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 

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Author: Naimat

Karachi based journalist, writing on national and international issues.

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