned to Kabul early this year after earning a master’s degree in journalism at the City University of New York and interning at the Post. He is Hazara, a Shia ethnic minority often attacked in predominantly Sunni Afghanistan. “I thought it would be an interesting time to cover these attacks and give a voice to millions of voiceless Afghans,” he says. “We know the foreign media are not really covering Afghanistan as they were even just five years ago. I thought I could do it. It was a hard decision, but I made it. I have no regrets—not yet.”

The April 30 attack helped him set limits. “I’m usually the guy who rushes to the scene of attacks and bombings, to take photos and do interviews,” he says. “The greatest story of all time is not worth it if you’re at risk. Safety is first.”

Frud Bezhan, a 30 year-old reporter who covers Afghanistan from Prague for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, says that after his last reporting trip to Kabul, in September 2017, “I didn’t feel I should be there and reporting; it wasn’t worth risking my life for.” The network lost three employees on April 30. Bezhan says that along, with the deterioration of security, he has noticed domestic news coverage increasingly falling back on incidents of violence, instead of investigating corruption, poverty, criminality, and human rights abuses.

This year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Afghanistan 118th on its World Press Freedom Index, out of 180 nations. It put the number of journalists killed there in 2017 at 15, “many in targeted attacks on the media.” Conditions for journalists in Afghanistan were deteriorating, it found, as many officials were “unable to accept the principle of media independence, and the police and military have been implicated in several cases of violence against journalists.” The Taliban and the Islamic State had created what Reporters Without Borders called “information black holes” across the country.

“The terrorist groups can deal with institutions or powers inside the government, but they cannot deal with the media, because people working in the media are mostly not ideologically motivated,” Kawa says. “They are interested in doing their jobs as journalists; they are young people who believe in freedom of speech and freedom of the press.” He adds, ““When it comes to the real independent media outlets, the only way to stop them is to threaten them and, in some cases, kill them.”

ICYMI: Afghanistan’s murdered journalists, in the words of the people who knew them

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Lynne O’Donnell is an award-winning journalist, an author, and a fellow of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Between 2009 and 2016 she was a bureau chief in Kabul, for AFP and the AP. She is now in London, embarking on an MA in war studies at King’s College.