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Afghanistan: Death Threats, Intimidation Part Of Journalists' Daily Lives

  • Ron Synovitz

http://gdb.rferl.org/EEEE9110-7CFB-426F-9091-5D8C2254BBA9_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/EEEE9110-7CFB-426F-9091-5D8C2254BBA9_mw800_mh600.jpg Slain journalist Abdul Samad Rohani (AFP) Afghan journalists are becoming increasingly bold about reporting on serious problems facing their society -- the drug mafia, warlordism, and corrupt police or government officials.

But the more these daring investigative journalists reveal about deeply rooted problems in Afghan society, the more dangerous their jobs become.

Intimidation and death threats against reporters or their families have become commonplace -- not just from Taliban militants, but also from warlords, drug barons, but even corrupt government officials and police who do not want the media spotlight cast upon their activities.

The killing in the southern Helmand Province of BBC reporter Abdul Samad Rohani is seen by journalists in Afghanistan as the latest example of a worrying trend. Rohani was kidnapped on June 7 while working on a story about illegal opium-poppy cultivation in Helmand. His body was discovered the next day.

The Taliban -- usually eager to claim responsibility for such high-profile attacks -- denied any role in Rohani's abduction and execution-style killing. Many journalists in Afghanistan think Rohani was killed by gunmen with links to the illegal drug trade -- and possibly with connections to local authorities.

Rahimullah Samadar, the head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, says that journalists "have always faced tremendous challenges from different groups and factions" in Afghanistan. "They have faced suppression and have been killed in the past. I think illegal gunmen who are working within the government -- or in an area under governmental control -- are involved in this."

Jean MacKenzie, the Afghan country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), oversees a network of Afghan correspondents who file reports for the nonprofit investigative-journalism organization. MacKenzie tells RFE/RL there are vested interests in Helmand Province, besides the Taliban, who may have been responsible for Rohani's murder. She suspects powerful local figures who also have threatened her own reporters.

"Our reporters are working in some very risky areas and are taking on some very edgy topics," MacKenzie says. "That brings them into conflict with various members of the Afghan society. Certainly, our reporters in the south are under constant threat from a variety of sources. And, as the murder of Abdul Samad Rohani is testament to, it is not necessarily the Taliban or the insurgents who are the major source of risk."

Criminalized Society

MacKenzie agrees that the threats against Afghan journalists are growing as they increasingly cover stories about government corruption and the drug trade.

"I don't want to downplay the dangers associated with covering the Taliban or covering the war in the south. But Afghanistan is also a deeply corrupt and criminalized society," MacKenzie says. "There is very big money involved in the [illegal drug] trade. And certainly, there is a very long chain of traffickers. These people are very sensitive to being exposed and being written about or covered in any way by the media."

MacKenzie cites the case of Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, an Afghan journalism student sentenced to death on blasphemy charges by a provincial court in northern Afghanistan. She says the sentence is in fact an attempt to stop journalists from covering corruption in the local government in Balkh Province, noting that Kambakhsh's brother is an IWPR journalist who has filed investigative reports on local officials there.

She says Afghan journalists also face intimidation and death threats from powerful warlords -- some of whom have links with the government.

"These are sometimes very big commanders, and sometimes more petty commanders who are surrounded by their own private militias," MacKenzie says. "They engage in extortion, both large and small, in the communities around them...including rape, murder, and just plain robbery. These people are also very sensitive to being covered. And in many cases, they are entwined with sources within the police and within the government."

Akbar Ayazi, the director of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, agrees with MacKenzie's assessment about sources of intimidation for reporters, pointing out that the threats vary depending on the location in Afghanistan. Journalists "are not only faced with the challenges of the Taliban. They are faced with challenges from the drug lords and warlords, and also, sometimes, with challenges from government officials," Ayazi says. "We have had reporters who are detained and questioned by governors or district chiefs -- asking them questions about why they are reporting on an issue or why they are not reporting on certain issues."

Ayazi says Radio Free Afghanistan's reporters -- like journalists from other media organizations -- receive threatening phone calls not only from within Afghanistan, but also from neighboring Pakistan. Sometimes, he says, the threats have a chilling effect upon the reporters.

"There are times when the reporter would get threatened and he will have this fear [about] reporting," Ayazi says. "When they are threatened, we transfer them from one province to another. We temporarily stop their reporting -- not airing their voice or their name. We get the audio. We get the material to [RFE/RL's] Prague headquarters. And then we put them together and write a report without giving the source. These are ways that we can manage things."

In fact, Ayazi says he has to deal with a death threat or other form of intimidation against a Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent almost every month. One female correspondent was moved to a different province and stopped reporting temporarily until she and her colleagues believed the threat had subsided. Another reporter was kidnapped by the Taliban for four days, but the service managed to secure her release.

In another case last year, Ayazi says, a reporter from Quetta, Pakistan, was threatened by Pakistani officials. "He was arrested on the border [of Pakistan and Afghanistan] and then he had to quit the job. He just could not take it anymore because he and the lives of his family were threatened. So these are extreme cases that we have," Ayazi says.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report


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