Afghanistan gets more dangerous for journalists as elections approach

Losing three colleagues in a month has been a shock, The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff told Poynter in an e-mail. “Reporting here has always come with risks, but there have never been so many brutal attacks on journalists in quick succession,” wrote Sieff, the Post’s Kabul bureau chief.

“The attacks have come at a time when on-the-ground reporting, the kind that Anja and Kathy were doing, is most essential. The country’s elections and the U.S. military withdrawal have enormous implications for the future of Afghanistan, and those stories can’t be covered solely from Washington or New York.”

On Friday, Associated Press photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus was killed while reporting in Afghanistan. AP reporter Kathy Gannon was shot and is being treated nearby. Earlier this month, Afghan journalist Sardar Ahmad, a senior reporter for Agence France-Presse’s Kabul bureau, and British-Swedish journalist Nils Horner, who was based in Hong Kong, were also killed in Afghanistan.

Afghan men pass an election poster showing presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadza in the center of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday, March 31, 2014. Eight Afghan presidential candidates are campaigning for the third presidential election. Elections will take place on April 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

In the 2014 press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Afghanistan 128 out of 180 countries.

Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, chose not to visit Afghanistan on a recent trip to the region, he told Poynter in a phone interview.

“We looked at the situation, and we could see it disintegrating,” he said.

In his report “Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the Front Lines in 2012,” Dietz predicted some of what’s now happening in the country just before national elections and as the U.S. prepares to withdraw forces. Despite the recent deaths, however, Dietz said he’s more optimistic now than he was a few years ago about the strength and role of the press itself in Afghanistan.

“What I saw was a really strong media and a media environment, a place where journalists identify as journalists,” he said. “They weren’t operating just in competition with each other, but there was a growing sense that they had an important role to play and they accepted responsibility for that.”

The national election will be a turning point for the country, Dietz said, and for its press. While there have been attacks on press freedoms, they’ve typically come from individuals and not an ideology. Despite some outlets that subscribe to a specific viewpoint, many journalists in Afghanistan identify themselves that way and are able to see past other regional ties, he said.

“And they say, we are journalists and will work as such and that, I think, is a great success story in Afghanistan.”

The U.S. has played a role in helping to form that identity, from helping to launch news sites, such as Pajhwok Afghan News, a wire service that got funding from USAID, to employing Afghan journalists.

“Hundreds, maybe a thousand, maybe more people have worked for Western news organizations,” Dietz said. “Whether or not they bought into the philosophy, they certainly saw how it was done.”

In a March 28 report, Reporters Without Borders wrote about the role local media would play in the election and called for increased protection for journalists in Afghanistan.

Attacks and threats against local journalists in connection with their reporting are increasing in frequency. Since the start of the campaign in February, Reporters Without Borders has registered more than 20 cases in various parts of the country especially the cities of Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif. Supporters of candidates have been responsible for some of these attacks and threats.

For the report, RWB visited Afghanistan last year and found that women journalists were particularly vulnerable. According to the report, today, Afghanistan has 30 women running mostly privately owned media companies. There are also eight news agencies, “48 TV stations, 175 radio stations and 190 newspapers and magazines…”

Afghanistan is now one of the world’s countries where the media and freedom of information are relatively protected by the constitution and legislation. However, although benefitting from these hard-won rights, the media have to cope with the chronic political instability and unrest that affects all of Afghan society, and journalists in particular.

On Friday, RWB renewed the call for protections for journalists.

“It is all the more shocking for apparently being the work of a policeman who should have been protecting Afghan and foreign journalists. We call on the authorities to do everything possible to guarantee the safety of journalists, whose role is crucial at the height of the electoral process.”

How those local journalists will use their skills and even their ability to continue doing so will depend on the results of Saturday’s election and the perception that they reflect the will of the people, Dietz said.

But for Afghan journalists working in Afghanistan, Dietz said, “I think there’s an embedded attitude toward news gathering that you or I would recognize as correct.”

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