Dicing with death

Faced with threats, intimidation and a lack of resources, journalists in Afghanistan await international attention

Blood stains can be seen on tree at Site of attack on Tolo TV staffers- Photo by the Writer
Dried blood stains can be seen on tree at Site of attack on Tolo TV staffers- Photo by Writer

By: Naimat Khan

Imagine a person is just issued the Afghan visa, and a Facebook status from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) – appearing on his timeline – informs him that at least seven employees of his host organisation in Kabul have been killed in a suicide blast.

“The CPJ condemns attack on Tolo TV employees in Afghanistan,” the headline read.

“A suicide bombing in Kabul today killed seven employees of the Afghan station, Tolo TV. The attack on staff returning from work at the privately-owned station injured 27 others, including 26 staff [members],” the status further informed.

I shared the above status – as I usually do from journalists organisations – without realising my spouse and son were also on Facebook.

It happened, what I was afraid of. My wife and eight-year-old son requested me to cancel the trip to Afghanistan, one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.

But I tried to convince them.

“Thousands of journalists have been reporting from Afghanistan, including its most-troubled region. Is Karachi less dangerous for a journalist?” I asked my wife.

Nevertheless, they came to see off with a worrying mind, and prayed for my safety.

Accompanied by a driver and a gunman, the hosts picked me from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. My fears did not subside as the manager of the hotel I was staying in pointed towards a ‘safe’ room in case of an ‘emergency’. I was not sure what exactly he meant by an emergency.

“I have landed in the most dangerous place for journalists,” said a voice from within.

On the sidelines of my scheduled engagements – which included stories on the rise of Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan provinces and perception of Pakistan in Afghanistan, among others – I met several journalists to find out what  makes them join a profession, which invites countless threats in the war-torn country.

“Journalists in Afghanistan work under extremely difficult circumstances and routinely face violence, threats, and intimidation that most of the time prevent them from carrying out their work normally,” Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, managing director of ‘Nai’, an organisation working on training and development of journalists in Kabul told me.

Nai works for capacity building of journalists and is involved in advocacy on their behalf.

Another journalist had a similar view.

“In the wake of growing insecurity, safety of journalists has become a serious issue in Afghanistan,” said Muhammad Faheem Dashty, chief executive Afghanistan National Journalist Union (ANJU), an umbrella organisation of fifteen journalist organisations in the country.

Ziaur Rehman, a correspondent of the prime Tolo News in eastern Nagarhar province of Afghanistan, who had just returned after burial of his colleague, Zubair Khaksar (killed by ‘unidenified’ men Jalalabad on the night I was staying there), said journalists were facing threats from the terrorists.

“Your reports may anger someone in this part of the world where there is minimal state control.”

Several mafias are active and our reporting bothers them all, he adds.

Reports suggest as many as 58 journalists – including Khaksar – have been killed in Afghanistan since 2011; of them 65% were directly or indirectly killed by the Taliban. Almost 33% of them were murdered by the ‘unidentified’ whereas 2% allegedly killed by government officials.

According to data compiled by Nai, about 629 incidents of violence against journalists have occurred since the Afghan war of 2001, with the highest number of attacks being reported in 2014: 86. While June was the most violent month with 70 attacks, Kabul leads with the most number of violent incidents across Afghanistan.

Hirat, a western province, comes second with 43 incidents whereas Nagarhar occupies third position among other provinces with the highest ratio of violence against journalists.

Kandahar and Tahar have both witnessed 27 violent incidents each, whereas in Helmand, there were 21 attacks.

Data suggests that of the 629 incidents, 203 were direct threats; 58 were murders whereas in 215 incidents, journalists were beaten up. As many as 73 journalists were arrested, and 26 others kidnapped in this period.

The top five organistions whose correspondents have faced violence are Aryana TV (32), Tolo TV (22), Pajhwok (15), Civic Activist (14) and Al Jazeera (12).

According to Khalvatgar, the safety course offered by his organization was not among the top three attractions despite its conspicuousness. “It’s also because, it has become routine for journalists in the war-hit Afghanistan where they are demonstrating unnecessary braveness”.

Dashty agrees but says journalists in Afghanistan should learn more on how to deal with dangerous situations.

For this, his journalist union is working on several fronts. Despites financial constraints, Dashty said the ANJU is pressurising the government to provide security to journalists.

The ANJU has prepared primary guidelines for journalists – advice on how to cover suicide attacks and deal with personal as well as threat to their media outlets.

“We do not have enough funds to print it for thousands of journalists,” he said, adding that still the organisation tries reaching the maximum.

“We have held several meetings with President Ashraf Ghani, security council of the government, as well as law enforcement agencies, asking them to take serious measures for the security of already ‘endangered’ Afghan journalists.”

Though short of funds, Dashty’s organisation plans to hold safety workshops.

“We always avoid the dangers, and hence, are training our members on how to deal with them,” he says. “We are working on laws and regulations, and lobbying for changes in the curriculum for police. They should know how to cooperate with journalists performing their duties.”

Attacks on journalists can restrain progress of media in Afghanistan but threats, intimidation and murders of journalists cannot stop media from its due expansion,” adds Khalwatnagar. “The number of media outlets in Afghanistan, which was almost 700 in 2013, has dropped to about 550 in 2016 due to financial crisis, which needs attention.”

Today thousands of journalists, including those in far-flung areas, need training. Though journalist unions have started with their limited resources, international funding will help them expedite the efforts for securing journalists in this war zone.

Published in The Frontier Post 

Losing grip

Naimat Khan

With large parts of Afghanistan still under Taliban influence, can the militant Islamic State establish control beyond Nagarhar?

taliban-fighters

JALALABAD, Afghanistan: Before being hit by the US airstrikes on February 2, the FM radio station was calling for waiving the ‘black flag’ on Kabul and Islamabad.

‘Voice of the Caliphate’, which began transmission in December 2015, was run by militants of the extremist Islamic State group – also known as Dai’sh, ISIS or ISIL and locally called Daishian – could  be heard in Afghan province Nangarhar’s capital, Jalalabad.

It can be easily tuned from here, residents of Jalalabad told this scribe in late January.

While the airstrikes ended the ‘propaganda’ through radio waves, fears in the minds of the locals still persist.

“If the militants are not taken to the task they will spread to the provinces of Afghanistan,” Sohrab Qadri, member of the provincial council of Nangarhar province told The Frontier Post in an interview conducted at his house in Jalalabad.

“They are worse than Taliban.”

Qadri says action by Afghan forces was taken against IS, which has halted their further advancement.

With large parts of Afghanistan still under Taliban influence, can the militant Islamic State establish control beyond Nagarhar?

“But still six districts of the eastern Nangarhar province are in complete control of Dai’sh. Those displaced are unable to return to their homes,” said the provincial council member.

He warned that the absence of a timely and effective action will spread them to other parts of the country.

A local journalist said over 2400 families had left their homes, which were set on fire by Dai’sh militants.

However, spokesperson for provincial governor Ataullah Khogyani alleges the Pakistani media for exaggerating the presence of ISIS in Nangarhar province.

“Once they had influence in most of the provincial districts but now have been restricted to Achin district on the Pakistani border,” he said.

The IS was founded in the Achin district of Nangarhar, a stronghold of the Mujahidin during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, told a local journalist who wished not to be named.

“Nangarhar has a transit route and has lawlessness but the presence of terrorists is exaggerated,” added Khogyani.

Islamabad-based journalist Tahir Khan, who has a grip on issues related to the Taliban, agrees.

“The issue is not of that proportion as presented by Pakistani, as well as the international media.”

Meanwhile, a majority Afghan journalists and activists this scribe spoke to in Kabul and Jalalabad, subscribe to the allegations leveled by Afghan intelligence agency that ISIS enjoys support from Pakistani side of the Durand Line.

Dai’sh has recruited members in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, and is continuously growing in the war-torn country, according to a UN report issued in September 2015.

“In the North and South, the Taliban are able to conduct large-scale attacks, bringing Musa Qala and Kunduz under control. However, in the East, the IS is gaining momentum, launching coordinated attacks on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in Nangarhar province,” said Halimullah Kousary, a Kabul-based security expert. “ISIS is a serious threat to the Af-Pak region, especially on the Afghan side.”

But Khan doesn’t see IS as a major threat for the region in near future, at least.

“Sect has a major role in Pashtun society and since IS is a Salafi outfit, it may not be an attraction for majority non-Salafis,” he says.

Barbarity and violence has also dented the support base of the Middle Eastern terror organisation.

Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who was the first militant to swear allegiance to Abu Bakar Baghdadi, the head of IS, distanced from the militant group due to extremely violent activities of the militants, including slitting throats, burning people and their homes.

According to Khan, IS is passing through bad times in Iraq and it may not focus on Afghanistan; yet another reason of slow or no expansion of the terrorist outfit in the near future.

Another reason for ‘slow advancement’ of IS is that its organisation in Khorasan primarily comprises Orakzai Pashtuns from the Pakistan’s side of border, restricting them to parts occupied by the IS and barring them for going to settled areas, where they can be identified as foreigners.

The importance of this factor can be gauged from the fact that for the first time Afghan Taliban included three non-Pashtuns – Tajik, Uzbik and Hazara – in its Shurah or council.

For IS, it’s completely opposite, which is relying on both Pashtuns and Salafis; both can’t take hold in most of Afghanistan.

Since Da’ish is a common enemy in Nagarhar, it has united the different factions of Afghan Taliban, the group which has witnessed rift in others parts after the death of Mullah Omar.

Air strikes and fighting with Taliban have also slowed down the group’s advancement. In Batikot district of Nangarhar, Taliban have regained the areas previously occupied by the IS, sources say.

Meanwhile, Afghans hope the inclusion of China in peace efforts will bring a sigh of relief.

According to security experts, similar to Al Qaeda, the IS is also recruiting foreign militants, including that of Chinese origin; thus attracting the attention of the emerging economic superpower.

China’s efforts for peace apparently are a part of its long-term economic goals in the region, which have increased hopes for a peaceful Afghanistan.

 

Published in The Frontier Post