'I Am Gone. Pray For Me'

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Last Thursday, Ahmad Omid Khpalwak sent a text message to his brother. "I am close to danger, but hiding myself."

Khpalwak was in Oruzgan’s provincial capital, Tarin Kowt, filing a report for the BBC about a new town in the province when the Taliban launched a complex attack in the city. Foreign elite forces, including Australians, intervened and an hours-long gunfight followed which eventually resulted in more than 20 deaths and 37 people being injured.

Reports indicate that seven attackers made a co-ordinated assault on the city and targeted a compound that houses the provincial governor’s residence, police headquarters and other government buildings including the offices and studios of the national broadcasting network, Radio and Television of Afghanistan (RTA), where Khpalwak was working.

During the prolonged suicide bombing and gunfire, Omid Khpalwak sent another message: "I am gone. Pray for me."

His brother, who later received the body from the hospital, said that he had been hit by 20 bullets. It is unclear who is responsible for his death.

Khpalwak was a 25-year-old reporter with the BBC Pashto-Dari radio service. He was Oruzgan’s provincial correspondent for the Pajhwok Afghan News, an independent news agency with regional bureaus across the country. He also freelanced for the ABC.

Danish Karohkel, Pajhwok’s Director described him as "talented and dedicated reporter" who joined the service in 2007 and whose death "leaves a vacuum" for Pajhwok and for Afghan media.

"He presented the voice of Oruzgani people to the media, even from the start, during the parliamentary and presidential elections. He always found a way to include the Afghan people’s view, not just the government’s view, or the Taliban’s."

His contribution to the BBC meant that news of his death circulated quickly under the international spotlight. Tributes and acknowledgements of his work accompanied news reports of yet another deadly suicide attack and gunfight in Afghanistan’s southern provinces.

Ikpelwak’s death not only saddens those who knew him and his work, it reverberates among the networks of Afghan journalists who know too well that their work is dangerous.

This will not come as a surprise. Afghanistan rates very poorly in the annual Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, coming in at 147 out of 178 countries. The authors of the report observe that in Afghanistan, like Somalia, Pakistan and Mexico (countries openly engaged in an internal conflict) "we see a situation of permanent chaos and a culture of violence and impunity taking root in which the press has become a favourite target".

A recent UN report also highlights an increase in incidents of violence against Afghan civilians and lists the six months to 30 June 2011 as the most deadly for Afghan civilians since 2001. Afghanistan’s media advocates say that journalists who are working in conflict environments and in a climate of insecurity, know that they take risks — but still believe they have the same rights as civilians and do not and should not expect that they will be killed or injured on the job.

"The media and journalists are impartial in the war and their lives and ability to work should be respected and protected", says the manager of the Media Watch unit of Nai, an organisation dedicated to supporting open media in Afghanistan.

Tauhidi Sediqullah’s team has documented and researched violations against journalists for the past decade and this week released an impressive data visualisation project which maps and details those incidents. Nai’s Media Watch unit wants to raise awareness of the risks journalists face and provide some deeper analysis of where and how the dangers arise for journalists.

At a glance, the data reveals that 2009 was the most dangerous year to date for media workers in Afghanistan, with 67 incidents reported. This contrasts with the trend in the UN findings, which indicates that Afghan civilians — people outside of combat — to be increasingly the victims of the Taliban’s insurgent attacks and related conflict.

However, the Media Watch research reveals that the risks that Afghan journalists take to investigate and report are not usually related to Taliban attacks such as the one that claimed Omid Khpalwak’s life last week. Instead, it shows that countless cases of violence and threats against journalists result from them carrying out simple aspects of their work; approaching senior representatives of local and national authorities with questions.

Aside from being punished for asking tough questions of "warlords", provincial politicians and the police, journalists say they experience violent attacks from traffic police and civilians when filming or reporting on demonstrations. Managers and staff at media outlets receive threats to themselves and their families, have their equipment damaged, are injured and in the worst cases, killed. Several women journalists have been beaten and killed in what is widely acknowledged as punishment for working in the profession. Often, the cases are reported to authorities but not investigated.

The data collected over the past 10 years also indicates a sharp increase in incidents after 2004. Tauhidi offers an explanation of the numbers:

"There was a short time after the Taliban was toppled in 2001, when stability had a chance to develop. Many media outlets were established during this time, right up to 2005 or 2006. After that time, the Taliban rose up again in the south, then spread into the north. By 2009, the crisis had taken over the whole country and at this time, because of the insecurity, both the Taliban and the government intensified their pressure on the media."

With this crisis in security in Afghanistan now reaching new highs, it is surprising to see the spike followed by a marked a decrease in rights violations and threats to journalists after 2009, with comparatively few (26) in 2010 compared to 2009 (67). The figures might indicate that things are getting better. Not so, Tauhidi says.

"Even though there are less incidents, we don’t see this as an improvement in freedom of expression. Journalists have learnt that they have to take more precautions and measures to protect themselves. They have taken safety training and they have learnt from their own and their colleagues experiences."

One of the greatest obstacles to the development of media freedom in Afghanistan, he says, is self-censorship. "This is now a journalist’s most common act of precaution. Right now, journalists are protecting themselves, but we want to see the authorities protect them."

The unit’s findings point to the lawlessness that dominates much of the country and Tauhidi hopes that having the data visualised online will draw attention to the greater need at hand. "Our advocacy aims for legal mechanisms to protect journalists."

While it may sound like an impossible dream, from where Tauhidi stands, this is a real hope. He and his colleagues contributed to the review and development of a set of mass media laws in 2009 that more clearly articulate the rights and protection of journalists. It is a piece of legislation that represents a fundamental agreement between the government and the industry that, despite the prevalence of conflict, media rights must be protected and won.

However in Afghanistan the greatest challenge lies in the implementation of laws and the observance of the rule of law itself, says Mohammad Qasim, a media defence lawyer in Kabul.

It is the police and public prosecutors who need to change their behavior, says Qasim. He proposes media law courses for commanders and provincial police. "The Minister knows these laws. He might read this research, and observe the importance of it. But it is the local authorities that need to understand the rights of journalists and these laws that should protect them."

If a journalist is attacked by traffic police at a demonstration, what is his or her recourse to justice? When a provincial governor doesn’t like the way he is portrayed in the media, must he refrain from a personal reprisal of the journalist who wrote the report? Too often the answer is no, which means that basic reporting in Afghanistan remains a risk in itself.

This week media advocates in Afghanistan welcomed an announcement that the international security forces would investigate Omid Khpalwak’s death. The journalist was known directly to Nai’s Media Watch staff, for whom he collected data in the Oruzgan province. They view his killing as both tragic and symbolic. "He contributed to the progress of media freedom and democracy" says Pajhwok’s Danish Karohkel.

In the words of Tauhidi, Khpalwak’s death "once again saddens reporters and media workers and reminds us of other Afghan reporters who are victims of violence."

 

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