Women journalists in Afghanistan: Defiant in the face of violence

The protection for journalists remains the biggest challenge in Afghanistan, and while women journalists make up just 17 percent of the news force, 30 percent of them have reported violence, writes Farida Nekzad for South Asia Monitor

Farida Nekzad Dec 06, 2020
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Being a journalist in war-torn Afghanistan is not easy. But if you are a woman, it becomes not only challenging but also dangerous too. It is said that women journalists are particularly vulnerable not only because of their profession but also due to their gender, which makes them a “double target.”

There have been many cases of violence, including threats, harassments, and attacks on women journalists in Afghanistan.

Long tradition of media

The first publication was published during the reign of Amir Shir Ali Khan in 1875 AD under the name of Shams al-Nahar. It was published under Queen Suraya's wife's reign during the reign of Shah Amanullah Khan in 1919. During this time Afghanistan's first press code was established and an independent press department was established.

However, during the reign of Mohammad Zahir Shah, more open space was created, and in 1343 (1722), the charter was changed to the first press law and approved, and the independent press department was transformed into a ministry.

During the rule of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and the years of aggression of the former Soviet Union, the country's press was based entirely on a communist dictatorship. However, during the presidentship of Mohammad Najibullah or Dr. Najib, a number of party and government publications were published, and to some extent, women's participation in the media increased. A number of literary and socio-cultural publications also came up. But with the victory of the Mujahideen government, most women journalists, speakers, and journalists left the country, and during the black Taliban regime, women were not part of the media scene at all. The media in Afghanistan was banned altogether, and there was only one radio and television station that broadcast propaganda information and aired ceremonies of Taliban officials.

Many challenges for women journalists

After the fall of the Taliban government, with the support and commitments of the international community, a golden opportunity arose for women journalists. Since 2001, women could be seen working in various roles in the media – from the production of news to photography to writing and editing. Slowly more women joined journalism in print, electronic as well as audiovisual media.
 
A recent survey by the Center for the Protection of Women Journalists (CPAWJ) in Afghanistan shows that out of 7,577 journalists in Afghanistan, 1,741 are women journalists, of whom more than 1,100 are professionals working in the news and news production sections of various media -television, radio, agencies, and publications.

One can say that until 2010, women journalists enjoyed much more space for work, enjoyed more freedom and their presence had also increased. But after 2010, unfortunately, the conditions for journalists, especially women journalists, have become more difficult and dangerous. It had a negative effect and most of them either quit their media jobs or turned to other work.

At the moment, there are hundreds of media outlets, many have an online presence too. However, the biggest challenge for all journalists is the lack of security and safety, especially for women journalists. Growing violence, torture, and harassment against women journalists was behind the reason many left the field. In addition to the security challenges, Afghanistan is a conservative, traditional, and religious conflict-affected country. These restrictions further affected women, and more families forced their daughters or wives to leave the media sector.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan has witnessed the worst violence against women, which has not been seen in its history. It has become so bad recently that even the human rights report ranked Afghanistan as amongst the worst countries for the status of women.

The Human Rights Watch has also named Afghanistan the most discriminatory and unequal country in the world for women. The protection for journalists remains the biggest challenge in Afghanistan, and while women journalists make up just 17 percent of the news force, 30 percent of them have reported violence. More than 10 women journalists have been killed and an increasing number have been threatened and harassed since 2001. The Center's new figures show that more than 15 cases of threats and violence against women journalists have been made since the beginning of 2020, including one case of rape.

And to top it all, women journalists face cyberbullying. They face cyber harassment - their addresses are blocked or misused and they are forced to create fake addresses. Unfortunately, Afghanistan does not have a strict cyber law to protect the victims.

However, one of the biggest challenges for women journalists is that they are not taken seriously as a professional. There is disbelief in their ability and capacity as journalists because most of the media is managed and run by men. Even men do ‘exclusive’ stories that define a person’s ability as a good journalist.

Role of women journalists in the peace process

There is no doubt that women, especially journalists, welcome and appreciate the peace talks, and which is the long-standing hope of every individual in the country. But there is no doubt that from the beginning of the negotiation process to the signing of the Doha Agreement and the Doha Conference Inter-Afghan talks about the role of the media community, especially women, who have not been considered at all. The talks are taking place behind the scenes and no up-to-date information is shared with reporters. A big concern is also that none of the journalist or women journalists is part of the Peace Negotiation delegation.

Women journalists are especially concerned about the situation and they are worried that the recent achievements they have been able to achieve due to their hard work, blood and sweat may get diluted, or that there will be restrictions on freedom of expression and position of women journalists will get jeopardized.

It is noteworthy that after the fall of the Taliban regime and the establishment of the interim government in Afghanistan, the emergence and rapid growth of free media, the presence of women journalists, and freedom of expression are important achievements of the government and the international community.

Although, there are excellent and unique laws to protect journalists and freedom of expression, unfortunately, the non-implementation of laws are one of the main problems that have further strengthened the culture of impunity.

For example, the perpetrators of the mass killings of journalists (eight journalists were killed, including AFP's chief photographer) in the April 2018 double suicide bombing in Kabul. The killers were arrested but freed during the political exchange of prisoners. There still remain many unsolved cases of journalist’s killings.

One good step in this direction was taken when a joint committee of the media and government was formed in 2018 by Second Vice President Sarwar Danish to investigate cases of violence against journalists like murder, kidnapping, injuries, threats, complaints, etc. I am a member along with other members from the journalists’ federations.

Personal journey

With more than 20 years of experience in the field of journalism and civic activism, I was able to reach this position by facing many dangers and risks. I consider myself a favorite of the media community, especially women journalists, because despite facing difficult conditions, challenges, and innumerable risks, I have continued and thrived in my professional work. I still continue to struggle in my professional field as it is not easy in a country like Afghanistan.

I have been abducted, threatened, and warned due to my reporting of investigating stories. But still, I prefer to share my experiences with young Afghan women who want to pursue journalism and want to motivate them and support and defend their rights.

I have won five World Awards from various institutes based in Europe, the US, and Canada for freedom of expression and the protection of the rights of women journalists in Afghanistan. I am proud of all the women journalists and those who have supported me. We have some brave and young journalist in Kabul such as Anisa Shaheed working for Tolo News, Nargis Horakhsh for Chanel one TV, Marzia Adil for BBC, Farahnoza Frotan for Ariana News and Frishta for Sadaye Azadi and many others. In some provinces, there are also heroic journalists who struggle and continue their media work every day in difficult conditions. We currently have a handful of women leaders who have reached management and leadership roles with experience in journalism.

Role of CPAWJ

I am the president of the Center for Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ), which was established in cooperation with the Reporters Sans Frontier - Reporters Without Border (RSF)) to defend women journalists’ rights in society and at the workplace in March 2017. The Kabul-based center has representatives of active women journalists in 13 provinces of Afghanistan, and was established as the first women reporters’ network.

The CPAWJ is working for improving the working conditions for women journalists and freedom of the press, in cooperation with media outlets and in coordination with the government and civil society as well as by arranging training courses to help improve women journalists’ condition. We also, work for equal rights and equal wages for women journalists as well as preventing sexual abuse at workplaces, thus paving the way for helping them to take part in the management and leadership roles – which are the main goals of the center. Since March 2017, CPAWJ has published more than 100 reports about women journalists, their concerns, challenges, and also their progress in three languages - Dari, Pashto, and English - on the CPAWJ website and social media.

As women journalist face cyber harassment, we also conducted safety and cyber training with RSF for 15 women senior journalists from different media organization and involved those who face any kind of challenges in a media organization, newsroom, or society.

We have now become a good focal point of trust and many women journalists share their problems or difficulties, which includes security issues, sexual harassment, discrimination, or unequal salaries. Unfortunately, there are no equal opportunities for women journalists. The important point is that the international community and countries that protect human rights, especially women's rights and freedom of expression, should reconsider their policies, and one of the conditions should be the role of women journalists in supporting media institutions and equal protection for them.
  
Even in the current situation of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown, the impact has been much more on women journalists. Many women journalists have been either fired or terminated, according to a recent survey of more than 20 percent of women journalists, who are active in the field. On top of everything, they are now getting impacted psychologically.

No doubt women journalists have progressed in Afghanistan and are not afraid to face the many challenges, but as the UN has stated the government should “implement measures to improve journalist safety and foster an open media where no voice is silenced through fear” especially of a woman.

(The writer, Director, Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ), Kabul is an award-winning Afghan journalist. She is co-founder of Pajhwok Afghan News Agency and was the editor-in-chief and director of Wakht News Agency, Kabul. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at cpawjdirector@gmail.com)

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