Afghan journalists forced to run a murderous gauntlet

In recent months, Afghanistan has been rocked by a wave of targeted killings aiming at civil rights activists and journalists. Marian Brehmer talked to Mujeeb Khalvatgar, director of NGO NAI – Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, about the dire situation currently facing Afghan journalists

By Marian Brehmer

Over the past 75 days, six journalists have been killed in Afghanistan. Who are the perpetrators of this new wave of violence?

Mujeeb Khalvatgar: Attacks on soft targets across the country have surged during the ongoing peace negotiations with the Taliban. This strategy is not new; but for nineteen years the Afghan government has done nothing towards seriously reviewing and pursuing such cases of violence. This time, the government is blaming the Taliban as the perpetrators, thus politicising the cases, while publishing only vague information about the incidents. It is therefore impossible to find out what actually happened. We believe the arrests and investigations being conducted are not genuine, and that the actual perpetrators have not been identified, let alone arrested.

How do you explain this increase in violence targeting journalists?

Khalvatgar: Armed groups such as Islamic State and the Taliban have no regard for human rights – and that includes the freedom of press. Our journalists have been becoming more efficient at unveiling the background stories behind Taliban crimes and identifying the perpetrators of human rights abuses. The extremists are worried about their image in the Afghan media, so they are doing everything they can to frighten the journalists into stopping their work.

In the past, there have been larger bomb attacks against media professionals, such as the one in April 2018 when ten journalists were killed in a suicide blast in Kabul. What can be done to protect them against such incidents?

Khalvatgar: There are clear measures that could prevent such incidents. Journalists themselves need to wear helmets and bullet-proof vests for better protection. Intelligence agencies must share any information they have about threats against journalists with the media outlets. Moreover, the Afghan government should provide special security training for journalists, conducted by the Afghan military and security personnel. This also needs to include post-trauma training. To date there has been no indication that the government is considering any such measures.

Burial of the Afghan journalist Malalai Maiwand (photo: Parwiz/Reuters)
Trauerfeier und Beerdigung der ermordeten TV-Journalistin Malala Maiwand: Die Fernsehmoderatorin und Talk-Show-Gastgeberin wurde auf dem Weg in ihr Büro in der ostafghanischen Stadt Dschalalabad am 10.12.2020 in ihrem Auto von Bewaffneten angegriffen. Ende 2020 hat sich die gefährliche Lage für Medienschaffende in Afghanistan wieder verschärft:

How do you explain the inability of this current government to ensure safe working conditions for Afghan journalists?

Khalvatgar: First and foremost, there is no real will to further the cause of freedom of expression. If you ask me, our present government is a failed government. Afghan media is very critically of the current administration. In return, it seems the government is happy to watch Afghan journalism go down the drain.

Internationally, the Afghan government is quick to claim freedom of expression as one of its greatest achievements. But in fact the opposite is true. The government does nothing to create a safe environment for journalists to work in. What is more, the authorities don’t provide us with the information we need to work professionally. That’s why there has been an overall decrease in home-grown investigative reporting in Afghanistan.

What do you mean by "not enough information"?

Khalvatgar: The government is playing a game with the media sector, using all kinds of measures to exert pressure and curtail freedom of expression. When journalists don’t have a safe environment to work in, they are forced to self-censor. Another form of censorship is withholding information from journalists. Although the Access to Information Bill has been ratified by the President, our access to information has been getting worse. Moreover, bribery and corruption involving government agencies or intelligence officers intent on influencing journalists has also been reported. Some of them have very close links to certain media outlets.

Despite all the odds, what actually motivates Afghan journalists to do their work?

Khalvatgar: Although the lack of safety does impact working moral, many of us are still motivated to work hard and critically. Despite the absence of outside support for the media, there are many journalists who remain dedicated, keeping their faith in their work and in the future of the country alive, even in the face of death threats. Afghan society as a whole is also generally respectful of the role of journalism. Following the 2018 attack, for instance, awareness campaigns about the state of Afghan journalism meant we received plenty of messages of support from the public. Feeling this backing in our work is important.

Mujeeb Khalvatgar, director of NGO NAI – Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan (photo: private)
Mujeeb Khalvatgar, Direktor der Nichtregierungsorganisation “NAI - Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan”: „Die Zukunft des Journalismus hängt von verschiedenen Faktoren ab: Wenn die internationale Gemeinschaft — vor allem die USA — Druck auf die Taliban ausüben, damit sie aufhören, weiche Ziele, insbesondere Journalisten, anzugreifen und die afghanische Regierung dazu drängen, die Gewalttaten zu untersuchen, wird es ein sichereres Umfeld für Journalisten geben.“

Conducting attacks on independent journalists on the one hand, insurgent groups like the Taliban have also been running their own media outlets to spread propaganda on the other.

Khalvatgar: Under the Taliban there was only one radio station, the “Voice of Sharia”. The Taliban resumed broadcasting in 2007. Now they are running radio programmes in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Zabol, and even in Ghazni they have established a city-wide radio station for their propaganda. They are also using social media.

This all points to shortcomings in Afghan media law: there is no standardised ownership process. Basically anyone can open their own media outlet. Warlords are taking advantage of this opportunity, running TV stations to whitewash their blood-stained image and gain supporters.

Is there anything about the state of Afghan journalism that gives you hope?

Khalvatgar: One positive development is the increased presence of women in the media. In recent years a high number of women have graduated from journalism schools, receiving professional media training. While we journalists are facing insecurity, society has become more open culturally to women pursuing a career at least in urban areas.

In some cases these are women that are sent to work because the male members of the family have all been killed. In other cases they are highly motivated young professionals who want to make a difference. Unfortunately such stories rarely make it into Western media. There tends to be a focus on the killing.

Given the current climate of fear, how do you see the future of Afghan journalism?

Khalvatgar: The future depends on different factors: if the international community  especially the United States  can put pressure on the Taliban to stop attacking soft targets, particularly journalists, and urge the Afghan government to investigate such acts of violence, this will create a safer environment for journalists to work in.

Otherwise, things are only going to get worse. We want the government, the president and the security agencies in question to prove they have the will to honestly investigate those cases. They also need to admit that what has been made public so far was just a ploy to calm the media sector down.

Interview conducted by Marian Brehmer

© 2021

Mujeeb Khalvatgar, a former radio journalist and media advocate, is the director of NAI  Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan. NAI offers courses in journalism and lobbies to improve the working condition of journalists across the country.