NEW DELHI: “Afghanistan has been a security challenge but not a dangerous space”, said Afghanistan’s Ambassador Shaida Mohammad Abdali addressing a gathering of journalists in New Delhi today.

The press meet organised by South Asia Women’s Network (SAWM) was organised at the Foreign Correspondents Club Of South Asia, New Delhi on May 4, 2018. Afghanistan’s Ambassador along with S Venkat Narayan, President, FCC, Jyoti Malhotra, President, SAWM were present to address and condemn the ghastly attacks in Kabul on journalists which aimed “to shut down the voices of freedom, rights and values that the media stands for”, said Abdali.

The talk came in light of the recent attacks in Kabul where a suicide bomber in guise of a motorcycle rider blew himself up on early hours of April 30, 2018 in rush hour traffic while several journalists hurried to the explosion area to report. But just as they arrived, the second attacker triggered his device to commence the attack, termed the deadliest since Charlie Hebdo Office in 2015. The Afghan wing of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has claimed the attack but speculations say it could also have been the Taliban.

Abdali expressed solidarity with the journalists and the members of the media while stressing on the progress Afghanistan has made in the past 16 years, even being the centre of turmoil. “We express solidarity with each voice that we lost in these attacks. A generation has been blown to pieces by the suicide bombers. This is an attack on the global media and not just Afghan media”, said Abdali.

The press meet also paid tribute to the chief photographer of Agence France-Presse (AFP), Shah Marai whose documentation of Afghanistan was showcased, the pictures he had most recently sent to the agency.

Shah Marai was one of the ten reporters killed. Marai began his career with the French news agency during the era of the Taliban. "They hated journalists, so I was always very discreet," he wrote in a correspondent blog dated October 14, 2016. “That hatred never disappeared over the almost two decades since the radical Islamists were toppled. Weapons don't quash hatred. It would take a credible political vision, one that is open to debate. It would take reporters who ask questions”, he expressed.

Other journalists killed in the attacks included Mahram Durani, a correspondent with Radio Free Europe and Ebadullah Hananzai, a reporter with the same agency, Yar Mohammad Tokhi, a cameraman with TOLONews, Ghazi Rasoul, a reporter with 1TV and cameraman Nawroz Ali Khamosh, Ali Saleemi and Saleem Talash from Mashal TV. Sabawoon Kakar, an RFE cameraman, died in the hospital from his injuries. Five other journalists were injured in the attack.

Separately on Monday, BBC Afghan service reporter Ahmad Shah was shot and killed by gunmen in Khost province.

Talking to the media, Abdali said “We should not distinguish the fight for a common cause. Afghanistan has made a lot of changes with media and freedom of expression in view. In the past 16 years, Afghan youth’s involvement in the media has been commendable. Earlier we had only one radio channel but now we have more than 300 radio channels and 1000 print media outlets- the development we have made in the last 16 years”. He further added, “Now the Constitution of Afghanistan allows freedom of media as a value. It is ensured under the Constitutional framework of the country. Media is the fourth pillar of Afghan state and there is no doubt that media’s role has been significant in our long effort to ensure civil stability and advancement towards internet progress”.

Discussing the first step that the government undertook after the attacks of April 30, 2018, Abdai told the media, “The Government Commission and Mass Media Commission held a meeting to address the tragic attack. The government ensured its support to the Media Commision and reiterated its commitment to create a safe environment for journalists to work”.

However, this is not the first time freedom of press has been targeted and attacked in Afghanistan. In 2001, some eight journalists were killed while covering the US led military invasion that led to the downfall of the Taliban regime. According to a report by Committee to Protect Journalists, even though 2002 saw 150 local publication houses opening up there were still complexities involved where “local journalists were more vulnerable than foreign correspondents to political pressures and violence, with dangers most acute in areas outside Kabul that tend to be controlled by autocratic regional warlords or plagued by factional fighting. With warlords in control, security could not be guaranteed for those who dared to exercise the right to free expression, as per the report”, the report further said.

The birth of a growing media presence through international military intervention toppled the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001. Afghanistan now has at least 170 radio stations and dozens of newspapers. More than 30 TV programs broadcast from the capital Kabul, alone. Young media professionals keep alive faltering hopes for a democratic process. Kabul has already witnessed 10 serious blasts in the last four months.

According to Reporters Without Borders’ report, the past year was particularly the deadliest for journalists in Afghanistan where at least 15 journalists and media workers were killed, many in targeted attacks on the media. The aimed attacks by Taliban and Islamic State terror outfits stay building a black hole of information in Afghanistan. Incidents reported from some provinces have also been where the Taliban forced the media to pay arbitrary taxes, tantamount to ransoms.

Another aspect to the recent ambush on Journalist also comes at a time when Afghanistan awaits its Parliamentary Elections this year. Earlier the elections, already three years late were scheduled for July 2018 but the Afghan election authorities confirmed the date of the vote to be October 20, 2018.

Responding to the question on the possibility of elections, Abdali said, “Te preparation in terms of security forces training has witnessed a high trajectory in Afghanistan. Our capabilities are high to combat any outward force that might intrude in the peaceful process of elections”.

Abdali also discussed how the ISIS and the Taliban are no different entities when it comes to intent. He said “They are symbiotic. We might feel they are not the same on the surface of it but they are. They have the same objective”.

As per a recent US military data released to CNN, Taliban had further strengthened its hold over Afghanistan in the second half of last year. In October 2017, 14% of Afghan districts were under the control or influence of the Taliban or other insurgents, an increase of one percentage point on the previous data from August. Although Taliban continues to hold power, Islamic State also has continued to spread its wings across the country with the recent patterned attacks on journalists in Kabul where it claimed immediate responsibility.

The Taliban in fact recently announced the beginning of their annual spring offensive, when better weather enables increased attacks. The Taliban spokesperson said last week that the spring offensive will target "mainly focused on crushing, killing, and capturing American invaders,” adding that the Americans' "internal supporters" - the Afghan government and troops -- are considered secondary priorities.

Pressing on the problem at hand, Abdali and all others resonated the view that “Journalists are on the frontline, particularly with the recent Kabul attacks and freedom of press is under attack”. He also called for state-to-state peace and conflict resolution dialogue and more regional cooperation for “establishment of values if pluralism, democracy, peace and development”.