Expression

Taliban issue threat to media over anti-Taliban commercials and warn of targeted attacks

On 24th June 2019, the Taliban, in a statement, publicly threatened to turn critical media into a military target. The group warned that it would target all media outlets (including TV channels, radio and print media) in all the provinces if they continue to disseminate what the group termed as anti-Taliban commercials. The Taliban statement further warned that “the journalist or employees of these so called media organisations will not be safe". The Taliban gave one week to the media to stop such adverts.

Such threats to the media led to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. In the past, such threatening statements against independent media for publishing materials that the Taliban viewed as being critical have led to deliberate attacks on media and killing of journalists.

The Taliban threats faced immediate criticism by media rights organisations and the UN.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Tadamichi Yamamoto, condemned the Taliban’s repeated threats against media:

“Media workers are civilians, and their rights must be protected, especially their fundamental right to operate in an environment free from any threat, intimidation or undue pressure by any outside entity, including governments.”

Media workers continue to face intimidation, threats and attacks

The environment for media and freedom of expression has been increasingly curtailed by threats, intimidation and attacks by both state and non-state actors. During the first five months of 2019, at least 32 cases of attack and intimidation against media professionals were recorded by the Afghan CSO media watchdog, Nai which supports open Media in Afghanistan. Perpetrators of these violations against journalists include armed groups (such as the Taliban), powerful local power holders, as well as members of the law enforcement and government authorities. At least five Afghan journalist and media workers were killed between January and May 2019, and a number of others have been critically wounded, most in deliberate targeted attacks.

  • On 11th May, Afghan female journalist and cultural adviser for the Afghan parliament, Meena Mangal was shot dead by two unknown gunmen in Kabul city. She was a vocal women’s rights activist. Her killing happened just days after she warned on social media that she feared for her life. Meena Mangal’s family believes that she may have been killed by her ex-husband whom she divorced shortly before the incident, after a year- long bitter divorce battle. According to her family, Meena Mangal’s husband opposed her working as a journalist and tried to stop her. Meena Mengal’s case highlights the additional risks female journalists face as professional women in a conservative society. Targeting women active in the public sphere has a serious impact on the rights of women to public participation, freedom of expression and association. Women's rights activist Robina Hamdard, from the Afghan Women's Network, told media:
"We are concerned about the situation because it has a direct impact on women who work outside their homes," and "Female journalists are changing their professions due to the increasing risks they are facing."
  • On 15th March, Zhman TV journalist Sultan Mahmood Khairkhah was shot by unidentified armed men in the southern Khost city and later succumbed to his injuries.
  • As previously covered by the CIVICUS Monitor of 12th February 2019, a citizen journalist and government worker, Javid Noori, was reportedly killed in a summary execution by the Taliban in Farah province on 5th January 2019; and on 5th February 2019, two radio journalists were shot dead during a life programme on Radio Hamseda in Takhar province.

Additionally, journalists continue to be threatened, beaten up and insulted when they attempt to carry out their media work. In its April 2019 monthly report Nai found that “Along with the threats made by the government’s opponents or unidentified armed men, a large portion of violence against journalists are made by the governmental forces and authorities.”

On 22nd April 2019, Abdullah Khanjani, 1TV Editor-in-Chief, was allegedly beaten up and temporary arrested by the Presidents Protective Service (PPS) in Kabul. The incident took place while the journalist as planning to attend an official session at the Government Media Information Center in Kabul. Following condemnation of the abuses against Khanjani, the Presidential Palace officials apologised during a press conference held at 1TV and also promised to further investigate the incident and promised that the perpetrators will be punished. The Attorney General has announced that Khanjani’s case has been registered at the Attorney General for further investigation.

Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, Nai Managing Director said:

“The government may not end the issue with an apology but should find an appropriate and fundamental solution for the violence against journalists by the officials at the government.”

Additionally, local media rights organisations urged the government to address the violence against media by the non-state armed groups. The Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) executive director called on the Afghan authorities "to spare no effort in further improving the protecting the safety journalists especially those who face threats from the Taliban and other terrorist groups and full prosecution of the perpetrators of such crimes is the only answer to reversing this history."

Trials of killed journalists raise human rights concerns 

The government has taken some steps this year towards ending impunity for the murder of journalists with bringing to trial two cases – that of BBC journalist Ahmad Shah and the private TV Kabul News journalist Abdul Manan Arghand, who were both killed in separate incidents in 2018 by unidentified armed men. However, both trials lacked transparency and death sentences were handed, which are serious human rights concerns. 

On 16th April 2019, the verdict on the case of Abdul Manan Arghand was announced by the Afghan attorney general's office, following the court's decision on 6th April 2019. The two accused, who were reportedly affiliated with the Taliban, were sentenced to death. This decision by the primary court will be reviewed by a secondary court and by the Afghan supreme court. 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) who spoke to the spokesperson for the attorney general's office, the names of the two suspects have not been released, and the trial was not open to the public. The CPJ said this raised serious concerns and called on the government to ensure justice through a fair and transparent process. 

Robert Mahoney, CPJ's deputy executive director said: 

"justice delivered in darkness is not justice, especially when the state decides upon capital punishment. We urge the Afghan authorities to try suspects in open court in accordance with international human rights standards."

Similar concerns remain with the trial of Ahmad Shah, reporter with the BBC's Pashto language service, who was killed in April 2018. In January 2019, BBC reported that "anti-terrorism tribunal" convicted for the killing three persons, one man was handed a death sentence, and the other two were sentenced to 30 years and six years in prison. The identities of the accused of Mr Shah's murder have not been made public and the trial has been held in in Parwan prison (also known as Bagram jail), which mostly houses prisoners accused of terrorism, where the three accused were detained.

The Attorney General’s Office reportedly has assessed at least 50 cases of violence against journalists and pledged in a statement that "remains committed to addressing cases of violence against journalists thoroughly", 

Government take steps to further restrict access to information

On 7th April 2019, the Ministry of Defense of Afghanistan issued a directive, written by the Army Chief, which restricts all the Ministry of Defense officials from giving interviews or contacting the media. Media rights organisations denounced this as a violation of the Afghanistan’s Constitution, Access to Information Law, Media Law and called on the Defense Ministry to immediately abolish this directive and pave the path for media relations and the system for providing information in accordance with Afghanistan’s law.

Furthermore, in May 2019, media rights CSOs raised concerns over comments by the Afghan Minister of Communications and Technology made during an interview with BBC Persian that the National Unity Government is determined to take steps to restrict the Internet. The official confirmed that the ministry now has access to technology which can filter contents or restrict the use of digital content if it was deemed to harm Afghanistan and Afghan culture. Nai called on the government “to clarify what is the logic behind the minister’s statements and what is the actual policy of government regarding the use of internet”, as such measures are in violation of freedom of expression standards protected by the Afghan Constitution.

Association 

Women groups and CSOs demand space for participation at the ongoing peace talks between the US and Taliban

Civil society and women's groups have denounced the peace talks with the Taliban as they have excluded and sidelined CSOs including human rights, women rights and media rights organisations. Additionally, the Taliban refused to negotiate with the Afghan government deeming it illegitimate. CSOs view the process as undermining their rights to political participation and as a threat to their civic rights and freedoms. In a response, women's groups, under the leadership of the umbrella CSO Afghan Women's Network, have been mobilising across the country to claim their space and garner local and international support to preserve their rights.

As outlined below, there have been a number of opportunities for CSOs and women to participate in the discussions concerning the peace process. However, these have not been seen sufficient by CSOs to guarantee meaningful participation in the peace talks.

  • On 29th April 2019, a Consultative Loya Jirga on Peace (traditional assembly of Afghans) convenedsome 3,000 delegates from across Afghanistan, with 30 per cent participation of women, to discuss the ongoing United States-led peace talks. In addition, following the advocacy of women's groups, 30 percent of the jirga’s committees were chaired by women and two held jirga leadership positions.
  • For the second peace intra-Afghan conference between the Taliban and Afghan representatives that was scheduled to be held in Doha on 20th and 21st April 2019, the government had proposed 250 representatives (52 of whom are women), including some civil society members. The talks were subsequently cancelled over a “disagreement” of the list of proposed participants.
  • In February 2019, a national “Peace Consensus” gathering in Kabul the National Women’s Consensus for Peace, was organised by the Office of the First Lady, bringing over 3,000 women from 34 provinces to raise their views, concerns and suggestions on the peace process.

In a joint opinion peace, the CIVICUS Monitor Researcher and an Afghan human rights defender, urged:

"All parties involved in the peace process must ensure the meaningful participation and representation throughout the peace negotiations, including during decision-making, of civil society, women, minorities and victims’ groups."

Afghan women have initiated campaigning via social media to set their "red lines" and demand their rights in the peace process under the hashtags: #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack and #MyRedLine that aim to pressure the government, the Taliban and the United States into ensuring women's hard-won advancements are not undermined in a rush for a political peace settlement. According to a prominent women's rights campaigner, in the past months, the Afghan Women’s Network has mobilised more than two million women across the country.

In a positive response to the Afghan women's movement lobbying, in June 2019, a bipartisan group of over 75 US Members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to include Afghan women in the ongoing U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations and called for any agreement to guarantee the protection of women’s rights.

Earlier, in April 2019, the U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statementdenouncing the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s refusal to commit to prioritising Afghan women’s inclusion in peace negotiations in Afghanistan between the United States and the Taliban. She said:

"I urge Secretary Pompeo and the Trump administration to uphold the United States’ clear commitment to including women in peace negotiations, as mandated by the Women, Peace and Security Act, in Afghanistan.”

In the meantime, the conflict continued as the Taliban rejected calls for a Ramadan ceasefire demanded during the Consultative Loya Jirga on Peace. Women groups continuously to call for a ceasefire as the immediate step to end "the bloodshed and the killing of human beings" in Afghanistan and to pave the ground for a just and lasting peace.

Presidential elections postponed while parliamentary election results announced following prolonged delays

The Afghanistan presidential elections were postponed for a second time, they were scheduled initially for April 2019. On 20th March 2019, the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) announced the new date for the presidential election to be 28th September 2019. According to the Independent Election Commission spokesman Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, cited by Reuters, the election was pushed back to allow time for reforms to the voting system. President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and former national security adviser Mohammad Haneef Atmar are among the declared candidates for the presidential election.

The repeated delays to the 2019 presidential elections have sparked a political debateand opposition as to who should run Afghanistan after the end of the current presidential term on 22nd May 2019. On 20th April 2019, in a response to a letter sent by the president’s office, the Supreme Court issued a ruling extending the president and vice-presidents’ terms until a new president is elected. A number of the presidential candidates opposed the continuation of the current government beyond the 22nd May and a called for the government to be dissolved.

On 26th April 2019, the Afghan president inaugurated the parliament after seven months of deadlock in agreeing on the results of the parliamentary elections which took place in October 2018. The elections results was marred by serious allegations of the widespread fraud and corruptions across Afghanistan, which led subsequently to the dismissal of the IEC commissioners overseeing the elections. In protest of the prolonged delay in the announcement of final results, scores of angry Wolesi Jirga (lower house of the parliament) candidates and their supporters staged a demonstration in front of the parliament building. The final results of the controversial elections were announced in May 2019.

Peaceful Assembly

People exercising their right to peaceful assembly continue to be under attack in Afghanistan.

On 24th May 2019, a bomb explodedduring Friday prayers in a mosque in Kabul killing two people, including a religious scholar Imam Samiullah Raihan and 16 worshippers were wounded. The explosives were reportedly planted in the microphone used by the prayer leader, Raihan. Raihan was very vocal against attacks towards civilians and supported Afghan National Security Forces.

On 21st March, while Afghans were celebrating the Persian New Year (Nawrooz) a series of rocket and remote controlled bomb attacks targeted the site of the celebration in Kabul city. At least six people were killed and 23 injured in three remote-controlled bomb explosions. According to media reports, the devices were placed in the washroom of a mosque, a hospital and an electricity meter. The group known as Islamic State (also sometimes referred to as Da’esh), (IS) claimed responsibilityfor the attack. The celebration of Nawrooz was prohibited under the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan as it was deemed un-Islamic.

On 7th March 2019, a series of rocket attacks hit an event to commemorate the death of an Afghan Hazara leader who was killed by Taliban in 1995. The commemoration was attended by hundreds of the followers of the leader as well as top government officials and political figures in Afghanistan. The attack killed more than 11 people and injured 95. The IS had claimed responsibility for the attack.