Afghanistan, which has been destabilised by an increasingly violent civil war, finds it difficult to protect its journalists. The Taliban kidnapped and then killed two fixers working with an Italian special correspondent and have launched attacks on several media premises. A court sentenced a young journalist to death for alleged “blasphemy” and security forces harassed the most critical journalists.
The men of one of the Taliban’s most feared commanders, Mullah Dadullah, in March 2007, cut the throats of Sayed Agha and Adjmal Nasqhbandi, driver and guide to Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo, after “trying” them for “espionage”. The life of the reporter for La Repubblica was saved thanks to his country’s intervention in negotiating the release of several Taliban chiefs in exchange for his freedom. He had been snatched while working in the southern Helmand region where the Taliban are active.
The fate suffered by the foreign journalist’s Afghan fixers demonstrate the serious risks run by journalists working in the south and east of the country where fighting claimed several thousand lives in 2007. A British special correspondent who had worked with Sayed Agha made the same point in comments after the young man’s death: “Sayed Agha was a gentle, witty and deeply likeable young man (...) It was access quite impossible to achieve without the tribal connections and guarantees that a local man like Sayed was able to provide. But with his work came a great level of risk.”
Mullah Omar’s men, who control several districts, seized a score of journalists in 2007. The Taliban stopped and held a team from Al-Jazeera and two Pakistani reporters at the beginning of the year before quickly releasing them safe and well. The Taliban also stepped up attacks against media installations, launching a rocket attack on radio Mili Paygham (Pashto for National Message) in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan.
The director of Peace Radio murdered
The profession was traumatised by the murder overnight on 5-6 June of Zakia Zaki, head of radio Sada-e-Sulh (Peace Radio) and a charismatic figure in Afghan journalism. She was killed by a gang which broke into her home and shot her seven times in front of her two-year-old son. Police arrested six suspects and released four of them for lack of evidence. The authorities accused the Taliban of carrying out the murder, but friends and family of Zakia Zaki pointed the finger at local figures, including former warlords, whom the journalist had exposed in her programmes on human rights. Zaki launched the first free radio even before the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and became a member of the constituent assembly in 2003.
A few weeks after the murder of Zakia Zaki, Farida Nekzad, editor of the independent Afghan news agency Pajhwok, received death threats from unknown men who warned that she would suffer the same fate as the radio director, whose murder she was investigating.
The murder of Zakia Zaki took place against an extremely tense background between the staff of Sada-e-Sulh and certain local officials. The journalist Abdul Qudoos had been released in early February after being held in custody for 11 months on the basis of a complaint of “attempted murder” lodged by woman deputy Samia Sadat. On his release, a council of elders told him not to make any statements to the press or seek compensation from the deputy. Samia Sadat was a political rival of Zakia Zaki at the latest legislative elections. She had moreover tried to close down Zaki’s radio which she viewed as an instrument of propaganda for her political opponents.
Police never fully solved the murder, at the end of May, of Shakiba Sanga Amaj, a popular young presenter of the programme “Da Gudar Ghara” on the Pashto-language Shamshad TV for which she also reported. The authorities and her friends and colleagues believed there was a family link to the crime, accusing family members of hiring a killer to punish her because the young woman refused to get married.
One journalist sentenced to death and independent reporters arrested
For the second time since the fall of the Taliban, a journalist was sentenced for blasphemy. Journalism student, Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 23, who was arrested in October in Mazar-i-Sharif, was sentenced to death on 22 January 2008 after a closed-doors trial at which he had no lawyer to defend him. He was convicted of “disseminating defamatory remarks about Islam”, for printing and distributing to friends an article he downloaded from the Internet that analyses what the Koran says about the role of women. But the sentence, which was demanded by the Council of Mullahs, was also designed to intimidate the victim’s brother, journalist Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, who has been investigating the authorities in the Balkh region of northern Afghanistan.
The often criticised government has not hesitated to take controversial measures against the media. In January, independent journalist Tawab Niazi was arrested by the secret services for having had contact with a Taliban spokesman. He was sentenced to one year in prison at the conclusion of a summary trial. The authorities released him, in August.
For his part, the chief prosecutor attacked Tolo TV, sending in around 50 police officers, also in April, to arrest journalist Hamed Haidary as well as the station head, accusing them of having twisted his words in a news bulletin broadcast the same day. Police withdrew faced with strong resistance from the journalists.
The secret services in July arrested Mohammad Asif Nang, editor of the magazine Peace Jirga, and Kamran Mir Hazar, journalist on radio Salam Watandar who also runs the blog kabulpress.org. They were later released on bail. After a second arrest, Kamran Mir Hazar decided to flee the country.
No new law on the media
The head of state in December refused to sign the media law - which nevertheless protects freedom of the press - which had been adopted by the parliament in May, after a lively debate within parliament and the government. Deputies, most of them former warlords, banded together to tighten media control in the name of “respect for Islamic values”. One of the leaders of the Islamist party Hezb-i-islami said that “these programmes and photos of half dressed women are like a poison which is spreading in our society and provides a pretext for people to join the enemies of the government”.
A media campaign succeeded in preventing the adoption of articles which would have been a backward step. One of the heads of the privately-run station, Ariana, Abdul Jabar Baryal, said on the fringes of the debate that the “spirit of modernity and freedom escapes this government of ex-communists and Mujahideen who want the media to become a propaganda machine”.
Foreign military present in Afghanistan, increasingly concerned about the effect on public opinion of mistakes resulting in the deaths of civilians, have on several occasions tried to prevent the press from doing its job. US soldiers in March wiped photos taken by Afghan reporters, working for the Associated Press, after they covered the death of civilians killed by Marines, in eastern Afghanistan. French journalist, Claire Billet, working for the independent Hamsa Press, was blacklisted by NATO forces in May for filming military convoys without permission. She had previously been arrested and questioned in April by private security agents working for the US army in Kabul. Afghan and foreign journalists are regularly ordered by international coalition forces in Afghanistan not to film their activities.