Afghan journalists, targets of violence, face 'undeclared war' on free press

By Agency

Last year, Shaheed was honoured by Reporters without Borders for "courageous" reporting. Photos: Arne Immanuel Bänsch/dpa

Half a dozen mobile phones sit on Bilal Sarwary's desk; one of them is ringing at any given time. Hardly any other journalist in Afghanistan is as well-connected as 37-year-old Sarwary – and it's precisely this reason that he's become a target of violence.

"Nowhere in Kabul is safe," the journalist says from his home office in a basement. "I can't think of a place where you can go."

Sarwary says that many Afghan journalists can't go anywhere to film or conduct interviews because of the pervasive threat of violence.

The biggest threat is actually holding a camera, he says.

For four decades, life in Afghanistan has been paralysed by war. But it's only recently that the guns have been pointed directly at journalists: In just three months, at least five well-known journalists were killed in a series of targeted attacks and bombings.

Many others were wounded, threatened, kidnapped and even imprisoned.

Well-known journalist Sarwary, a target of violence, says nowhere is safe in Kabul.Well-known journalist Sarwary, a target of violence, says nowhere is safe in Kabul.

Since the attacks, at least 17 journalists, most of them well-known, have left Afghanistan because of security threats against their lives, according to Nai, a media watchdog and advocacy organisation.

"I'm one of them," says Mukhtar Lashkari, host of a satirical TV programme, in an emotional video before his departure from the airport in Kabul. "It is not clever to walk in the dark on ground with hidden land mines."

Despite the frightening atmosphere, media outlets are continuing their work, and those who remain for any reason understand the risks.

Anisa Shaheed is one of the reporters who has decided to stay.

In 2020, the 34-year-old was honoured by Reporters without Borders for "courageous" reporting.

She speaks of direct threats and says that all of her colleagues are changing their routes, travel times and vehicles to avoid being spotted. Some prefer to keep working from their fortified office in Kabul's green zone area or avoid going home.

"Everyone is thinking at every moment that maybe it is my turn," Shaheed tells dpa before leaving the newsroom to prepare a report on the anniversary of her colleagues' deaths. She lost seven colleagues in 2016 when a Taliban suicide bomber hit their minibus.

"If there is one hope left for the Afghans, it is the media in Afghanistan," Shaheed says. "Maybe I will be killed, but I have to work because people expect me to."

Media outlets play an important part in Afghan society: Journalists are first in line when it comes to uncovering atrocities committed by terrorist groups, pointing out government shortcomings, such as in corruption cases, or voicing people's concerns.The perpetrators behind the violence targeting journalists remain hidden, but the government, which has failed to protect its citizens, blames the Taliban – an accusation that the group denies.

In Jan 2021, US military spokesman Colonel Sonny Leggett also blamed the Taliban for targeted killings in various parts of the country.

"The Taliban's campaign of unclaimed attacks and targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders and journalists must also cease for peace to succeed," he said.

However, journalists say the situation is so vague that they don't feel safe on all sides, with the government also accused of trying to eliminate critics. There is a "climate of fear", explains Sarwary.

Afghanistan used to be a resilient nation, Sarwary says. But nowadays, it feels like the people have become indifferent. The fact that the assassins are often successful shows a massive failing on the part of the security forces and intelligence services, he adds.

Ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have also coincided with an escalation in targeted killings of civil society activists, journalists and government employees.

Journalists urge transparency and call on credible international agencies to intervene, investigate and make sure the media is safe.

"This is an undeclared war," says Sarwary as he refills teacups for his guests. The murders and assassinations are causing low morale and psychological defeat among Afghans, he adds.

"If the international community and the West – Europe in particular – don't commit to a comprehensive peace process, there will be genocide this time, and they will be responsible for it." – dpa

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Afghanistan media , violence , Taliban


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