In the last two decades, no achievement in Afghanistan has been more pronounced and critical than the freedom of expression and growth of civil society organizations. Sadly, media personalities, and promoters and defenders of civil liberties are now victims of a wave of targeted killings that has taken place over the last few months. Violence against journalists, civil society members, and human rights activists in Afghanistan is not new. But the recent string of targeted assassinations of individuals working in these areas is unprecedented.
According to reports published by media and journalist support organizations, 11 journalists and media workers were killed in 2020 in Afghanistan. This has made Afghanistan one of the most dangerous places for journalists and human rights defenders in the world.
In the past, responsibility for such killings was often claimed by some armed groups. The recent targeted killings, however, have been carried out anonymously. Both the government of Afghanistan and NATO have unequivocally blamed the Taliban for these incidents, while the Taliban have so far denied such allegations. This raises the question: Who benefits from the killing of journalists, human rights activists, and civil society members? What purposes could it serve and for whom?
The timing and nature of these killings have led most Afghans and international stakeholders to believe that the Taliban are, directly or indirectly, behind this wave of violence, for at least two reasons: to strengthen their negotiating position in Doha, Qatar; and to remove the vanguards of freedom of expression, a vital stratum of Afghan society that is resisting the Taliban’s return, while sowing fear and terrorizing the public.
The victims, so far, have included well-regarded media personalities and articulate human rights activists. The assassinations, extensively covered by the local and international media, have caused anger, anxiety, and despair among their colleagues and the wider public. It has also exposed the Afghan government’s vulnerabilities, increasing public pressure and public distrust in the State institutions and their competence.
The Afghan media and civil society, in the past two decades, have substantially influenced and shaped public opinion in favor of democracy, institutional transparency, and accountability. Through the suppression of free media and civil society, diversity of opinions, new ideas, dialogue and debate, all disappear. Private discussions with several journalists and activists have revealed that recent attacks and online intimidation have already caused self-censorship among media outlets. A number of journalists and civil society activists will be forced to flee Afghanistan and seek refuge in other countries following the recent wave of violence. Some media channels, particularly local radio stations, have reduced or stopped their coverage altogether. Sadly, a few, intentionally or unintentionally, have changed their tone, becoming apologists for the Taliban.
Being a journalist, human rights defender, or civil society activist is becoming an even riskier profession in Afghanistan. Fortunately, most Afghan professionals have proven their commitment to hold firm, so far, but it is not clear for how long if the relentless targeted killings continue.
To ameliorate the situation, the government of Afghanistan must further strengthen its intelligence and policing measures to ensure the security and safety of journalists and civil society activists, who have achieved so much in opening Afghan society over the past two decades.
The government must provide robust proof to its claims that the Taliban are behind these events and should enhance its diplomatic and public relations efforts to bring meaningful pressure on the Taliban and their supporters to end the killings.
Through timely information sharing and technical support, the government should enable journalists and civil society activists to take necessary precautions in securing themselves and their colleagues.
More importantly, the media and civil society institutions must strive for better coordination and joint efforts to enhance security, in order, not only to navigate through this challenging phase, but also enter a new phase of greater responsibility as U.S. troops leave Afghanistan and peace deals are negotiated. Only then, can these groups prevent fragmentation, self-censorship, and the weakening of these institutions.
If the Taliban perceive free media, active civil society, and a better-informed public as major obstacles to their controlling and dominating Afghanistan, and think they can remove these presumed obstacles physically and permanently, they are wrong. The past two decades have allowed the Afghan free media and civil society organizations to grow and these are a reality of Afghan society today.
If, on the other hand, the Taliban are not behind the current wave of assassinations, as they have claimed, then they owe it to the people of Afghanistan and the international community, to provide convincing evidence by helping to stop the carnage.
And finally, the United Nations, the European Union, and human rights institutions have continuously condemned these heinous attacks and have highlighted their detrimental impact on the peace process. However, these organizations, along with the new U.S. administration, need to do more to combine their capacity in accurately documenting these attacks so the perpetrators, both individuals and organizations, are not able to evade the national and the international justice system.