KABUL — Malala Maiwand sat on a television studio couch, pen and notebook in hand, a dark red headscarf framing her face. She was hosting a morning talk show in the city of Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. The topic was rising insecurity in the region, and her guest was a police spokesman.
Maiwand got straight to the point. A recent killing had taken place in broad daylight and in plain sight of police, but the killer had escaped. “What is your answer to this?” she asked the man. Though just 26, Maiwand was known for holding officials to account, especially on issues of corruption, and her show on Enikass TV had become one of the most popular in the eastern part of the country. But on Dec. 10, just a few weeks after the interview aired, she was shot dead, along with her driver, when unknown gunmen fired on their vehicle as she headed to work in Jalalabad, a bustling city of some 350,000 and the capital of Nangahar province.
The brazen daytime assassination was one of the latest in a string of targeted attacks on journalists in Afghanistan. The killings have highlighted the danger journalists face as they report on surging violence and tense peace talks between Afghan and Taliban representatives in Qatar that began in September.
Since January, 11 Afghan journalists and media workers have been killed, making this one of the deadliest years for the country’s rapidly growing domestic media corps since the end of Taliban rule in 2001. Recently, the pace has increased, with five journalists killed in the past two months.
Last Monday, Rahmatullah Nikzad, a freelance photographer, was shot dead outside his home in the city of Ghazni. In November, Elyas Dayee, a journalist who worked for Radio Azadi, and Yama Siavash, a former ToloNews anchor, were killed in separate magnetic bomb explosions, one in Helmand, the other in Kabul. Fardin Amini, an anchor for Ariana News TV, lost his life a day after Maiwand’s death.
The Islamic State, an extremist group separate from the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the killings of Siavash and Maiwand. Police say Amini killed himself by slitting his throat, but his family and friends insist he was murdered.
The Taliban denied involvement in the killing of Nikzad and condemned the attack on the journalist.
More than a dozen Afghan journalists and media activists interviewed for this story, especially women, said they feel less safe than ever and fear that such attacks will increase as security continues to deteriorate.
Maiwand was one of the few women who dared to appear openly as a television journalist in Nangahar, a deeply conservative province where few women work outside their homes. Most who work in journalism prefer to take off-camera jobs rather than risk being seen on-screen. When Enikass began operating about three years ago, Maiwand’s groundbreaking public role defied social norms.
“She was a fighter for women and a brave journalist,” said Niaz Mohammad Khaksar, a colleague and reporter for Enikass. He said that her talk program covered political and social issues but that her favorite topic was women’s rights.
“Her death has created fear among journalists, especially females,” Khaksar said.
The assassinations have shaken the country and exposed the fragility of hard-won media freedom in Afghanistan.
Dayee was among a handful of journalists who reported from Helmand, a violence-plagued province in the south. Sami Mahdi, Radio Azadi’s bureau chief, said that Dayee was an impartial journalist whose reports were precise and backed by facts, and that audiences trusted his strong, calm voice.
“He always paid special attention to stories about people affected by the war,” Mahdi said. “He never forgot the human interest angle in his reporting.”
Dayee’s death caused several other journalists to flee Helmand, creating an information gap in a province that has long been a critical battlefield between Taliban and government forces.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack on Dayee, but the Afghan government said it had arrested a Taliban member who admitted to carrying it out.
The killings come at a time when the media community faces an uncertain future, even if the government and Taliban reach a peace deal.
Tariq Arian, a spokesman for the country’s Interior Ministry, said the Taliban has been behind most targeted assassinations of journalists there since 2001. Media and human rights activists also blame the Taliban and its sympathizers for the recent killings, saying the group seeks to silence those who might weaken its position in the peace talks. The Taliban rejects such accusations.
“The killing of journalists and media workers is not among our targets,” Zabiullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman, said in a WhatsApp message to The Washington Post.
The Taliban imposed harsh restrictions on the media during its five-year rule in the late 1990s. It banned television and took over state-owned radio and newspapers to use them as propaganda platforms. But the group has shown greater openness toward journalists since opening peace talks with U.S. officials in 2018.
The Taliban now allows limited, heavily monitored media access to areas it controls, and its spokesmen grant interviews and issue news releases — often using technology the group once banned.
In urban areas under government control, the Afghan media has thrived in the past two decades. Dozens of TV stations and hundreds of online and print outlets have been established. Afghan journalists have uncovered corruption and exposed human rights abuses with reporting that reaches millions.
But those gains remain tenuous, and many journalists fear they will be reversed if the Taliban returns to power or assumes a significant role in public life.
“The biggest concern is: What will be the fate of journalists and media after the peace deal?” said Shah Hussain Rasuli, the editor in chief of Salam Watandar, Afghanistan’s largest radio station. “What will be their place in the society?”
When the peace talks “begin with the killing of journalists,” Rasuli added, “then the end of them does not look promising.”
© The Washington Post 2020