2021 has been the most devastating year for Afghan journalists in living memory. As the Taliban’s new regime solidifies, journalists and media workers across Afghanistan have been directly targeted, from the capital Kabul to the outermost borders, caught in the crossfire and deliberately assassinated. Between 2010 and 2021, 87 Afghan journalists have been killed in the course of their duties, and in 2021 alone, at least 9 journalists and media workers have lost their lives.
Only 5 of these cases have been resolved, and, under Taliban rule, the remainder are unlikely to ever be given the justice they are owed despite the militant group’s insincere assurances to uphold press freedom. The longer these cases lie cold the longer extremist groups and lawless perpetrators are empowered to continue to brazenly silence those who speak up for press freedom. Investigation and prosecution of killings and attacks are elusive in Afghanistan as impunity for crimes against journalists runs rampant.
A government incapable of protecting journalists
Before the Taliban’s rise to power, the former National Unity Government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, repeatedly made promises and expressed its commitment to improve the overall security situation in Afghanistan. The government pledged to thoroughly investigate cases of the murders of journalists and to put an end to impunity for crimes against journalists and media workers. However, due to a lack of political will and continued threats from militant groups, there was no improvement. In fact, the situation escalated.
On December 10, 2020, Malala Maiwand, a female television anchor for Enkaas TV and Radio, was assassinated by two gunmen in a targeted attack in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan. Only two days later, Afghan government officials confirmed that two suspected perpetrators had been arrested. It took authorities a week to apprehend suspects for the assassination of journalist Elyas Daee in the Helmand province that took place a month earlier, on November 12. On March 2, 2021, the Afghan government announced that it had arrested a member of the ISIS group in connection with the killings of three Enikass TV employees, Shazia Roufi, Saadia Sadat and Morsal Wahedi, the very day they were killed. However, justice has not been served in any of these cases. Although the suspected perpetrators were detained almost immediately, the Afghan government continued to delay the investigations, letting impunity take hold.
Mudasir Dawat, the brother of journalist Elyas Daee, said that the government had not conducted a satisfactory investigation into his murder. The Taliban did not claim responsibility, leaving the family in the dark about the reason for his killing. Dawat said his brother had been threatened by the armed Taliban and militants for the past 12 years, but the government had failed to take action to address the issue.
When the Afghan government did convict perpetrators for crimes against journalists, their sentences did not comply with international standards. In April 2019, two suspects were found guilty of the murder of Kabul News TV and Xinhua journalist, Abdul Manan Arghand, who was murdered on April 25, 2018, in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. The two accused were sentenced to death. All court proceedings relating to the case were sealed, and neither the public nor the media were able to attend. Many, including Arghand’s family, journalist unions and international human rights organisations, were not satisfied that there was a sufficient link between the two arrests and the murder of Arghand. It was thought that government officials arbitrarily convicted individuals not involved with the case, failing to do their job to protect their community.
Impunity rife under Taliban rule
Since the Taliban came to power in August 2021, at least six journalists have lost their lives, with many more suffering threats, harassment, intimidation and violence. At least 153 media organisations have been forced to cease operations, with women journalists barred from working, telecommunication shutdowns and the introduction of draconian media regulations that aim to quash freedom of the press. The Taliban has no intention of either ensuring the safety of journalists in Afghanistan or of convicting those perpetrators who have committed crimes against them. In other words, impunity is escalating to critical levels.
On 8 August, as Taliban forces moved towards Kabul, journalist and station manager of Paktia Ghag radio, Toofan Omar, was murdered in a targeted attack. Two days earlier, on 6 August, the Taliban murdered the head of Afghanistan’s Media and Information Centre Dawa Khan Minapal, also in Kabul. A month later, Fahim Dashti, a veteran leader of the Afghanistan National Journalist Union (ANJU), was killed in Panjshir province on September 5 during a clash between the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA) and the Taliban. Dashti was known as a powerful champion for free media and a key voice in the collective of journalists, the Federation for Afghan Journalists and Media Entities established in 2012.
Journalists Ali Reza Ahmadi and Juhad Hamidi, who were reporting from the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport, were among those killed in the deadly bombing outside the Kabul airport on August 26. Prominent Afghan journalist and author Sayed Maroof Sadat, a former government spokesperson and an affiliate of radio ‘Sub Bakhair and Sham Bakhai’, was gunned down on October 2. Sadat was one of four people, including two Taliban fighters, who were killed in a drive-by shooting in Jalalabad city, the capital of Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan. Sadat’s son was also critically injured during the attack. The perpetrators are currently unknown; however, Islamic State militants are thought to be behind the incident. The safety of journalists has been critically compromised under the Taliban and securing justice for these crimes will be a near-impossible task.
Advocacy and action from IFJ affiliates
Amidst the increasingly dire state of impunity in Afghanistan, IFJ’s affiliates on the ground have continued to fight harder than ever for justice and support for Afghan media workers. Members from the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA) and Afghanistan National Journalists Union (ANJU) have been working tirelessly to provide support and guidance to media workers across the nation since the Taliban regime has taken hold. The IFJ thanks its affiliates for their continued efforts in the face of extreme adversity.
The ANJU Operations Manager Sahel Ghazi said: The media and journalists have been instrumental in Afghanistan's development over the past 20 years. But with the rise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, many gains have been made, and the Afghan media and press family are one of the main victims. The findings of Afghanistan’s National Journalists Union shows that the majority of media outlets in Afghanistan have been shut down due to economic and security problems and the vast majority of journalists have been either verbally or physically threatened, with women being the main victims. ANJU is working with international organizations to reflect the problems of journalists in Afghanistan and to find solutions to the problems of Afghan journalists in cooperation with international organizations and countries that are committed to human rights and democratic values.
The AIJA President Hujatullah Mujadidi said: In Afghanistan, the media and freedom of expression are being destroyed, and media closures have increased in recent years, especially in the last two months, mostly due to lack of funding and some due to restrictions. For 20 years, the perpetrators of the killings of journalists and media workers who guarantee the survival of freedom of expression and the media have not been dealt with legally if necessary, and what has been done has not been satisfactory to the media community. The money that came to Afghanistan from sources of support for freedom of expression for 20 years was wasted due to mismanagement. This is a big part of the problem of media work in Afghanistan. Recently, in addition to the increasing financial problems of the media, some practices and restrictions imposed and violence against journalists have exacerbated this problem. The AIJA calls on the international community and pro-freedom countries to pay serious attention to the financial problems of the media, to talk to the Taliban in creating a better work environment for journalists and the media, and to ask them to support the media and journalists. Let the Taliban know that if they support the freedom of expression that all Afghans want, it will also be beneficial to a progressive and authoritarian system that they need