Caught in the crossfire amid Taliban offensive
As journalists in Afghanistan become soft targets with spiralling violence, a plea for global help to ensure basic protective gear
With thick smoke in the background, an old man in a white cap stretches his arm out to another man to lift him from the ground; a camera — perched on a stand — observes the goings-on from a corner, while a middleaged man is on his knees by the stand, looking back, his expression one of agony. And beneath the smoke on the ground, the bodies are strewn around. Every element in the frame appears to be moving but is actually frozen in the photograph.
“I clicked it under a minute of the second blast,” said Omar Sobhani, a Reuters photographer. The photograph that was on newspapers across the world tells the story of the morning of April 30 when nine journalists were killed in a blast that rocked Shashdarak, an office-cum-residential area in central Kabul.
“When the second blast occurred, we [journalists] were together,” said Mr. Sobhani, speaking on the phone from Kabul. Shah Marai, one of the most respected photojournalists of Afghanistan, was on Mr. Sobhani’s right.
“I was next to a pile of rubble when I heard a loud sound and we were all thrown on the ground,” recalled Mr. Sobhani, still nursing his wound. He said he has never experienced an explosion “so close” in his career spanning over a decade. The concrete rubble may have saved him, but Marai was killed. “He asked me to name his newborn girl a week before the incident,” said Mr. Sobhani.
“We heard the first blast in the morning and rushed — none of us cared to pick up our helmets or flak jackets,” he said. Flak jackets have several layers of metal sheets to deflect bullets or shrapnel, even anti-aircraft artillery for a brief period. But journalists often refuse to carry the jackets because of the weight — a standard flak jacket weighs about 10 kg. “The jacket could have saved Marai,” Mr. Sobhani said.
“But then how many of us have such jackets?” asked Danish Karokhel, Editor-inChief of Pajhwok Afghan
News. In Pajhwok, for instance, Mr. Karokhel has around 65 journalists who share “one such jacket.”
The recent attacks against journalists started on April 24 when unknown assailants killed Abdul Manan Arghand of Kabul News TV in the southern city of Kandahar. A week later, the Shashdarak blast killed nine more. On the same day, a BBC correspondent was killed in the eastern province of Khost. Reports indicate that Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. And 2017 was “particularly bad,” said Ilias Alami, Operations Manager of the Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee (AJSC). The AJSC noted a 67% increase in attacks on journalists in 2017 compared to the previous year. The toll in the first five months of 2018 has been 11.
“In 2017, there were a total of 169 cases of violence and threats against journalists. Of these, 20 were cases of killing of journalists and media workers,” the AJSC’s annual report said, while Mr. Alami noted that one of the easier options to minimise damage is to use helmets and flak jackets.
“But Afghan media is resource-strapped and they can’t provide safety equipment. International agencies — funding Afghan media — can play a role in providing safety gears,” said Mr. Alami. The AJSC has conducted more than two dozen workshops in 2018 for journalists on handling hostile environments but it is “not adequate,” Mr. Alami said.
Kabul Press Club president Aziz Ahmad Tassal also feels it is “now mandatory” for the international community to join hands to protect Afghan journalists.
“India can play a role in providing equipment and supporting workshops,” Mr Tassal suggested.
Truth as enemy
The escalating offensive is part of the Taliban’s Al Khandaq, the spring offensive. A May 8 press release from the Taliban claimed that since the launch of Al Khandaq on April 25, they had achieved “unprecedented” success. Though the extremist organisation did not indicate plans to target them, journalists have been targeted.
Mr. Tassal cites two possible reasons for the attacks.
“They [Taliban] expect the media to report their advances in detail. The local media has refrained from providing such round-theclock coverage, which may have irked the insurgents.”
Mr. Karokhel, however, argued that the media covers the Taliban movement based on “newsworthiness.”
“We cannot give them [insurgents] publicity but we do report facts,” he said.
Mr. Tassal also pointed to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) plans to go after “soft targets”.
“The detailed coverage of the recent Pashtun Long March (by ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan) was not covered in Pakistan. But it was adequately covered in the Afghan local press. The march was directed against Pakistan’s authority, thus the coverage in Afghanistan may have annoyed the ISI who went after the soft targets, the journalists,” Mr. Tassal said. The observation was echoed by Mr. Karokhel.
As a member of a delegation of journalists that met government officials two weeks after the April 30 blast, Mr. Karokhel spoke of other “significant” proposals put forward to protect journalists and media houses.
“We said the government needs to provide us security as the Afghan media does not have resources to access the services of trained security personnel,” Mr. Karokhel said. The other demand was to provide “real-time intelligence” from the authorities of possible attacks.
Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists
Echo in Kashmir
Meanwhile, Mr. Sobhani said journalists themselves should be a “little careful” and pick up protective gear before leaving their offices. Even in Kashmir, the “boys should be careful,” he warned. “Tell your journalists in Kashmir that they too should carry flak jackets if they have them. It may not be a good idea to end up in a small hole in the earth like us,” he signed off.