The brazen daytime assassination was one of the latest in a string of targeted attacks on journalists in Afghanistan. The spate of killings has highlighted the danger they face as they report on surging violence and tense peace talks between Afghan and Taliban representatives.

Since January, 11 Afghan journalists and media workers have been killed, making this one of the deadliest years for the country’s domestic media corps since the end of Taliban rule in 2001. Recently the pace has increased, with five journalists killed in the past two months.

On December 21, Rahmatullah Nikzad, a freelance photographer, was shot dead outside his home in the city of Ghazni. In November, Elyas Dayee, a journalist who worked for Radio Azadi, and Yama Siavash, a former ToloNews anchor, were killed in separate magnetic bomb explosions, one in Helmand, the other in Kabul. Fardin Amini, an anchor for Ariana News TV, lost his life a day after Maiwand’s death.

Afghan Journalist Rahmatullah Nikzad  was shot dead by unknown assailants in Afghanistan's central Ghazni province on Monday, December 21, 2020.

Afghan Journalist Rahmatullah Nikzad was shot dead by unknown assailants in Afghanistan’s central Ghazni province on Monday, December 21, 2020.Credit:AP

The Islamic State, an extremist group separate from the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the killings of Siavash and Maiwand. Police say Amini committed suicide by slitting his own throat, but his family and friends insist he was murdered. The Taliban denied involvement in the killing of Nikzad and condemned the attack on the journalist.

More than a dozen Afghan journalists and media activists interviewed for this story, especially women, said they feel less safe than ever.

Maiwand was one the few women who dared to appear openly as a television journalist in Nangahar, a deeply conservative province where few women work outside their homes. Most who work in journalism prefer to take off-camera jobs rather than risk being seen on screen.

“She was a fighter for women and a brave journalist,” said Niaz Mohammad Khaksar, a colleague and reporter for Enikass. “Her death has created fear among journalists, especially females.”

Relatives carry the body of journalist Malala Maiwand at her funeral.

Relatives carry the body of journalist Malala Maiwand at her funeral. Credit:AP

The assassinations have shaken the country and exposed the fragility of hard-won media freedom in Afghanistan.

Dayee was among a handful of journalists who reported from Helmand, a violence-plagued province in the south. Sami Mahdi, Radio Azadi’s bureau chief, said that Dayee was an impartial journalist whose reports were precise and backed by facts.

“He always paid special attention to stories about people affected by the war,” Mahdi said. “He never forgot the human interest angle in his reporting.”

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Dayee’s death caused several other journalists to flee Helmand, creating an information gap in a province that has long been a critical battlefield between Taliban and government forces.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack on Dayee, but the Afghan government said it had arrested a Taliban member who admitted to carrying it out.

Tariq Arian, a spokesman for the country’s Interior Ministry, said the Taliban has been behind most targeted assassinations of journalists there since 2001. The Taliban rejects such accusations.

“The killing of journalists and media workers is not among our targets,” Zabiullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman, said in a WhatsApp message to The Washington Post.

Afghan security personnel arrive at a Kabul bombsite on December 26, 2020. Journalists fear more targeted attacks during escalating violence.

Afghan security personnel arrive at a Kabul bombsite on December 26, 2020. Journalists fear more targeted attacks during escalating violence. Credit:AP

The Taliban imposed harsh restrictions on media during its five-year rule in the late 1990s. It banned television and took over state-owned radio and newspapers to use them as propaganda platforms. But the group has shown greater openness toward journalists since opening peace talks with US officials in 2018. The Taliban now allows limited, heavily monitored media access to areas it controls, and its spokesmen grant interviews and issue news releases – often using technology the group once banned.

In urban areas under government control, the Afghan media has thrived in the past two decades. Dozens of TV stations and hundreds of online and print outlets have been established. Afghan journalists have uncovered corruption and exposed human rights abuses.

“The biggest concern is: What will be the fate of journalists and media after the peace deal?” said Shah Hussain Rasuli, the editor in chief of Salam Watandar, Afghanistan’s largest radio station. “What will be their place in the society?”

When the peace talks “begin with the killing of journalists,” Rasuli added, “then the end of them does not look promising.”

The Washington Post

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