is not widely known for its media, but it should be. For the bravery shown by hundreds of reporters in the face of escalating carnage, but also because it is a beacon for free press in a region where that is rare.
In a country where officials are widely resented for corruption and incompetence, and security forces fight a deepening insurgency, a vibrant media at least means citizens know what is happening and have a platform to discuss it and challenge those in power.
This makes last week’s , in which a suicide bomber disguised himself as a reporter to kill nine journalists and at least 16 other people, doubly tragic. The victims ranged from towering veterans such as AFP’s photographer Shah Marai, known internationally for his powerful images covering decades of suffering, to enthusiastic new recruits such as Maharram Durrani, a student on her way to training for a job at Radio Free Europe.
Many commentators noted how few images of Monday’s carnage came out of Kabul, a city where violence is usually documented in painful but vital detail. With those who bear witness dead or injured, there was suddenly a gaping hole in the ability to see and understand events.
The risk from this attack, perhaps the hope of the attackers, is that the fog of war gets denser when journalists join the list of targets and casualties. Editors worried about their journalists may hesitate before deployment, security forces may put more obstacles in their way, and reporters themselves may reasonably want to limit risks.
“Afghan outlets have to think more about security and protecting their people,” said Frud Bezhan, a journalist with Radio Free Europe, who lost three reporters and is now trying to raise funds to support their families. “A lot of my colleagues tell me when they leave their homes, when they say bye to their families, they don’t know if they are going to go home.”
Most of Afghanistan’s neighbours on a global map of press freedoms compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), among the most hostile governments in the world to the media. Turkmenistan and China make the bottom five, better only than North Korea, Eritrea and Syria. Iran and Uzbekistan are not far behind, and even Pakistan and Tajikistan – marked red rather than black – trail well behind Afghanistan.
Many Afghans consider the hundreds of television, radio and newspapers that jostle to hold the powerful to account, and chronicle the unfolding war, one of the country’s greatest achievements since the Taliban were toppled. Journalists, too, take great pride in their work. “If you go to TV or newspapers or radio offices in Afghanistan, its very different from institutions you visit elsewhere,” said Saad Mohseni, chair and chief executive of Moby Media, whose Afghan networks include the leading Tolo TV news channel. “They are very resilient, there is a sense of community, but also morally there is a sense of purpose in what they do.
“We need to take into account the longer-term impact psychologically, when they work all day beside someone, and then they are gone. It’s our responsibility to make sure that they are OK.”
It is a responsibility only likely to get heavier. Afghanistan was one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist in 2017. Afghan media charity Nai documented the deaths of 27 journalists that year, and said the majority were at the hands of insurgents. While pro-government forces are not unblemished media champions, with officials and militias accused of violence, intimidation and bribery, the deadliest threats come from insurgents. “By sowing terror in some regions, the Taliban and militants have created information black holes,” RSF notes.
Presidential elections set for next year are likely to bring more risks. Insurgents have repeatedly dismissed elections as illegitimate shams and have already targeted a voter registration centre, and are almost certain to try to derail the vote. Journalists covering the campaign could be caught up as collateral, or singled out as targets. seeking to project fear and political power through indiscriminate slaughter. “Isis don’t appear to have red lines when it comes to women, children, journalists,” said Kate Clark, who tracks civilian casualties at the Afghanistan Analysts Network thinktank.
Data from 2017 suggested four in five of civilians killed or injured by Isis were deliberately targeted in violation of international law, she said. The slaughter undermines morale andbreeds desperation in a population battered by grief and fear.
Shah Marai wrote in 2016 of a gathering sense of foreboding in a bleak piece, When hope is gone. He described the growing toll of the slaughter on family and friends, but also on daily life: children cooped up in their house for fear of bombers, and a daily commute stalked by worries about random violence., on family and friends, but also on daily life. Children cooped up in their house for fear of bombers, and a daily commute stalked by worries about random violence. He wrote: “I have never felt life to have so little prospects and I don’t see a way out.”