Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Reporters Face Death Threats

Army, police and intelligence forces accused of trying to silence journalists.
By Rahimullah Samander

Afghan journalists who criticise the government and tackle sensitive political issues have come under a wave of attacks in recent weeks.


As newspapers around the country publish more critical opinion pieces about ministers and other power players, journalists have been arrested, knifed, and received death threats.


Afghanistan was named last week as the fourth most dangerous country for reporters by the United States-based media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a report released to mark World Press Freedom Day.


Human Rights Watch has called for President Karzai to speak out in support of the media and reign in the powerful interior and defence ministries and intelligence agency, which it blames for the intimidation.


"Army, police and intelligence forces are delivering death threats and arresting Afghan journalists, effectively silencing them," said John Sifton, a researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, which cited examples from Jalalabad and Herat as well as Kabul.


Commanders in Jalalabad and Gardez have issued death threats against journalists for writing about security problems. And in Herat, governor Ismail Khan had a reporter for Radio Liberty arrested.


In Kabul, Sayed Mir Hussain Mehdavi, the chief editor of Aftab weekly, received death threats following the publication of three columns in March and April. Mehdavi, who is politically independent, finances the paper himself.


At the end of March, he criticised the use of "Islamic" in the official title of the country, the Islamic Transitional Government of Afghanistan, calling it unnecessary because the legal foundation of the country is not religious. "The use of the word Islamic has no other meaning but to save the government and the authorities from the criticism and objections of the people," he wrote.


In the same column, he said that although the Rabbani government (1993-96) was an Islamic one, many innocent people were killed and the intellectual and material wealth of the country was destroyed.


In early April, Mehdavi published another column defending secularism, saying that it "is not fighting with religion or escaping from religion. [It] brings a balance between the religions. Whether we like it or not secularism is the only way of saving our society".


A third column, in mid-April, said that the government is in the hands of the Panjsheris - a Tajik tribe based in the Panjsheri valley northeast of Kabul, the stronghold of slain leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance. "The government should be extended to other parts of the country by allowing participation of everyone so that it is called Afghan and national government," he wrote.


Mehdavi said the death threats, made in telephone calls, came from supporters of Jamiat-e-Islami, the Islamic party from which Northern Alliance evolved.


Following the fall of the Taleban regime, Northern Alliance commanders who helped win the war took control of the intelligence agency and the defence and interior ministries.


Some callers chastised him for blaming the Rabbani administration and not "other bad governments", and accused him of being a "greater infidel" than the writer Salman Rushdie.


The death threats included one in which the caller said that three hundred university students had decided to set his office ablaze, but elders had not permitted them to do so. However, the caller allegedly said, "one day we are going to punish you".


The caller refused to say which "elders" he was referring to, but Mehdavi believes it was Jamiat leaders, because the party was criticised in his column and it is the most active party on the Kabul University campus.


The callers have also accused Mehdavi, who is Hazara, of not blaming his community for their share of the problems. Mehdavi denies this and says he frequently criticises Hazara leaders, including Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, planning minister and head of the Hazara Harakat-e-Inqalab-e-Islami (Islamic Revolution Party).


Mehdavi said he has asked in vain for help from the information and culture ministry, the human rights commission, the intelligence agency and the interior ministry.


After he gave the intelligence agents his home address, two men appeared at his home every day menacing his family. On one occasion, when his mother told them that he wasn't at home, they allegedly said, "How long can he hide from us? Eventually we will find him."


The information and culture minister, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, said he had asked the interior ministry and the United Nations political branch, UNAMA, to respond. "We are the innovators in media freedom, and will defend it till our death," he said.


But Human Rights Watch criticised the information and culture ministry, saying it had not responded to the continuing threats, and also said the US should stop supporting local commanders involved in the attacks.


There have been several other notable cases of intimidation and harassment of reporters.


An independent writer and journalist in Kabul, Dr Sami Hamed, who has spoken out against warlords and local commanders, was hospitalised for two days after being attacked by two men with knives in late April.


"I have always said that as long as these warlords and commanders are in power, there won't be any peace," Hamed said. "In the Loya Jirga, they got control of the government with the use of their power and influence, and gave the government an Islamic shape."


Zahoor Afghan, chief editor of the Irada daily, said deputy minister of education Zabihullah Asmati summoned him to his office after his title published a humorously critical piece about the ministry's administration.


He said Asmati cursed and insulted him, then had security officers lock him up in a room at the ministry for the day, adding that the attorney general was investigating his paper.


Asmati said the journalist came to his office on his own and "was angry and called us corrupt, so we were obliged to take him to the attorney general".


Several days later, four armed police came to the Irada office late at night and tried to get in, but Zahoor Afghan turned them away because they didn't have a warrant.


He told IWPR that, after an interview with Radio Liberty about the harassment, "more than ten calls warned that if I do another, my death is a simple job and they will twist my head like a sparrow".


Zahoor Afghan says Irada has been banned at the university. Local government officials, meanwhile, have prohibited other independent publications - weekly newspapers Wranga in Paktia province and Telaia in Baghlan province - from publishing controversial material.


Rahimullah Samander is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.