Media deaths under probe
Afghanistan has climbed up a notch in UNESCO rankings on the state of media freedom. From years of being in the black and red zones, it has been put in the blue zone for the first time.
But journalism continues to be a risky profession in a country ravaged by war for decades, UNESCO admits.
The National Journalist Union of Afghanistan believes the upgrade in status is largely because the government took measures to prosecute perpetrators in cases of attacks on journalists last year.
Sayed Aqa Sancharaki, deputy minister of culture and information (publishing), says as much. "UNESCO had frequently requested the Afghan government to prosecute the cases of killing of journalists but the Afghan government had not taken any action in this regard."
According to Sancharaki, following a suggestion by the federation of journalists' institutions a joint committee of media and government was formed that has been pursuing the prosecution cases.
In 2016, Afghanistan together with Mexico was the most dangerous for journalists with the assassination of 13 journalists in each country.
The Afghan government has promised to support the liberty of the press and state. Dawa Khan Minapal, deputy spokesperson in the palace, insists, "Government is committed to Article 34 of the Constitution that supports state liberty."
Journalists want all cases of violence against the media investigated. Bashir Ansari, who heads the safety committee of journalists in Balkh, thinks it is not enough to say media rights will be protected. "We are witness to violations of rights on a daily basis," he says.
A UNESCO report says 70 journalists have been killed since the fall of the Taliban regime but investigations in only nine cases have led to prosecution. The government, however, claims progress in 172 out of almost 1,000 dossiers of violence against journalists. Forty of the cases are of journalists killed.
Fahim Dashti, deputy in the joint committee of media and the government says, "Dossiers in 41 cases have been completed by investigating agencies and referred to the justice and judicial institutions."
UNESCO has forwarded 35 cases of assassination of journalists to the joint committee. Sancharaki, deputy minister of culture and information, says the cases were included in the reviewing process and reports were sent to UNESCO. The UN agency took Afghanistan out of the red zone into the blue.
Journalist Asef Sahar stresses journalists play a vital role in a democracy. They safeguard "state liberty" and are the "eyes" of national and international institutions. "But unfortunately journalists face multiple challenges that are not limited to death threats from powerful individuals," he says.
Nai, which supports the independence of Afghan media, says media freedom is threatened not only by armed opponents of the government but also by "owners of media".
An investigation by Nai that took note of reports of Media Watch, written complaints by journalists and media employees from 2002 to October 2017 has revealed that rights of the media including timely payment of salary, paid vacation, dismissal with notice, and retirement benefits are violated by media owners. There are no salary structures, Nai says.
The survey revealed that 93 percent of journalists do not get their salary on time and 70 percent are deprived of increments that boost morale.
According to Mujib Khelwatgar, executive head of Nai, "Insufficient salary, illegal dismissal, contract violations and one sided, contrary to law contracts are other violations of the rights and privileges of the employees in media organisations."
Khelwatgar says, "Owners and managers violating rules must be prosecuted so that rights of media employees and journalists are protected."