Media is increasingly becoming a target in Afghanistan as the Taliban's campaign for hearts and minds falls short.

The Taliban's deadline to media workers in Afghanistan has passed but Afghan journalists remain steadfast and cautious after the threats. The group initially demanded an end to “anti-Taliban propaganda“ from Afghan local and national media by Monday.

However, on Sunday, July 1st, the Taliban killed at least six people and 116 injured more, 51 of those injured were school children making the attack particularly heinous. 

Five schools are also said to have been damaged. The attack on the Afghan Ministry of Defense logistics centre took place at 9AM in a busy area where streets were jam-packed with children going to school and government and military workers commuting to work.

Taliban insurgents had warned that they would start targeting Afghan journalists unless the media stop broadcasting the US and Afghan government-sponsored advertisements aimed at countering the Taliban’s narrative, dissuading recruitment and encouraging the public to report insurgent activity.

In a statement, the Taliban said Afghan media must change their attitude toward the Taliban and must stop airing anti-Taliban ads “or else they will no longer be regarded as media outlets and will instead be regarded as enemy intelligence sources and as military targets that will be attacked by the mujahideen. Journalists and media outlets will no longer be safe.”

The Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) released a statement strongly condemning the Taliban for its warning against the Afghan media and called on the Afghan government ”to adopt comprehensive measures to ensure the safety of media outlets and journalists around the country.”

“Attacks on media and journalists – as civilian targets – constitute war crimes, and the Taliban will be held to account for every attack of the group on journalists and the media,” the AFJC said.

Regarding the Taliban allegations of collusion between the US, Afghan government and Afghan media, the AFJC advocated dialogue over violence.

“If the Taliban has any objection about the context and content of the commercials and advertisements of the Afghan media, they are welcome to discuss their criticism, but nobody is allowed to threaten the media and to target them as military targets,” AFJC said.

History of violence

The Taliban have targeted Afghan media in the past, but this recent message to the press is the first threat that highlights government-paid content. In January 2016, the Taliban made good on threats against TOLO news when the armed opposition group stalked and attacked a bus carrying employees of Afghanistan's most popular private broadcaster, killing seven TOLO employees. 

The Taliban called the suicide attack on TOLO “revenge” for a report which TOLO broadcasted from Kunduz after the Taliban captured the city where the news agency claimed the Taliban had “raped girls at a dormitory.”

The allegations were never proven “false," but there was also no evidence that the Taliban harmed any women during the raid on Kunduz. 

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) fifteen media workers were killed in Afghanistan in 2018, making Afghanistan the deadliest country in the world for journalists last year. 

This year is not looking any better. AFJC's reporting shows that attacks against journalists in 2019 are on pace to surpass last year. 

According to the RSF, “there have been at least 45 cases of violence against journalists and the media in Afghanistan since the start of the year, including threats, physical violence and destruction of media outlets. AFJC data was even higher, with a total of "92 cases of violence, including 20 fatal cases against journalists and media workers (21 March 2018 – 20 March 2019)." 

Afghanistan is ranked 121 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

In light of the recent Taliban threats, Defense Ministry spokesman Rohullah Ahmadzai announced that the government would enhance security measures for media agencies operating in the country, but argued the ads should continue.

“It’s very clear that such advertisements have helped the government fight terrorism,” Ahmadzai said. 

“If they weren’t useful we wouldn’t continue to use them.”

Although the Taliban pose a danger to journalists, the majority of targeted violence against journalists in recent years has come from ISKP (Daesh), Afghanistan's main Islamic State affiliate. 

In late April of 2018, Daesh launched a double bombing which first targeted guards outside an Afghan intelligence services headquarters in Kabul, and then another when first responders and journalists arrived, killing 25 people, including eight journalists.

Does the Taliban have a point?

Although threats of violence and attacks on media are unanimously condemned by everyone from Afghan media to human rights organisations, the claim that the Afghan media acts as an arm of the Afghan state are not entirely false.

Although Afghan media has rightfully won its categorisation as “the Gem of modern Afghanistan,” it is impossible not to recognise where Afghan and international media bodies have failed.

“We all condemn these threats by the Taliban, but by airing pro-government, or anti-Taliban propaganda, Afghan media is making itself clear it is not an independent press and worse, that it is not neutral. They (Afghan Media) are proving the Taliban correct,” Nangarhar based journalist Mohsin Khan tells TRT World.

Shershah Nawabi, CEO and founder of Pasbanan Media Group, told TRT World,  “when I spoke with Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid about four months ago, he told us that once the Taliban come to power again, they will enforce the media to follow their regulations. So, I guess that the media would be the main obstacle against the Taliban, and they will do whatever they can to stop media on reporting on their activities.”

Nawabi believes that the new Taliban threats against media are a sign that the government's propaganda campaign was working.

“Afghan media has been working hard in forming a democratic government, and has played a tremendous vial role in the creation of today's Afghanistan," Nawabi says, "now with these new Taliban threats obviously come new roadblocks for media in Afghanistan.”

Khan agrees with Nawabi that Afghan media has played a pivotal role in normalising and reinforcing the nation-state of Afghanistan, but Khan worries that the country's foundation is being built on lies.

“If we are really 'the gem of Afghanistan' then let's shine with truth,” says Khan, “but instead report after report echoes local and national government claims without question. Sometimes they say 40 dead 'terrorists', sometimes 50, 60, 70 or more in single airstrikes. If we added these numbers up...more than a million Taliban members have been killed since the start of the war - and that's obviously laughable.”