At first, it seemed like any other tragic blast in Kabul, Afghanistan’s beleaguered capital. On Monday, a man on a motorbike blew himself up near an office of the national spy agency in the Sash Darak neighborhood, a part of town that has often come under attack. Except this time, there was a follow-up. As a large crowd—including media and first responders—rushed to the site of the explosion, a bomber who had disguised himself as a journalist triggered another blast.
All in all, at least 25 people lost their lives in those twin bombings in Kabul on April 30, but what made this attack stand out from the others was that among its victims were nine journalists. They included Shah Marai, the chief photographer in Kabul for Agence France-Presse (AFP), and other media workers from Radio Free Europe, ToloTV and 1TV.
The Afghan branch of ISIS (also known as Daesh) was quick to claim responsibility for the attack. Whoever was behind it, one thing is clear: The conflict in Afghanistan is taking an increasingly devastating toll on the media.
A few hours after the twin blasts in Kabul, news broke that another journalist—Ahmed Shah, a 29-year-old correspondent with the BBC’s Afghan service—had been killed in the eastern province of Khost. He was on his way to work when two unknown men on a motorcycle approached him and shot him dead. Khost, a province straddling the border with Pakistan, is largely controlled by the feared Haqqani Network, although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack yet.
With 10 casualties across the country, the day has already been labeled the deadliest on record in Afghan media history since the fall of the Taliban.
Afghan journalists do heroic work under incredibly difficult circumstances. As international interest wanes and foreign correspondents dwindle, Afghan outlets play an increasingly important role in holding power to account. Crucially, they are also filling the information gap in some of the country’s most insecure provinces, where the conflict has made it too dangerous for others to travel.
In some ways, Afghanistan’s media scene has been a remarkable success story since the days of the Taliban, when the extremist group only allowed one radio station, banned TV outright, and destroyed video cassettes, stringing miles of unspooled tape from tree branches. Since 2001, a plethora of outlets have been established, thought to number dozens of TV stations, some 170 FM radio stations and hundreds of print media. The Moby Group media house is one of Afghanistan’s most successful private companies, and its flagship outlet ToloTV is watched by millions of people. Other outlets—like the independent news agency Pajhwok—are also know for quality journalism and have a reach across the country few Western outlets can rival.
But as the conflict has intensified, so has the toll it has taken on Afghan media. At least 21 journalists were killed in 2017, according to the Afghan media watchdog Nai, many of them in targeted attacks. Nai reports that it was the deadliest year on record and an increase from 14 deaths in 2016. Just three years ago, AFP lost another staffer when the reporter Sardar Ahmad was killed along with his wife and two children. They were dining in the upscale Serena Hotel when Taliban gunmen stormed the restaurant and killed nine people. (Ahmad’s young son survived the attack.)
There is no question that militant groups like the Taliban and ISIS are the deadliest threats to journalists. In some provinces, there’s also evidence that these groups have started imposing exorbitant media “taxes,” forcing outlets to scale back or even shut down. But it is important to remember that government officials and security forces often harass, threaten or even assault journalists, often as retaliation for stories exposing corruption. In a telling incident, a correspondent with Shamshad TV in Helmand was threatened and physically assaulted in September last year. His reporting on how a government hospital had not received its allocated budget money had apparently angered a local government official.
To his credit, President Ashraf Ghani has taken steps to better protect media workers. His government has appointed a freedom of expression ambassador and called on government agencies to allow better access to information. But media groups say this is not enough, especially as violent incidents against journalists almost always go unpunished. This impunity is fueling widespread self-censorship. International donors cannot forget Afghan media, even as aid money to the country dries up, to help protect and support journalists as they try to avoid tragedies like the ones in Kabul and Khost this week.
In the wake of Shah Marai’s killing, a heart-wrenching blog post he penned a couple of years ago has been widely shared on social media. He described the pain of gradually losing hope amid devastating and rising violence: “I don’t dare to take my children for a walk. All I think of are cars that can be booby-trapped, or of suicide bombers coming out of a crowd.” His words proved all too prophetic.