MONDAY’S twin suicide bombings in the heart of Kabul have once again highlighted the bloody challenges that Afghan journalists have been facing over the past 17 years. At least nine media workers were among the almost 40 people who died in the attacks claimed by the militant Islamic State group.

Since the 2001 toppling of the Afghan Taliban regime, it was the single deadliest day for journalists in Afghanistan. In all, nine reporters, photographers and cameramen were killed in Kabul; a tenth was gunned down in Khost province. Last week, a reporter was shot dead in a similar ambush in the southern city of Kandahar.

Clad in a press vest and carrying a camera, the bomber set off his explosives in the midst of journalists covering a second explosion in the high-security Shashdarak neighbourhood — home to the Nato headquarters, several embassies and offices of international NGOs.

Without doubt, members of the press corps are being targeted deliberately in a country where healthcare providers and emergency personnel, too, have repeatedly come under attack in recent years. However, Afghan security forces and their international partners have failed to protect even humanitarian teams.

These are deadly times for Afghan journalists.

Undeterred by threats from insurgents, warlords and government figures, journalists have demonstrated a tenacious adherence to their professional obligations. Their role in promoting human rights, gender equality, democracy and the unspeakable suffering spawned by the conflict cannot be overemphasised.

Now that many news organisations around the globe have pulled out their staff from the country, it is Afghan journalists who have been providing the world a window into misery, social injustice and the war horrors that prevail.

Editorial: Reporting in Kabul

More significantly, they have defied pressures in reporting mega corruption cases, misappropriation of international assistance and similar acts. One hopes the resilience continues despite this brazen attack on the freedom of expression. In any case, an early recovery from the loss of the seasoned professionals is not going to be easy for the free press.

The revenues of many media companies have been dwindling with each passing year. With foreign aid drying up, a number of outlets have already closed down, rendering many journalists jobless. Those still at work are braving an increasingly hostile environment, plummeting wages and job insecurity. To cap it all, they have to deal with persistent threats from terrorists and strongmen, who have never been held accountable for their misdeeds.

Unlike many of their Western counterparts and mentors, who get large pay cheques, most of the local media happens to be breadwinners for extended families. Understandably, the death or incapacitation of these individuals means their children going without an education and relatives without basic necessities.

Several insurgency-torn provinces have literally become no-go areas for foreign media professionals. The Afghan media persons have been filling the information gap and facilitating their international colleagues in getting a grip on reality in the vast countryside.

In their quest for digging out the facts, at least 21 journalists were killed across the country in 2017 — many of them in targeted attacks. Because of their contributions, outlets like Pajhwok Afghan News, the Moby Group, tens of TV channels and more than 170 FM radio stations have become a byword for quality and credibility.

Although the administration of President Ashraf Ghani has directed government institutions to allow media greater access to information, there is no let up in the violence against journalists. In most instances, the perpetrators are allowed to go scot-free. This culture of impunity has prompted self-censorship in a country ranked 118th on the Reporters Sans Frontières’ World Press Freedom Index.

Journalists and civil society activists must be given enough security in Afghanistan. To give teeth to media protection laws, the government will have to stop officials from harassing independent journalists, many of whom have come to be recognised as the eyes and ears of the nation.

Ten high-casualty attacks, most of them claimed by the Afghan Taliban and IS, have rocked Kabul this year. The rising levels of bloodshed suggest the futility of large-scale counterinsurgency offensives by the US and Afghan troops. At the same time, the trail of death and destruction contradicts top US commander Gen. John Nicholson’s statement, “make no mistake; the enemies of Afghanistan cannot win”.

Murderous attacks on a voter registration centre in Kabul and a convoy of Nato soldiers in the Daman district of Kandahar also point to the grim security milieu. In the build-up to the October parliamentary elections, conditions may worsen as the strength of Afghan security forces has fallen by nearly 11pc. This will make journalists, among others, even more vulnerable to attacks.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2018

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