International 05/03/2021

Afghan government wants journalists to carry guns

Unprecedented wave of killings of journalists since peace talks with Taliban began

3 min
Health workers transfer the lifeless body of one of the workers killed Tuesday to the city of Jalalabad
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BarcelonaThe first was Afghan journalist Yama Siawash. He was killed on 7 November in Kabul with a bomb that blew up his car. No one claimed responsibility for the attack. Five days later it was the turn of Elyas Daee, who also worked as a journalist in Afghanistan but in the southern city of Lashkargah. An explosive device was also planted in the underbody of his vehicle and no one claimed responsibility for the attack. The killings of journalists in Afghanistan continued in December and January, but no one knows who is behind most of the cases. The latest was last Tuesday: three female employees of the local Enikas TV station - Mursal Hakimi, 25, Sadia, 20, and Shanaz, also 20 - were killed as they walked home from work in the eastern city of Jalalabad. They were shot in the head.

The Afghan Home Affairs ministry wants to give gun licenses to journalists so that they can carry a gun and defend themselves. For the moment this is its only proposal in the face of the unprecedented wave of killings of media workers in the country. However, the journalists' associations are not sure about this. "I don't think it's a good idea. Carrying a gun doesn't mean knowing how to use it", Najib Sharifi, head of the Afghan Journalists' Safety Committee (AJSC), an association that offers help to the families of the victims and is pressing the Afghan government to investigate the killings so they do not go unpunished, said on the phone from Kabul.

The immediate consequence of this trickle of deaths has been that many journalists have opted for self-censorship, others have quit their jobs and some - the few who can afford it - have fled the country, according to Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, director of Nai, another organisation that supports independent media in Afghanistan. Khalvatgar recalls that Afghan journalists were already at risk before - they could be killed in crossfire, by a landmine or a suicide bombing - but now they are directly shot in the head or have their vehicle blown up. They have become a target. Nothing like this has ever happened in Afghanistan before.

Massoud Hossaini is a renowned Afghan photographer. He won the 2012 Pulitzer for a shocking photograph he took during a suicide bombing in Kabul in December 2011. Hossaini was cold-blooded enough to rush to the scene of the attack a few seconds after the blast and photograph a 12-year-old girl calling out surrounded by wounded people and lifeless bodies on the floor. Now, almost ten years later, Hossaini continues to work as a photographer in Afghanistan, but he has stopped covering breaking news and has radically changed his appearance.

He used to have a distinctive look: his long hair was tied back in a ponytail, a very unusual hairstyle for Afghan men. "I've cut my hair and grown a beard because I don't want to be recognized, and I only leave the house if I'm asked to work", he explains. He complains about the international silence, the fact that no one speaks out about what is happening in Afghanistan or takes an interest in him or his colleagues. Many journalists, as a protective measure, avoid routines or change cars every time they travel.

Coffin with the lifeless body of one of the workers killed on Tuesday in Jalalabad

The head of the Committee for the Safety of Afghan Journalists also fails to understand the general silence, as well as the fact that not even European countries have spoken out despite what is happening in Afghanistan is totally exceptional: on Tuesday, three female employees of the same TV station who were dubbing foreign films and series were killed. On December 10 another employee of the same media, the journalist Malalai Maiwand, was killed. The terrorist group Islamic State claimed responsibility for the four murders. However, there is still no claim of responsibility for the other cases.

Peace talks

The spate of killings began just days after peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in the Qatari capital, Doha, on September 12. "They are trying to create panic and chaos to put pressure on the government", says Najib Sharifi, who believes the Islamist group is undoubtedly behind the killings. In fact, since the peace talks began, not only have the murders of media workers multiplied (nine have died), but also those of human rights defenders (five). In February the United Nations published a special report denouncing this.

Nevertheless, the United States maintains its intention to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in May. Despite the change of leadership in the White House, there has been no change of plans for the moment. On the contrary, neither in Kabul nor in any other city in the country have there been protest demonstrations in the streets. None. There is a reason for this: Afghans are afraid of being killed.

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