KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — For more than two hours on Tuesday, Shamshad TV, a Pashto-language private broadcaster in Afghanistan came under attack. Frightened staffers scrambled to exit the premises as two gunmen dressed in police uniforms began their assault on the three-story building, where at least 200 employees were busy preparing the day’s news headlines and entertainment programs.
By the time the assault had ended in the early afternoon, at least one staffer was killed and 20 others injured. Most of the injuries were sustained when frightened staffers tried to escape the building by jumping out of the windows.
Fighters claiming allegiance to the Iraq and Syria-based so-called Islamic State ended up claiming responsibility for the attack, which began with a suicide bomber detonating his explosives at the entrance gate of the facility.
But then something remarkable happened, shortly after the attack had ended, Shamshad TV was back on the air. One presenter, his hands wrapped in bandages to cover the injuries he sustained, had returned to reading the day’s news. The staff’s commitment to journalism was commended as an example of their dedication to journalism and as an embodiment of Afghan resilience at a time when the 16-year war is taking an increasing toll on civilians.
Afghan resilience: This anchor got injured on the Islamic State attack on Shamshad TV, now he is back on his show, discussing the attack. pic.twitter.com/Sb5h0nb5yW
— Habib Khan Totakhil (@HabibKhanT) November 7, 2017
In his condemnation of Tuesday’s attack, President Ashraf Ghani promised to protect the gains made by the media in the last 16 years, saying, “The enemies of Afghanistan, by carrying out a terrorist attack on Shamshad TV, once again showed that they can resort to any kind of conspiracy and inhuman acts to reach their evil objectives.”
The Shamshad attack marks the latest assault on free speech in the nation.
For years, a booming free media has been considered one of the major accomplishments of the post-2001 era in Afghanistan. Currently, there are more than 1,000 news and media outlets operating in the country.
However, in recent years, Afghan media workers have come under repeated attack from all sides, including the armed opposition.
In the spring of 2014, AFP journalist Ahmad Sardar, his wife and two young children were killed when Kabul’s Serena Hotel came under Taliban attack. The slaying of Sardar and his family led Afghan journalists to enact a 15-day boycott on reporting the Taliban’s activities in the country.
Then, in 2016, staffers of TOLO TV, the nation’s largest private broadcaster, came under Taliban attack when a minibus carrying their staff was attacked in Kabul. Seven members of the TOLO staff, including a graphic designer, a video editor, a set decorator, three dubbing artists and one driver, were killed in that attack. The attack on TOLO came three weeks after the Taliban issued a threat on the network and 1TV, the nation’s second-largest private broadcaster, after TOLO reported that the Taliban had raped girls in a dorm building during their 2015 takeover of the capital of Kunduz province. The Taliban denied the claims.
The first Islamic State-claimed attack on the media came in May of this year, the group attacked the office of the government-owned Radio Television Afghanistan in the eastern city of Jalalabad. At least six people were killed in the RTA attack.
The Kabul-based Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) documented at least 73 cases of “violence against journalists which includes killing, beating, inflicting injury and humiliation, intimidation and detention of journalists” in the first six months of 2017.
Afghan journalists, said the AJSC, has also been caught in the crossfire of recent large-scale attacks that were not directly targeting the media. Two workers of Parliament TV were killed in an attack near the parliament building. In a May 31 bombing near Kabul’s Zanbaq Square, four journalists and media workers were among the 150 people killed.
But it’s not just the armed opposition that is threatening media in the country. According to the findings of the AJSC and Human Rights Watch (HRW), members of the Afghan National Security Forces and individuals connected to the government, have also been responsible for threats, intimidation and violence against journalists.
Groups and individuals affiliated with the government have been responsible for at least 34 instances of violence and intimidation against media workers, the AJSC found. That accounts for at least 46 percent of all violence against journalists in the period between January and June, 2017.
The perpetrators include government officials, members of parliament, provincial council members, governors, and warlords.
In a 2015 report on violence against journalists, HRW’s deputy Asia director, Phelim Kine, said, “Afghan officials, warlords, and insurgents have threatened, assaulted, and killed dozens of journalists since 2002 without any fear of prosecution.”
Beyond violence, Afghan media faces another existential threat — finances.
Earlier this year, the Killid Group, an independent, Afghan public media group made of eight local Radios and two weekly nation-wide magazines, released a report on the dire economic situation of dozens of media outlets in the country.
Najiba Ayubi, executive director of Killid Radio, told ThinkProgress that more than 170 media outlets across the country were closed due to lack of funds.
Ayubi said the financial threats to Afghan media are “something that will set the country back, something that can have very detrimental long-term effects on the freedom of the press and our young democracy.”
The operating costs can be a huge burden on smaller media outlets in the nation’s 34 provinces, Ayubi added. She said she has encountered local radio outlets having to pay 36 Afghanis (52 cents) per kilowatt of electricity. Add to that the 200,000 ($2,915) to 500,000 ($7,288) frequency fees, and the operating costs can prove extremely prohibitive for outlets that are struggling to survive now that foreign aid for the media is starting to dry up.
Most of the 32 local radio stations affiliated with Killid, she said, currently lack the finances for content and electricity.
The increased violence and financial hardships has greatly impacted Ayubi’s faith in the future of free media in Afghanistan.
“How can we get information out to the public in these conditions?” she said. “The international community must start to give direct aid to local Afghan media, not high-paying NGOs.”
Foreign donors “left the Afghan media alone half-way through” the establishment of a burgeoning industry in the nation, Ayubi added.