Press freedom, journalists’ safety must be pre-conditions for Afghan peace talks

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on countries involved in the search for peace in Afghanistan to do everything possible to protect the media and journalists and to insist, as a prior condition for any talks, that the Taliban give a clear undertaking to respect international humanitarian law’s basic treaties, starting with the Geneva Conventions.

Two months after Zalmay Khalilzad was appointed as US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation and after several attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, Khalilzad announced on 18 November that he hoped a peace deal could be reached with the Talibanbefore next April’s presidential election in Afghanistan.

As US special presidential envoy for Afghanistan in 2001 and as US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, Khalilzad always took a very hard line on the Taliban but he now envisages bringing them into a government of national union.

The Russians are meanwhile also getting involved. India, Iran, China, Pakistan and five Central Asian countries including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan met in Moscow on 9 November with a five-man Taliban delegation led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a onetime foreign minister in Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Taliban government.
The delegation’s other members were all military and political officials during the darkest periods of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

The United States has always insisted that the Afghan government should participate in any talks with the Taliban but that did not stop Khalilzad meeting with Taliban representatives in Qatar in October.

According to the information obtained by RSF, there is concern in Afghanistan about this search for a peace deal with the Taliban that is being conducted at the Trump administration’s behest.

“They are ready to endanger the country’s democratic progress and the presidential election,” an Afghan official told RSF on condition of anonymity. And Khalilzad is pressuring the Afghan government to postpone next April’s presidential election, the official added.

The media pay a heavy price in Afghanistan and 2018 has been the deadliest year since the Taliban government fell in 2001, with 14 journalists and media workers killed since January. A total of 66 journalists and media workers have been killed in connection with their work since 2001, including 16 foreign journalists (four German, two American, two French, two Italian, two Swedish, one Australian, one Canadian, one Norwegian and one British).

More than 30 media outlets have been attacked and destroyed during the same period and hundreds of threats have been made against journalists and media. The Taliban were responsible for most of these criminal actions and impunity is still the rule.

We call on the countries participating in negotiations to do everything possible to protect journalists and press freedom in Afghanistan,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran/Afghanistan desk.

There must be no negotiating with the Taliban as long as they do not undertake to respect the humanitarian law defined in basic international treaties. As a prior condition for any talks with the Taliban, the international community must demand an explicit declaration and undertaking to respect international humanitarian law’s basic treaties, starting with the Geneva Conventions.

Afghan presidential spokesman Shah Hossein Mortazavwi told RSF: “We have no particular conditions for starting negotiations. But the president’s office has held consultative meetings with civil society about a peace deal, and citizens have insisted on the importance of preserving democratic gains, including free speech and press freedom. The government obviously undertakes to respect and guarantee these basic demands.”

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid meanwhile said that the Taliban would only negotiate with the Americans, not with the Afghan government, which they regard as illegitimate.

In our view, press freedom is a useful principle for peoples, as long as it does not question the principles of the sharia,” Mujahid said. “If, by means of freedom of expression, we encourage and promote development and progress in society, it is fine. But, for us, the priority continues to be Islam. In our view, it is impossible to implement freedom of expression as conceived in the West. This freedom of expression that despises and insults Islam is not permitted.

The past two years have seen a big increase in attacks against journalists in many parts of Afghanistan. Journalists are threatened not only by the Taliban and Islamic State, which impose their war and their hatred of press freedom, but also by the police, army and “unofficial” militias.

Press freedom is simply non-existent in Afghanistan’s conflict zones, which have become “black holes” from which no news and information emerges. Women journalists are among the biggest losers. The decline in the security situation has had a direct impact on the presence of women journalists in the media.

The experience of the past 17 years has confirmed that peace and security are the Afghan people’s main demands, but they cannot be achieved and safeguarded without free and independent media and guarantees for journalists’ safety.

RFS thinks it is unacceptable, at this dangerous time, for democratic governments involved in Afghanistan and for the Afghan government itself not to demand an explicit undertaking to respect international humanitarian law’s basic treaties as a pre-condition for talks with the Taliban.

Such an undertaking would be a guarantee for journalists’ safety. Afghanistan’s journalists must not be discouraged by the Taliban threats and by the international community’s silence.

Afghanistan is ranked 118th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.