Unprecedented Threats to Journalists and Civil Society Activists

January 15, 2021, Kabul, Afghanistan
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 an unprecedented wave of targeted killings. Of course, violence against journalists, civil society members, and human rights activists in Afghanistan is nothing new. But even so, the recent deliberate targeted killing of individuals working in these areas is unprecedented.

According to Reporters Without Borders, of the 50 journalists killed worldwide in 2020, forty percent were killed in Afghanistan.

In the past, responsibility for such killings was often claimed by some armed group or another. The recent targeted killings, however, were carried out anonymously. While both the government of Afghanistan and NATO have blamed the Taliban for these incidents, the Taliban have denied such allegations. The question that must be asked is, who stands to benefit from the killing of journalists, human rights and civil society activists? What purposes could it serve, and for whom?

The timing and nature of these killings have led most Afghans 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 the Doha peace talks, and to get rid of the upholders of freedom of expression, a vital stratum of our society that continues to resist their return, while sowing fear and terror among the populace.

The victims, so far, are all well regarded media personalities and articulate human rights activists. Their assassinations have exposed the government’s vulnerabilities, increasing pressure on and public distrust in state institutions and their competence.

The media and civil society, during the past two decades, managed to gain substantial influence in shaping public opinion in favor of democracy, institutional transparency, and accountability. In the absence or silence of a free media and civil society, dialogue, debate, and diversity of opinions and ideas disappear.

The recent attacks on journalists and civil society activists have already led to self-censorship among media outlets. Several journalists and civil society activists have left Afghanistan following the recent wave of violence. Some media channels 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 among the riskiest professions in Afghanistan. Fortunately, most Afghan professionals have proven their commitment to stand firm so far, but it is not clear for how long they can continue to do so, if the relentless targeted killings continue.

To help ameliorate the situation, the Government of Afghanistan must take responsibility for ensuring the security and safety of journalists and civil society activists, who are at the vanguard of the greatest achievements of the past two decades of international efforts.

More importantly, the media and civil society institutions must strive for better coordination, and joint effort, in order to not only navigate through this challenging phase, but to also enter a new arena of greater responsibility. Only by doing so will they prevent fragmentation, self-censorship, and the weakening of these institutions.

If the Taliban perceive a free media, active civil society, and well-informed public as a major obstacle to their controlling and dominating Afghanistan, and thus seek to remove these presumed obstacles physically, they are dead wrong. The free media and activist civil society organizations now have a national presence and are one of the global realities of the 21st century—they are here to stay and thrive!

If, on the other hand, the Taliban are not behind the current wave of assassinations, as they have claimed, then they owe it the people of Afghanistan and the international community to provide convincing evidence of this by helping stop the carnage of some the best of our compatriots.