The suicide attack on Afghan journalists and media persons on January 20 in Kabul was another instance of the Taliban redrawing the battle lines in the grim conflict. Seven people were killed in the bombing that targeted a staff bus run by the video production company Kaboora Productions, a sister unit of the country’s largest private channel Tolo TV. Twenty-five other employees were injured. The dead included three young women – a graphic designer and two dubbing artists. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack, which they had warned of in October.

The tragedy has, in a way, brought to focus the emergence of a new generation of Afghan journalists and media producers who have taken on the challenges of reporting in their country. At the same time, though, it has left this young, but vibrant, community at a critical crossroads.

In the years following the Taliban’s ouster from power in 2001, media in Afghanistan underwent a shift, emerging from the hold of Taliban-controlled radio and TV stations and entering a state of feverish growth. “People had a great hunger for information after having lived under dictatorship,” said Najib Sharifi, director of the Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee, an advocacy and training group base in Kabul. “Doctors and engineers were joining the media. That’s partly why we could create such a strong sector.”

Tolo was the first private TV channel to be set up in 2004, with support from USAID, an agency of the American government that administers civilian foreign aid. By 2013, the country had over 70 private television channels, close to 175 radio stations, and hundreds of print publications.

Old and new target

Violence against journalists was never unusual during these years. According to Nai, a media support organisation, 40 journalists have been killed in the country since 2001, most of them in the provinces. However, as Sharifi points out, these were “isolated incidents that targeted individuals. But now it is part of a strategy to silence the media and control their agendas”.

The turning point, says Sharifi, came with the capture of the northern city of Kunduz by the insurgents in October 2015. “It was a big political and military victory for the Taliban,” said Sharifi. “But they lost the war of public opinion. Their atrocities and the chaos were relayed to the people of Afghanistan by the media.” For this reason, he said, “a free press has become an obstacle to their targets, and must be frightened into silence.” In October, the Taliban issued a warning on its website, stating that Tolo and its rival, 1TV, “are now military objectives for Taliban... Henceforth no employee, anchor, office, news team and reporter of these TV channels holds any immunity.”

As it happened, the January 20 attack was not only against journalists, but also against people working in different production departments, including those who dubbed popular Turkish serials into Dari, the variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. Nazira Babori, journalist and AJSC coordinator working with women reporters, says the bombing indicated “not only those working with news will be targets, but also those [the Taliban feel are] working to ‘corrupt’ our culture.” Ironically, the Taliban operate an effective media wing, issuing press statements through spokespersons who talk regularly to Afghan journalists and over social media.

The immediate aftermath of the attack, says Babori, was that several journalists quit their jobs due to the increased security risk. This included women who were working as TV newsreaders. Back when the threatening statement was released, she added, “everyone took it easy. But now, people have started taking precautions.”

Finding common ground

For veteran journalist Faheem Dashty, the situation is at least an improvement on when he began his career at the age of 19, in the middle of the civil war. “At that time, Kabul was divided into different sectors held by different forces and it was difficult to even get around,” he recalled. Dashty started at the English-Dari Kabul Weekly in 1991, and was its editor when the publication closed down in 2011.

A more useful comparison, he says, would be to the situation in the country five years ago. “With the challenges to the security situation in the provinces and with the international forces leaving, we were expecting things to get difficult,” he said. “People have left the profession, even the country, over the last two years. It is not a surprise.” But in the long run, “the attack may have the positive result of helping journalists find common ground to save their lives”.

Three years ago, Dashty helped create the Afghanistan Journalists Federation, an umbrella organisation of several media bodies. “Now we are trying to expand it, as unionising and creating associations will help us have a strong voice and tackle our challenges,” he said.

A major asset for these efforts is the new generation of journalists who have been drawn to the field for a range of reasons, from financial security to a desire to influence the country’s direction. Zarghoona Salehi, who works as an investigative journalist with the Kabul-based news agency Pahjwok, says she “wanted to be a journalist as I am a good writer and wanted to be able to challenge traditional society”. For young people in smaller towns like Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, it is also a relatively lucrative career option. “Unlike other sectors, a journalism job gives them a kind of power,” said Dashty. “In this field, a 20-year-old reporter can challenge a minister, and have a credibility that others don’t.” The community has also grown in terms of skills. “Earlier anyone could be a journalist, now you need some professional training or qualifications to get a job,” said Babori.

The relative freedom of the press and the skills of its media workers have made Afghanistan quite unique in the region, says Sharifi. In the World Press Freedom Index, that is compiled by the non-profit Reporters Without Borders, it stood at 122 out of 180 countries. This put it ahead of China, Pakistan, Bangladesh. And even ahead of India, as each journalist unfailingly points out.

Bias against women

“The young generation of Afghans want peace and space to talk about their aspirations,” said Sharifi. “Freedom of expression and free media is our greatest achievement of the last 15 years, and we will not let go of it easily.”

At the same time, there are pressing challenges. Women journalists face not only security risks but also social and family pressures. “People don’t respect women in media and don’t give us access to information, which makes it difficult for us to do our job,” said Salehi. While she receives good offers, she adds, she is unable to take them up as she can’t work on holidays or after office hours. She also gets paid less than her male counterparts.

In her work with women journalists from the provinces, Babori says, she often meets TV newsreaders who use a pseudonym at work. “Incidents of sexual harassment are often hushed up,” she added, “since women feel they will never get any solution and will be dishonoured in the bargain.”

Raihana Rasoly began working as a reporter with Ariana TV in Balkh province five years ago after she left school. Her dream is to work with a foreign news agency, “but security is a problem. Also it is difficult to reach the standard of professionalism needed to work with them”.

The international media attention over the January 20 attack contrasts with the silence around the killings of Afghan journalists over the years. “An attack on journalists in Europe captures headlines across international media, while there has been no coverage of the many journalists who have fallen to the Taliban,” said Sharifi. “The world has become immune to Afghan suffering.” And while the community of journalists will resist being cowed by the Taliban, he added, “Their eventual fate will depend on the kind of support they get from the government.”