Afghan journalists continue to fight for media freedom despite terror attack


Afghanistan’s media community is still reeling from a brutal terrorist attack which saw seven journalists massacred by Taliban militants in Kabul.

On 20 January 2016, a van belonging to the country’s largest television network, Tolo TV, was dropping staffers home when a suicide bomber driving a car packed with explosives hit their vehicle.

Seven employees of the MOBY Group, the privately-owned company that runs Tolo TV, were killed close to the Russian embassy, along with a policeman. An additional 25 civilians were injured.

The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the deaths, boasting that it had "made good on its promise of targeting Tolo TV, the country’s largest network, for promoting obscenity, irreligiousness, foreign culture and nudity," according to a statement released by its media arm the day after the bombing.

It also described Tolo TV as a legitimate “military target”.

Back in October, the Taliban threatened journalists from Tolo TV and 1TV, another popular television station, for reporting allegations of human rights abuses by Taliban fighters during the battle for Kunduz – a city in the north of the country that was briefly captured by Taliban fighters in 2015.

Mariam Ibrahimi was in her mid-20s and was one of three women killed during the bus attack on 20 January.

Speaking to Equal Times, friends and family members described Ibrahimi, who worked in the dubbing department but was also a peace activist, as a young woman with a bright future. “We will never be able to forget her for the rest of our lives,” her friend Roshan Mohseni said.

Mehri Azizi was another young woman who lost her life during the attack. Aged just 22, Azizi worked in the graphics department and was due to celebrate her wedding engagement just days later.

Mohammad Jawad Hussaini, Zainab Mirzaee, Mohammad Hussain, Mohammad Ali Mohammadi and Hussain Amiri were the other Tolo TV employees who lost their lives along with an as-yet-unnamed policeman.

But despite the national mourning and the international condemnation, the Taliban remains unrepentant. “The condemnations by the US embassy, [President] Ashraf Ghani, [Chief Executive] Abdullah, [Vice President] Dostum and other ‘insignificant’ figures and organizations can never break our resolve and neither will propaganda and media warnings to change our path,” said Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid in a message to the media following the attack.


Continuous threats

Afghanistan has long been one of the world’s most dangerous countries to work as a journalist. As well as facing intimidation and violence from the Taliban, journalists are also the mercy of corrupt authorities and warlords.

But despite the persistent threat, the resolve of the Afghan journalists remains strong. Hussain Rasuli, a young journalist working for almost three years now, says giving up is not an option.

“We live with so much pressure and intimidation throughout our lives that we share these challenges as friends and colleagues. We remain committed to our profession because we want things to change,” he said.

Little over a decade ago, only the state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan served the country. Today, Afghanistan has as many as 54 television channels and well over 160 radio stations. Having waited so long for media plurality, the people of Afghanistan are determined not to let it go.

The country’s vibrant civil society, as well as various journalist unions and associations have taken on the challenge to defend freedom of speech and free press in this war-ravaged country.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) slammed the 20 January tragedy as an atrocity designed to undermine Afghanistan’s still-fragile media freedom.

“The targeting of journalists reflects a depraved strategy to make media freedom a casualty of the ongoing conflict,” commented Patricia Gossman, a senior Afghanistan researcher at HRW.

“Designating journalists and other civilians as military targets does not make them so, and deliberately attacking them constitutes a war crime,” she said, lamenting the increase in intimidation and violence from both state and non-state figures in recent years.

Seddiqullah Tauhidi, head of the country’s leading media advocacy organisation Nai (short for Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan in English) told Equal Times that Afghanistan’s independent media exists under tremendous social, economic and political pressure.

“Through such attacks the Taliban wants to scare and stop the journalists from reporting the truth and exposing their brutalities. But this is not going to happen,” he said.

Lamenting the lack of protection and poor pay provided to the country’s journalists, he also held the government responsible for failing to ensure the security of media houses on the Taliban’s hit-list.

The Afghanistan Journalists’ Federation (AJF) is marking the day of the attack as ’Black Wednesday’. “This was a horrific incident in the history of our country, we need to unite against such inhuman acts of violence against civilians and devise a national strategy to deal with such challenges,” said AJF President Rahimullah Samandar.