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Profile: Afghanistan

Waiting for work in Kabul
Waiting for work in Kabul
A weak central government, tens of thousands of NATO and U.S. troops, a recently deposed homegrown insurgency bent on regaining control of the country, and swathes of foreign jihadist fighters make Afghanistan one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. For the more than 100 Radio Free Afghanistan (RFA) journalists working there, it is a place where one day's trusted source is tomorrow's executioner; where one's home can become a pile of rubble in seconds; and where the next phone call received could mean having to go into hiding, or even having to leave the country. It is a place where journalists, local and foreign, find themselves relying on their instincts for survival rather than any officially recognized authority.

The government is by and large incapable of providing protection for many of its citizens, let alone threatened journalists. Warlords, militias, and bands of criminals control vast swathes of Afghanistan virtually independent of a central government seen as being increasingly factionalized, militarized and distant. In addition, corruption, especially at the provincial level, is rampant, and government forces have raided television stations and detained correspondents for publishing stories it found objectionable. But, threats come from other terrorist groups as well. Last year, in addition to numerous kidnappings, three journalists, (none of whom was affiliated with RFA), were murdered, with one local reporter, Ajmal Naqshbani, beheaded by a group claiming to be affiliated with the Taliban.

Most threats come to journalists via mobile phone. In one instance, a reporter for RFA working in Kandahar recorded a conversation he had with an alleged Taliban leader from the Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. The caller introduced himself by name, telling the journalist his location, rank, and that he is training suicide bombers in a garage in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand Province. The threat is like many others. The caller addresses the journalist as an "American agent," subsequently launching into a tirade about the underreporting of Taliban military achievements and the overreporting of those of the NATO, U.S., and Afghan government forces. The caller then refers to Samad Rohani, a BBC reporter who was murdered in June 2008, telling the RFA reporter, "We spoke to Samad Rohani and asked him to cooperate with us and he refused...we finished him." The caller ominously ends the call with, "OK. We will see you soon." What the RFA reporter did next can only be understood by those working in Afghanistan, for whom the Taliban are one of several groups, however predatory, that nonetheless remain part of the local fabric and subject to forms of local influence and tradition. He immediately dialed the number of the Taliban's unofficial spokesperson. In this case, the person making the threat was unaffiliated with the Taliban; intent to protect their "brand," the Taliban leadership took action and the threats stopped.

There are countless armed groups consisting of foreign fighters and warlords-turned-common-criminals. Rampant unemployment -- and, to a large extent the low wages that accompany legitimate work -- coupled with decades of lawlessness and a lack of any political stability make for a power vacuum easily occupied by criminals and terrorists. Some groups claim ties with the Taliban, and others go by names like "Mujahedin in Kabul." The commonality is that such actors can operate with impunity, a lesson learned by one Radio Free Afghanistan journalist who was forced to flee the country after having his life, and the lives of his mother, wife and infant son, threatened.

The RFA journalist, Qadir Nazar (name changed in the interest of protection), covered security, military and political affairs in the Afghan capital of Kabul. "Reporting on such matters is quite dangerous because to expose corruption or other problems one must probe into the true power structure in Afghanistan. And, since 5 million people listen to Radio Free Afghanistan weekly, everyone -- from the Karzai government to the Taliban to the ordinary citizen on the street -- knows that our reporting has a profound effect on the political landscape."

Qadir's drama began with armed men confirming his identity by approaching his neighbors, and ended with his recent relocation to RFE/RL headquarters in Prague. Qadir began receiving phone calls, SMS messages, and even videos delivered to him via random taxicab drivers. The situation culminated with a phone call at 4 a.m. "We know you are inside your house with your wife, child, and mother. We know when you go to work, what streets you take to get there, and the car you will use," a voice said. Qadir recorded the message, as he had done multiple times before, and went to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. After meeting with U.S. officials, Qadir visited NATO headquarters and the Afghan local authorities to inform them of his situation. Those who sought to victimise Qadir have yet to be identified, an ending all too common.