Attacks on the Press 2002: Afghanistan

In many obvious ways, press conditions in Afghanistan in 2002 were far better than the year before, when virtually no local independent media outlets operated, and eight journalists were killed covering the U.S.-led military offensive that ended the repressive rule of the Taliban regime. During 2002, Afghan journalists produced some 150 publications in the capital, Kabul, alone. The one journalist who lost his life in Afghanistan in 2002, New Zealand free-lancer Alastair McLeod, died in a car accident.

However, such statistics do not capture the complexities of reporting in the country. Local journalists were more vulnerable than foreign correspondents to political pressures and violence, with dangers most acute in areas outside Kabul that tend to be controlled by autocratic regional warlords or plagued by factional fighting. With warlords in control, security could not be guaranteed for those who dared to exercise the right to free expression.

In Herat, for instance, a province famous as the cultural and intellectual center of Afghanistan, Ismail Khan, the local governor and one of the country’s most powerful warlords, tolerated no independent publications. Under his rule, “Herat has remained much as it was under the Taliban: a closed society in which there is no dissent, no criticism of the government, no independent newspapers … and no respect for the rule of law,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a report on freedom of expression in western Afghanistan that was released in November.

The most famous case of abuse was the detention and torture of Mohammad Rafiq Shahir, the editor of Takhassos, an influential newsletter published by Herat’s Professional Shura, an association of intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals that has been outspoken about the need for reforms in Afghanistan. In late May, intelligence agents in Herat abducted Shahir and detained him for two days, tying him up and beating him, according to Human Rights Watch. He was also taken to a nearby graveyard and threatened at gunpoint.

In December, a Herat-based journalist was forced to go into hiding after Ismail Khan publicly criticized him for “giving reports against us and against our country.” Similarly, a free-lance journalist who had been based in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif was forced into hiding after reporting on mass graves of hundreds of Taliban prisoners who had allegedly died in the custody of forces loyal to Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of Afghanistan’s most ruthless warlords. Colleagues said that the journalist fled after he was abducted and badly beaten, allegedly by Dostum’s men. This journalist, like many others who have endured violence and harassment, wanted to remain anonymous so that he would be able to return to work.

In such a volatile environment, with a weak central government and no independent, effective law enforcement agencies, the role of the international community in monitoring abuses and intervening when necessary was paramount. That was one theme discussed at September’s International Seminar on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media in Afghanistan, a meeting in Kabul hosted by the country’s Information and Culture Ministry. At the meeting, the deputy information minister endorsed a declaration listing a series of reforms needed: to include the right of free speech and free media in Afghanistan’s new constitution; to begin a thorough review of the legal system’s effects on the media, including the criminal prosecution of journalists; and to suspend licensing provisions for publications. In a letter addressed to President Hamid Karzai following the conference, CPJ added that his government must take swift action against political leaders, military commanders, and others who attempt to bully the press.

Foreign correspondents operated with relative freedom in Afghanistan, though Western journalists risked being targeted in areas hostile to the United States and allied forces. Toronto Star correspondent Kathleen Kenna was seriously injured in March when a grenade was thrown at her car near Gardez, in the eastern Paktia Province, where she was covering the U.S.-led military offensive there, known as Operation Anaconda. The incident occurred shortly after two gunmen nearby were overheard discussing whether to take a group of foreign journalists hostage, according to The Washington Post.

In March, the British-led International Security Assistance Force announced a credible threat from an unidentified source to kidnap foreign journalists in Afghanistan. And in April, U.S. military officials in Afghanistan announced “credible threats of violence against coalition service members, citizens, and journalists” in the form of pamphlets circulating in eastern Paktia advertising a bounty of up to US$100,000 for the body of any Westerner.

The U.S. military continued to closely restrict coverage of military operations in Afghanistan and at least twice during the year forcibly prevented journalists from reporting in an area under its control.

In another case, U.S. Special Forces arrested a Pakistani journalist, Hayat Ullah Khan, a stringer for various publications, and his companions, all natives of Pakistan’s tribal areas, in Paktika Province in July on suspicion of being associated with al-Qaeda. The group was detained for four days, until the military was able to verify their identities.

February 10

Doug Struck, The Washington Post

Struck, a correspondent for The Washington Post, was threatened by American soldiers and barred from reporting near the site of a U.S. missile strike that may have killed a group of civilians. Struck says that although he identified himself as a reporter for The Washington Post, the soldiers trained an M-16 rifle on him for about 15 to 20 minutes. The soldiers, after conferring with superiors over the radio, refused to let him go to a nearby village, where the three men killed in the missile attack had lived. When Struck asked what would happen if he continued toward the village, according to the reporter, the soldier’s commander said, “You would be shot.” The commander refused to identify himself.

On February 12, U.S. Defense Department officials rejected Struck’s claim that American soldiers had threatened to shoot the journalist. “To believe that a U.S. serviceman would knowingly threaten, especially with deadly force, another American is hard for me to accept,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeam, deputy operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a press briefing. Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesperson, said that the soldier’s words to Struck were: “For your own safety, we cannot let you go forward. You could be shot in a firefight.” The Washington Post stood by Struck’s account.

March 4

Kathleen Kenna, Toronto Star
Hadi Dadashian, free-lance
Bernard Weil, Toronto Star

Kenna, a correspondent for the Toronto Star newspaper, suffered serious leg injuries when unidentified assailants threw a grenade into her car. Kenna was traveling with her husband, free-lance photographer Hadi Dadashian; Star photographer Bernard Weil; and an Afghan driver on the main road from Kabul to Gardez, in eastern Paktia Province. None of the other passengers were hurt.

The incident occurred shortly after two gunmen nearby were overheard discussing whether to take a group of foreign journalists hostage, according to The Washington Post. It was not clear whether the two incidents were related, but on March 6, the international peacekeeping force in the capital, Kabul, reported a credible threat to kidnap foreign journalists.

Weil told the Toronto Star that one man threw a rock at the car from the left side, and then an explosion from an unidentified object hit the right side, where Kenna was sitting. Two Agence France-Presse journalists who were ahead of them on the same road helped transport Kenna to a U.S. medical compound in Gardez. She was later moved to Uzbekistan, then Turkey, and, finally, to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre in Germany. In early March, U.S.-led troops had engaged in intensive ground and air battles against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan.

March 6

Foreign journalists

The British-led international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, warned reporters of a credible threat to kidnap foreign journalists. “Information about threats come and go all the time, but this is the first one assessed as credible enough to pass on to journalists,” said Lt. Col. Neal Peckham of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), according to CNN. Peckham said that the kidnap plans concerned journalists in Kabul. However, an ISAF press officer said the threat was not specific to any region of Afghanistan, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

The ISAF advised journalists to “maintain extra vigilance and consider their movements.” ISAF officials said that the threat appeared to be related to the recent U.S.-led offensive against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in eastern Paktia Province.

April 5

Western journalists

U.S. military officials told journalists that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters had distributed leaflets in eastern Afghanistan offering bounties to local villagers for the killing or capture of American soldiers or other Westerners, including journalists. Officials said the leaflets offered US$50,000 for the body of a Westerner and US$100,000 for a Westerner who is alive. “We continue to receive credible threats of violence against coalition service members, citizens and journalists,” Maj. Bryan Hilferty told reporters at Bagram Air Base, according to The New York Times.

American military officials said that the leaflets advertising the bounty were distributed in Paktia Province, near the Pakistani border, where Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were believed to have strong support.

April 10

Ebadullah Ebadi, Boston Globe

Ebadi, a translator and assistant working for the Boston Globe, was attacked by Afghan fighters working with U.S. Special Forces in Sarobi District, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) east of the capital, Kabul. The assault occurred within view of the U.S. soldiers, who did not intervene to stop the beating, according to an account published by the Globe.

The incident occurred when Ebadi and Globe reporter Indira A.R. Lakshmanan approached a convoy of about 10 vehicles carrying U.S. Special Forces and Afghan fighters loyal to Jalalabad commander Hazrat Ali. A group of the Afghan fighters blocked the pair from continuing toward the U.S. soldiers.

According to the Globe report, “as an interview request was being delivered to the American soldiers, one of the U.S. forces gestured toward a young Afghan soldier, who sprinted toward the visitors and roughly shoved the Globe‘s translator. The soldier unlatched the safety on his rifle while other soldiers began punching the Globe translator in the face and kicking him. Another soldier slapped Ebadi, knocking off his glasses, while the first soldier beat him with his rifle. The incident ended when another soldier stopped the beating.”

A U.S. Special Forces officer, who identified himself only as Steve, approached the two journalists immediately after the incident and “said the soldiers were reluctant to give interviews,” the Globe reported. He claimed not to know about the assault on Ebadi.

An Afghan commander, who identified himself as Hazrat Ali’s deputy, apologized on behalf of the principal assailant and offered to beat him publicly. When Ebadi refused the offer, the deputy commander admonished his troops for “beating a guest, instead of just preventing him from reaching the Americans,” according to the Globe.

May 27

Mohammad Rafiq Shahir, Takhassos

Intelligence agents in the western city of Herat arrested Shahir, editor of Takhassosý an influential newsletter published by Herat’s Professional Shura, an association of intellectuals, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals established in early 2002 to discuss issues related to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Shahir and his group have been outspoken about reforms needed in Afghanistan, including in Herat Province, which is ruled by governor and warlord Ismail Khan.

Shahir’s detention occurred during the run-up to the loya jirga meeting held in the capital, Kabul, in June to select a new national government. The editor, who was a delegate to the meeting, was bound, whipped, and beaten while in custody, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). He says agents took him to a nearby graveyard and held him at gunpoint, warning that, “We could leave you right here.” HRW reported that the agents who made the arrest work with Amniat-e Mille, the national intelligence agency. Ismail Khan reportedly controls the Amniat office in Herat.

Shahir was released two days later, but bruises and cuts were still visible when he went to the loya jirga. Journalists and human rights activists noted that after the editor’s detention, the content of Takhassos changed markedly, with the newsletter no longer criticizing the government.

One Herat resident told HRW that the arrest of Shahir, a prominent citizen, prompted widespread self-censorship. “After Shahir was imprisoned,” the resident said, “people went quiet and no one is daring to say anything against [Ismail Khan].”

July 3

Hayat Ullah Khan, Ausaf, The Nation

Hayat Ullah, a Pakistani journalist who reports for the national dailies Ausaf and The Nation, was detained by U.S. Special Forces when he crossed into Afghanistan along with four companions. Soldiers arrested the group, who were not carrying any travel documents, on suspicion that they were associated with the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

All five detainees are natives of Pakistan’s tribal areas. Although security along the border had increased in the previous months due to U.S. concerns that al-Qaeda and Taliban forces were in the area, local tribespeople are generally accustomed to traveling freely across the porous frontier.

Hayat Ullah says he approached a group of Afghan soldiers in the Barmal area of Paktika Province and began interviewing them about reports that a U.S. military base nearby had recently been attacked. The Afghan soldiers then radioed to U.S. forces, and two Americans, not in uniform, arrived on the scene. Hayat Ullah says the men were likely members of the U.S. Special Forces, which have been active in the area.

According to Hayat Ullah, the Americans accused him and his companions of involvement with al-Qaeda. He says he told them he was a professional journalist on assignment for the U.S. television network ABC and also gave them contact information for his editors at Ausaf and The Nation, who could verify his credentials. He also suggested contacting CPJ’s office in New York.

Hayat Ullah, who speaks English, says the soldiers ignored his repeated requests to check his background. Instead, soldiers took Hayat Ullah and his four companions into custody, placing bags over their heads and tying their hands behind their backs with a special plastic binding used by the U.S. military in place of handcuffs. Soldiers also confiscated Hayat Ullah’s equipment, including a digital video camera, digital cassettes, a still camera, film, several notebooks, and his address book. (All belongings were eventually returned, except the videotapes and the film.)

Hayat Ullah says that he was initially held with the other detainees but was moved within hours to a small, unventilated room, where he was kept in solitary confinement.

U.S. soldiers interrogated him twice in a 24-hour period, during which time he says he was denied food, water, and rest. Hayat Ullah says that his head was covered and his hands tied throughout his four-day detention. He said that during one interrogation, officers threatened repeatedly to shoot him if he did not provide information about al-Qaeda operations in the area. When one officer accused him of having phone numbers for Taliban leaders, Hayat Ullah said, “I told him every journalist tries to get the numbers of these types of leaders.”

U.S. military officials did contact ABC staff in Kabul and Washington, D.C., but could not confirm that Hayat Ullah was working for ABC. Sources at ABC said there was some confusion because Hayat Ullah was commissioned as a stringer, through an intermedi®ry, to shoot video in Pakistan’s tribal areas, not Afghanistan. U.S. military officials also contacted the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan to determine Hayat Ullah’s connection to Ausaf and The Nation.

Hayat Ullah and his companions were finally released on July 7, after Pakistani journalists alerted the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar to the mistake. Upon their return to Pakistani territory, Hayat Ullah and his companions were briefly detained and threatened with prosecution by an officer from the local security force in South Waziristan, who accused the group of working as American spies.

August 23

Tyler Hicks, The New York Times

The New York Times

Hicks, a photographer for The New York Times, was briefly detained and questioned by U.S. Special Forces while he was on assignment in eastern Afghanistan, near the U.S. military base in Asadabad. According to a New York Times story datelined August 23 and published on August 28, the Special Forces unit “demanded that the photographer clear his photographs from his digital camera and hand over a roll of exposed film, saying photographs of them could compromise their mission.” Not all the pictures were deleted, and the Times published one of the surviving photographs of the Special Forces unit on the front page of the newspaper. The Times article was about U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan to find Osama bin Laden and others associated with his al-Qaeda terrorist network.

September 5

Abdul Qadir Qaumi, Bakhtar Information Agency
Ahmad Zia, Bakhtar Information Agency
Abdul Halem, Bakhtar Information Agency

Qaumi, a photographer for the government-controlled Bakhtar Information Agency (BIA), and Zia and Halem, both BIA reporters, were injured while reporting on a bomb attack in downtown Kabul, the capital. The car bomb, which killed at least 30 people and wounded about 170, detonated minutes after a smaller explosion had lured crowds, and journalists, to the area. BIA journalists, whose offices are nearby, were the first on the scene. Qaumi suffered several serious shrapnel wounds in his back.