Media 'under threat'
"The governor told me in the presence of everyone: 'Why have you reported on this? … You have no right to report it. I will imprison you. Your life is nothing to me,'" a journalist from the southeastern Paktika province, who had reported on an attack on an Afghan security base that killed two officers, told Human Rights Watch (HRW). "It's been 12 or 13 months since the threats and I am afraid even when I go home."
The reporter is one of more than 30 journalists, editors, publishers, and media directors interviewed by the human rights group across the South Asian country for its report "Stop Reporting or We'll Kill Your Family: Threats to Media Freedom in Afghanistan." The 48-page document, released on January 21, focuses not only on the rising number of attacks and threats against journalists in the conflict-ridden nation, but also on the Afghan government's failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible.
The paper comes at a crucial time for Afghanistan, just weeks after a foreign troops drawdown and months after an election feud over claims of fraud which only ended when the two main candidates agreed to form a national unity government.
'They might kill us'
HRW argues that journalists working outside Afghanistan's main cities are especially vulnerable to reprisals from powerful groups as they lack the protection provided by larger Afghan media organizations and the international presence. Female journalists face even greater challenges given the social and cultural restrictions limiting their mobility in urban as well as rural areas.
Afghan journalists quoted in the report indicated that they often respond to threats with self-censorship, with many steering clear of reporting on sensitive issues such as corruption, land grabbing, violence against women, and human rights abuses.
"We see our job as needing to pressure the government to reform. Some issues we are careful about. … We censor ourselves for the security of our staff. These people don't file a complaint - they might kill us," a Kabul-based editor was quoted as saying. It is such a development which the report claims is jeopardizing media freedom in the country.
The media in Afghanistan have grown exponentially since 2002 and are increasingly playing a role in public life - interviewing and criticizing politicians and public officials. The problem is that many Afghan officials do not embrace the idea that they are accountable to the general public. "They believe they can quash such criticism through violence and intimidation," Patricia Gossman, a senior HRW researcher on Afghanistan, told DW.
The paper also goes on to highlight how dangerous the work environment for journalists in Afghanistan has become. The security situation in the country has deteriorated in recent months, particularly as the foreign troop pullout has taken place and the Taliban have launched a wave of deadly assaults. Journalists, who because of the nature of their jobs must be out in the open, have been particularly vulnerable.
The deadliest year
While attacks on journalists are not a new phenomenon in Afghanistan, violence against reporters rose to an unprecedented level last year. In its most recent report, the Afghan media advocacy organization Nai stated that 2014 was the most violent year on record for journalists in the country, with attacks up by 64 percent from 2013. According to the media rights organization, there were 125 reported incidents of violence last year, with eight Afghan correspondents killed in attacks carried out by insurgents.
Two foreign journalists were also killed, including German photographer Anja Niedringhaus. The internationally acclaimed AP journalist was shot dead when a policeman opened fire on both her and Canadian reporter Kathy Gannon in the eastern Khost province. Gannon was injured, but survived.
"In Afghanistan, the Taliban pose a unique threat. They see journalists - most of whom showcase their brutalities - as threats to the narrative that they seek to project, namely a sophisticated and even more moderate insurgent organization than, for example, the Pakistani Taliban," said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.
While the insurgents are certainly weaker than before the US-led invasion in 2001, they have succeeded in maintaining a climate of constant insecurity and fear. Among other things, they have achieved this by explicitly threatening and targeting the media. Most recently, the extremists said in a statement that they would target journalists seen as supporting "Western values."
This means that the Taliban and other insurgent groups seek to use the media as a propaganda platform by actively pressuring reporters to cover their statements or not write articles deemed critical.
'It's not only the Taliban'
But while the Taliban insurgency has greatly contributed to the climate of fear, the HRW report also claims that the authorities' failure to protect journalistic freedom has emboldened those determined to suppress criticism. "Government figures realize the importance of the media and seek to control it through intimidation, misuse of the laws, and violence," said Gossman.
Speaking to the New York Times, Abdul Mujeeb Khelwatgar, executive director of Nai, was recently quoted as saying: "Since 2001, more than 40 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, and none of the cases have been followed by the judicial system of Afghanistan."
The Afghan authorities' role in helping to create an atmosphere of intimidation is perhaps well exemplified by the experiences made by journalist Zerak Zaheen last year. The DW correspondent was stopped by Taliban militants while on assignment in a remote area of Kunar province. He was pulled out of the car and accused of being a spy. Despite being hit by the extremists, he managed to talk his way out, although not before having to leave his equipment behind.
The following day, however, he was interrogated for hours by the Afghan secret police who wanted to know why the Taliban had let him go. "Journalists come under suspicion from all sides," Zaheen said. "Because you are a journalist, you are suspected of being a liar or a spy." Fellow DW journalist Sayed Abdullah Nizami added: "It is not only the Taliban that terrorize us. Also the government puts journalists under pressure. Then there are the mafia and the warlords."
A Mass Media Commission?
So what can President Ashraf Ghani's new administration do about this? During his election campaign, Ghani pledged that he would drop all politically motivated and unsubstantiated charges against journalists. He and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also committed to upholding freedom of expression and protecting journalists against abuse.
In its report, HRW calls on Ghani to publicly condemn all attacks on journalists and media organizations, and ensure that such incidents are promptly investigated and those responsible for abuse prosecuted. In addition, Gossman argues that the new government should establish a Mass Media Commission in consultation with Afghan journalists, media organizations and media monitoring groups, with a complaints mechanism for journalists to report on all such attacks.
Analyst Kugelman agrees, saying that Ghani can set a strong example by urging law enforcement authorities and the courts to track down, arrest, and prosecute those responsible for attacks on journalists.
"Such actions could serve as a deterrent to others who might be considering assaults on reporters. And at the least, his government should provide better protection to Afghan media."
Reason for concern
However, the analyst is not convinced that the overall security situation in the country will improve anytime soon: "Given that we can expect security vacuums to arise amid the troop withdrawal, I think there is reason to believe that Afghan journalists will find themselves in an increasingly perilous situation."
On top of that, the continued impressive growth of the private Afghan media could be in jeopardy. "A better security environment in the post-2001 era - not to mention much greater freedoms - allowed new media outlets to form and flourish. And yet if the security situation takes a turn for the worse in the coming months, then we have to worry that the pace of media development could slow down significantly," said Kugelman.