I was on a conference call with my colleague Ajmal Omari a while ago when we were briefly interrupted by what seemed like static. The disruption was no more than the usual challenges of internet connectivity one faces while working in Afghanistan, and we continued our conversation.
After the call, Ajmal texted me to inform me that the “interruptions” were actually a number of BM-1 rockets hitting the neighbourhood of his office. While he and his colleagues survived the attack, there was considerable damage to their building and vehicles parked outside. For Ajmal, a dedicated, talented Afghan reporter and journalist, this was yet another close call.
Despite much progress in the area of free speech and expression, particularly in the years that followed the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a high-risk country for the journalists who work here. The risk is exacerbated for local reporters who face threats not only from the insurgent groups, but also from the strongmen and war lords that have gained power and influence in the country over the last two decades.
The situation has worsened since the US-initiated political settlement in 2019. The eventual deal that the US administration struck with the Taliban in February 2020 saw the start of a new chapter in violence in Afghanistan, one that was more bloody than anything this generation of Afghans had experienced.
Targeted violence, much of it coming from an emboldened Taliban, saw a spike in assassinations of civil activists, government officials and Afghan journalists. According to Human Rights Watch, “Taliban commanders and fighters have engaged in a pattern of threats, intimidation, and violence against members of the media”. At least 11 Afghan journalists were killed in 2020, and five more have been murdered this year, four of them women. Many others, in the meanwhile, have had several “close calls” like the one Ajmal witnessed.