UN action is needed to protect press freedom in Afghanistan

Since the last American military flight left Kabul airport on Aug. 30, the grim, and worsening, state of press freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule has become an urgent source of global concern.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) warns that free and independent journalism is in danger of disappearing in Afghanistan and that reporters have been subject to beatings and imprisonment by the Taliban. These mounting press freedom concerns illustrate the grave and intensifying human rights crisis that is unfolding.

Recent attacks on journalists violate several articles of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), including positive rights like the right to freedom of thought, to hold opinions without interference and to equality before law, and negative rights like the freedom from unlawful and arbitrary interference. Because of these urgent violations, the UN and its organizational bodies, like the Human Rights Committee, must act.

August marked the end of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan — a two-decade American effort that unraveled in just a few weeks. While a looming famine, refugee crisis, threats of violence and diminished freedom all reveal a grim state of affairs, one concern has become increasingly apparent: the decline in press freedom.

According to IFJ, there are nearly 1,300 journalists left in Afghanistan, 220 of whom are women who have been barred from working. Voice of America reported that in the hours after U.S. troops left, reporters were detained at the Pakistan border, accused of unauthorized photography and held overnight. TOLOnews, a 24/7 news channel, reported that over 150 Afghan outlets have gone dark since Kabul fell — creating an information vacuum. Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of the Taliban’s use of force against reporters and those covering protests. While Afghan journalists are at risk, foreign correspondents are targets too. IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger said foreign journalists are erroneously targeted as foreign agents.

Experts believe that Afghanistan’s media ecosystem is crumbling and that the violent elimination of a free press is extremely troubling. Emerging in its place is an official media — a Taliban media — that controls the narrative, restricts access to critical news and shields the world from viewing the true nature of Taliban rule. The fear is now that journalists will either be forced to quit their jobs, persuaded into joining state media or killed. For female journalists, this projection is already a reality. Reporters Without Borders estimates that of the 700 women who worked as journalists before the U.S. troop withdrawal, fewer than 100 are still reporting.

Violence against journalists violates several universal human rights and ICCPR freedoms. Outlets report that journalists with a critical view of the Taliban are being targeted, violating the right to hold opinions without interference (Art. 19). Journalists with pointed op-eds in newspapers and blogs are specifically being detained, demonstrating a violation of the right to freedom of thought. And militant authorities have detained fleeing journalists at border crossings, restricting freedom of movement.

While the crackdown on freedom of expression and the media violates several ICCPR rights, the arrest of journalists — and the violence they face in detention — also flaunt international human rights conventions. In particular, flagrant violations of equality before the law and freedom from unlawful interference have surfaced. In one case, Etilaat Roz Editor-in-Chief Zaki Daryabi shared a video of two reporters who sustained critical injuries like welts, bruises and cuts while in detention. 

Notably, Afghanistan ratified the ICCPR in 1983. With a new governing authority at the country’s helm, this is the most opportune time to hold the Taliban accountable and demonstrate that the UN remains steadfast in its commitment to protect these universal rights.

Currently, non-governmental organizations are leading the charge to protect press freedom in Afghanistan. Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists said that the organization is assessing threats and bringing cases to the U.S. and UK governments. However, without the support of intergovernmental organizations, NGOs may struggle to get the adequate backing and resources they need. Fortunately, the UN’s mandate — to maintain global peace and security and promote human rights — creates a political and moral obligation to act.

Though the situation is complex and evolving, the UN and HRC must take a two-pronged approach: advocate for a safe media environment in Afghanistan and facilitate the safe exit for those whose lives are in danger.

Because of the Taliban’s brutality, an exodus of journalists is occurring. But not all reporters can easily flee. As a result, the HRC ought to specifically call on the Taliban to maintain its pledge to protect press freedom. Though authorities said they would not target journalists, reports detail a different reality. The HRC must place pressure on the regime to force accountability. While issuing a statement is step one, the UN should also commission an independent fact-finding mission (similar to ones carried out in Libya, Venezuela and Myanmar) to investigate the extent of rights violations against journalists.

But for many journalists, staying in Afghanistan — even under promises of improved and monitored conditions — is not realistic. This is the case for women. As a result, the HRC should issue a statement and lead efforts to ask governments to offer expedited humanitarian visas for at-risk journalists. While many have already been evacuated to Qatar, North Macedonia, France, Canada, the U.S. and the UK, several other countries like Greece and the Netherlands have not issued emergency visas for reporters.

Without a free press, Afghanistan will be isolated and the world will be unable to see the true extent of the Taliban’s brutal rule. As such, the UN and its organizational bodies have a unique obligation to call for accountability, protect newsgatherers and uphold the human rights and international law conventions outlined in the ICCPR.

The right of journalists is a human rights issue — and any violations of these rights deserve the world’s unwavering attention and fervent action.

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