Last week’s conference on media freedom in London represented a belated but welcome attempt to address the unprecedented challenges that journalists are facing around the world. “Journalists and media organizations are increasingly confronted in their vital work by restrictive laws, punitive legal measures, and physical violence,” read the Global Pledge on Media Freedom signed after the conference. “Too often, whether they work with traditional media or on digital platforms, they pay for their commitment with their liberty or their lives.”
There are few places where these words ring truer than Afghanistan. Just days after the London conference, a radio station was shut down in the face of a barrage of threats from a local Taliban commander. This was the third time that Samaa radio station had been forced to stop its operations in the past four years. Against the backdrop of escalating violence in the country and intensifying threats from the Taliban and other armed groups, it is not clear whether it will be able to return to the airwaves anytime soon.
In 2018, 13 journalists lost their lives in Afghanistan, more than anywhere else in the world. Almost all of them were killed while performing their duties as journalists. Having waged a hard-fought struggle for media freedom after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghan journalists now find their human rights under relentless assault. The Taliban and other armed groups have escalated their threats and violence. Meanwhile, the Afghan government – once a self-styled standard-bearer of press freedom – has imposed its own restrictions.
Even as the Taliban claims that it is pursuing peace, it has once again singled out journalists as targets. Ahead of the recent intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha, the Taliban’s military commission issued a statement warning journalists that it will consider them and their organizations “military targets” unless they stop issuing “anti-Taliban” statements and advertisements. Brazenly threatening to carry out crimes under international law, the armed group chillingly warned that journalists or employees of media organizations “will not be safe.”
What is at stake is a return to the grim days when broadcasting music and other forms of entertainment was banned across the country under Taliban rule. A time when television channels were not in existence and television sets were smashed in public. All that you had back then was Radio Sharia and a few print magazines that dared not offend the Taliban’s rigid codes of “morality”. I vividly recall those days, when even taxi drivers were careful to conceal cassettes and only play them at a low hum, lest a Taliban representative’s ears catch the beat of an instrument.
Between 1996 and 2001, religious minorities and women did not have a voice. The predominantly Shi’a Hazara community was officially regarded as non-Muslims and denied any space to freely express its beliefs. The Hindu community was told to wear a special symbol to mark their status as non-Muslims. Women were confined to their homes, unable to discuss issues relevant to them in public. There were no avenues to access information, to voice dissent, and, crucially, hold the government accountable.
Within the space of a few years, Afghanistan’s media landscape broadened immeasurably. Scores of television channels burst into view. Lively debates on issues of public importance became a common feature. Women established themselves as leading reporters, presenters, opinion-makers and artists. The famed Afghan Star program, the subject of an internationally acclaimed documentary, saw Zahra Elham, a singer in her 20s, from the Hazara community, become the first woman to win a popular singing competition.
The rise of the Afghan media once represented a gleaming symbol of the new Afghanistan, where the right to freedom of expression was protected by Article 34 of the country’s constitution and by the international human rights treaties to which Afghanistan is a state party. However, the government has failed to lend substance to those human rights commitments. Not only has it stood by as armed groups have threatened and attacked journalists, failing to hold anyone to account, but government officials themselves have issued threats and imposed undue restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.
At the last presidential election, both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah signed pledges that, if elected to power, they will protect the right to freedom of expression, withdraw politically motivated cases against journalists, investigate and prosecute cases of attacks on journalists, implement the Access to Information Act, train security forces on issues of media freedom, and other measures, including making “every effort to prevent violence against journalists and other media workers.”
Some of these pledges have borne fruit. There is now a Mass Media Commission to address a complaints procedure. There is also a committee presided over by Mohammad Sarwar Danish, the Second Vice President, which works for the protection and safety of media workers nationally, through provincial subcommittees. Most pledges, however, were ignored. The 2009 Mass Media Law places restrictions on what journalists can say or write. There continues to be impunity for threats and attacks on journalists, with no successful prosecutions made, despite the sharp rise in the number of journalists killed and media organizations attacked and shut down due to security and financial restrictions. In 2016, a new Cyber Crime Code was signed into law, whose offences include “crimes against public morality and chastity”, which can be punished by heavy fines.
Against the backdrop of these threats and attacks, Afghan journalists are increasingly resorting to self-censorship - fearing that their reporting could be punished by the violence of armed groups or the vengeance of a government official. Recent events have inspired little confidence that conditions will improve. Thus far, the peace process has excluded commitments to human rights and press freedom. Even when the Taliban has said that it would avoid civilian targets, it made no promise to spare journalists and media organizations.
There must come unwavering commitments by the Government of Afghanistan to prosecute all cases of violence and crimes against the media and journalists in Afghanistan – particularly the cases where state officials are the suspects of the crimes. Protection of media freedom and the right to freedom of expression must not be undermined by any peace talks, and they rather require to be respected, protected, promoted and strengthened.
The Taliban must stop targeting and attacking the media and journalists in Afghanistan, and Afghan journalists must be allowed to do their important work freely and without fear.
Zaman Sultani is a South Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.