Six years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, journalists were increasingly pessimistic about the future. The personal tragedies of several Afghan journalists illustrated how much the press situation had worsened amid political disarray, faltering security, and human rights abuses. Despite the adversity, domestic news media remained plentiful and assertive.
Taliban fighters beheaded Ajmal Naqshbandi on April 8 in the Garmsir district of Helmand province, after the Afghan government refused demands to release jailed senior Taliban leaders. Naqshbandi had been abducted on March 4 with La Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo and driver Sayed Agha. Naqshbandi, a freelance journalist with several clients, had acted as Mastrogiacomo’s fixer on a trip to interview Taliban leaders. Agha, the driver, was beheaded shortly after the abduction; the Italian Mastrogiacomo was released March 19 in an exchange for five Taliban prisoners.
The ugly incident left bitterness all around. Afghan journalists wanted to know why two of their colleagues were so brutally killed while the Italian government had apparently free rein to negotiate with Taliban leaders to save an Italian national.
CPJ had launched an intensive publicity effort to try to win Naqshbandi’s freedom. Nearly 300 people signed CPJ’s open letter urging his release, including journalists from CNN, The Associated Press, Reuters, Time, The New York Times, USA Today, NBC, ABC, and Al-Jazeera. Naqshbandi’s death hit at the very core of one of CPJ’s founding realities: Local journalists are the ones most at risk. CPJ research dating to 1992 shows that 85 percent of journalists killed for their work worldwide are local reporters. Many are killed by groups similar to the Taliban—33 percent worldwide have died at the hands of insurgent or political groups.
Another journalist was killed in direct relation to her work, while a third was slain under unclear circumstances. On June 5, unidentified gunmen shot Zakia Zaki in Parwan province, north of the capital, Kabul, in the bedroom she was sharing with her small children. Zaki, 35, had run a private news radio station, Sada-i-Sulh (Peace Radio), since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The station, which covered women’s issues, human rights, education, and local politics, had been threatened repeatedly. Just before the slaying, local warlords warned Zaki to shut down the station.
On May 31, television news presenter Shokiba Sanga Amaaj, 22, was murdered in her Kabul home. Authorities arrested male relatives, but the motive remained unclear and CPJ continues to investigate.
As killings came to the forefront, harassment and threats remained commonplace. CPJ assisted two Afghan journalists who went into hiding after receiving death threats from extremist groups or gangsters involved in the opium trade. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was aware of several other similar cases, although it could not reveal specific information because of privacy issues.
“It is not possible to talk and write freely in such situations,” Rahimullah Samandar, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association and the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists, said in a note to CPJ that recounted a series of threats, seizures, and attacks. “The Afghan government should take strong action to stop these acts.”
The Taliban were behind several attacks. On August 28, for example, a reporter for Salaam Watandar, a radio syndication service run by Internews, a U.S.-based media training and advocacy organization, was kidnapped by Taliban fighters in the Sayedabad district of Wardak province and interrogated for several hours. The reporter, Mohammad Zahir Bahand, said the Taliban were unhappy about news reports describing a recent arson attack on the Internews-affiliated station Yawali Ghag. Bahand, who had been working for Salaam Watandar for only one month, was told to be sure that the service covered future Taliban actions. Soon after his release, three rockets were fired in Sayedabad and two trucks supplying fuel to NATO forces were burned.
Harassment of the media came from U.S. and government forces. U.S. soldiers deleted journalists’ photos and television footage taken in the aftermath of a March 4 suicide bombing in which several Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. fire. Soldiers deleted photos and videos taken by freelance photographer Rahmat Gul, who was working for the AP, and an unidentified cameraman for Associated Press Television News; they also threatened other Afghan television reporters at the scene of the attack. The AP quoted Taqiullah Taqi, a reporter for Afghanistan’s largest television station, Tolo TV, as saying that U.S. troops told him: “Delete them, or we will delete you.” According to the AP and local reports, Afghans at the scene of the incident in Nanghar province in eastern Afghanistan said U.S. Marines fired at civilians after their convoy was hit by a suicide bomber. In a statement, the military said the troops had come under fire after the explosion.
On the night of April 17, about 50 Afghan police officers raided Tolo TV’s main office in Kabul, seized three staff members, and took them to Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet’s office. Sabet had complained of a clip on Tolo’s 6 p.m. news broadcast, which he claimed was inaccurate and misrepresented his comments at an earlier press conference. Four AP journalists who were observing the raid were also detained, some of them kicked and punched by police, the news service reported. The seven were taken to Sabet’s office, where they were questioned for about 40 minutes and released without charge. Police provided no basis for the detention.
Tolo’s sister station, Lemar TV, was forced to end its retransmission of Al-Jazeera’s satellite programming after receiving an order from the Ministry of Information and Culture in April. Minister Abdul Karim Khuram said Al-Jazeera challenged the “cultural and the legal authority of the government.” Lemar had argued it had a constitutional right to retransmit the station’s programs.
Government intimidation continued in August when Kamran Mir Hazar, editor of the Kabul Press Web site and a correspondent for Salaam Watandar, was detained by Afghan secret police. He was released by the end of the day but warned to stop writing articles criticizing Afghan officials. Hazar said he also had been detained and interrogated by members of the National Directorate of Security in July, when he was held incommunicado for five days.
Such actions reflected a running battle by the government against Afghanistan’s young and combative press corps. The situation drew the attention of the U.N. mission in Kabul, which expressed its concern in a February press conference about attempts to curb the media in Afghanistan.
Partly in response, the National Assembly withdrew a bill that would have fundamentally changed the country’s 2002 press law by inserting language demanding “respect for Islamic values” and giving the government more direct control of broadcast programming. Many see the 2002 press law as the most liberal in the region and a central reason that media were able to grow in the post-Taliban era. Under President Hamid Karzai, six independent television channels had come on the air, as well as dozens of competing radio stations and newspapers.
Although critics in government said that Afghan media had become “un-Islamic,” NGOs, foreign donors, and much of the Afghan media saw the bill as a way of stifling criticism.
There were grounds for those fears. Minister of Information and Culture Khuram sacked without explanation 80 Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) employees who were newly hired by station General Director Najib Roshan. In doing so, Khuram effectively reversed a plan—developed by the government in cooperation with international media advisers and aid groups—to turn RTA into a full-fledged independent public broadcaster.
Journalists told CPJ that they fear the government will eventually impose further constraints. “I think journalists are on the verge of being stripped of their only working weapon, freedom of expression,” said Barry Salaam, an independent producer who hosts the popular “Good Morning Afghanistan” and “Good Evening Afghanistan” programs over RTA. “It has not happened yet, but the current policies will lead there if not reversed or diverted.”