“Freedom of expression is our greatest step forward,” said Sayeda Mojgan Mustafavi, Deputy Minister of Information and Culture in Afghanistan, in her address as the Embassy in Kabul hosted a conference for the third year in a row on journalist safety, transparency and freedom of expression.

This year’s conference, entitled ‘Safeguarding the space for free media in Afghanistan’ took place following a year in which the number of reported incidents of violence and threats against journalists reached record levels. At least 13 journalists were killed in Afghanistan in 2016, making last year the bleakest year for journalists in Afghan media history.

– Over a 15-year period, we have taken a productive journey towards freedom of expression,” said Nader Nadery, President Ghani’s Special Adviser and Ambassador-at-Large for Freedom of Expression. “Now we must fight for the freedoms that so many have given their lives for.”

The emergence of a lively and largely independent media landscape with a large number of actors is usually regarded as one of Afghanistan’s main developmental advances since the fall of the Taliban regime. In recent years, the country has overtaken most neighbouring countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. A worrying trend, however, is that journalists in recent years have become a clearer target in the ongoing conflict, with increasing self-censorship as a result.

– No news item is worth a journalist’s life. If our lives were not in danger, we would rise rapidly in the Reporters Without Borders index,” said one of the panellists.

Nils Horner remembered

The conference coincided with the anniversary of the murder of Swedish Radio correspondent Nils Horner, who was shot dead in the street in Kabul in 2014. In his opening address, Ambassador Anders Sjöberg highlighted Mr Horner’s achievements:

“On this very day three years ago, Swedish Radio correspondent Nils Horner was killed right here in Kabul. He was shot in a street in Wazir Akhbar Khan. A voice was silenced that had allowed Swedish audiences to learn about and relate to the everyday life of Afghan people. Before and since, too many others have shared Mr Horner’s fate in this country.”

To highlight the challenges for journalists that the security situation in Afghanistan entails, a journalist had been specially invited to give a personal account of the persecution of journalists when the city of Kunduz temporarily fell to the Taliban in autumn 2015. He said that his family constantly begged him to leave the journalism profession. “But I have trained for this, I have a degree in journalism – this is my profession and will continue to be,” he said.

The day-long event attracted some 70 journalists, media workers, representatives of journalist unions and civil society as well as government representatives and included lively discussions on the key challenges to press freedom, press ethics, freedom of information and the safety of journalists in Afghanistan.

Text and photo: Veronica Nordlund