Slain Afghan Journalists Remembered on World Press Freedom Day

RSF 2017 press freedom index rankings
Reporters Without Borders ranked only four Arab countries as “partly free” for media, while the other 17 it ranked as “not free” countries. Image: RSF

Afghanistan’s slain journalists were remembered on World Press Freedom Day on Thursday, days after the deadliest attack on the country’s media since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Ten journalists, including Agence France-Presse chief photographer Shah Marai, were killed Monday, underscoring the dangers faced by the media as the war-torn country slips deeper into violence.

“Afghanistan’s journalists are among the bravest in the world,” said Omar Waraich, Amnesty International’s deputy director for South Asia. “Working in some of the most difficult conditions, they have faced threats, intimidation and violence for simply doing their jobs.”

A double suicide blast in Kabul on Monday, claimed by the Islamic State group, left 25 people dead including Marai and eight other journalists, while BBC reporter Ahmad Shah was killed in a separate attack in eastern Khost province.

Media workers from Tolo News, 1TV, Radio Free Europe and Mashal TV were also among the dead in Kabul.

The deadly assaults have shaken Afghanistan’s tight-knit journalist community. Most of them are close friends as well as colleagues who look out for one another as they work in an increasingly hostile environment.

But they remain defiant, with dozens of Afghan news editors and executives returning to the site of the Kabul blast hours later Monday in protest.

“World Press Freedom Day reminds me and my colleagues of the importance of reporting — reporting for a vibrant democracy,” Parwiz Kawa, editor-in-chief of the Hasht-e-Subh Daily newspaper, told AFP.

1TV editor-in-chief Abdullah Khenjani said Thursday was a “mourning day” for the broadcaster, which lost a reporter and cameraman in Monday’s blast.

He told AFP his colleagues were heartbroken, “especially when we see the empty chairs… in our newsroom.”

“Afghan journalists who work in an increasingly hostile environment deserve more support and protection,” said Lotfullah Najafizada, director of Tolo News.

‘End Journalists’ Slaughter’

Afghanistan was last year ranked the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Afghan media outlets have condemned the government’s failure to protect them, particularly at the scene of suicide attacks where secondary blasts are a constant concern.

Around 100 journalists held a vigil outside the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London on Thursday to pay tribute to the fallen journalists, observing a minute’s silence while carrying photographs of Shah.

“He was a brilliant guy and his brilliant career was short-cut by forces of evil,” said the BBC Afghan service’s Inayatulhaq Yasini.

The attack on the Afghan journalists comes amid increasing concerns over press freedom across Asia, including in the Philippines, Myanmar and Pakistan.

On the same day as the Afghan journalists were killed, Philippine radio broadcaster Edmund Sestoso was shot by assailants in the southern city of Dumaguete, said Human Rights Watch. Sestoso died Tuesday.

“The world is getting worse for journalists,” Director of BBC News Francesca Unsworth told AFP at the London vigil. “It’s being normalised by politicians that journalists are not there to serve the people, that they are the enemy in some way. It’s a very dangerous precedent.”

A collaborative of press advocates said in a report that attacks against journalists in the Philippines have spiked since Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency in May 2016, citing 85 cases — including murder.

In Myanmar, hopes have been dashed of more press freedom under the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which took power in 2016.

The country has fallen six places to 137th on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index. A recent survey of journalists cited an increase in threats, physical attacks and arrests of reporters.

Two Reuters journalists, who were investigating the extrajudicial killing of Rohingya Muslims, face charges that could result in 14-year jail sentences if convicted.

Journalists in Pakistan, where fears of a crackdown are also growing, marked the day with a march in the capital Islamabad, carrying photos of fallen comrades — including those from Afghanistan — with slogans such as “Killed but not silenced.”

Pakistan is already routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous places for media, with journalists caught between militants and the military. Enforced disappearances are on the rise, newspaper columns are being pulled and TV channels forced off the air for failing to toe the line.

A new report from the Freedom Network watchdog recorded more than 150 attacks and violations against the media in the past year. “It’s very harsh,” said Abid Khurshid, president of the Kashmir Journalists Forum.