Deadliest Afghan Media Attack Since '01 Threatens Peace Move

  • President Ghani says Taliban threatening freedom of speech
  • Afghanistan has 100 radio, TV stations vs just one in 2001

Afghan security personnel inspect the damaged vehicle carrying employees of popular Afghan TV channel TOLO in Kabul.

Photographer: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The Taliban’s most vicious attack on a media outlet since its ouster in 2001 is threatening to muzzle freedom of speech in Afghanistan, which has seen the number of radio and television stations surge to about 100 from just one in that time.

Seven people died on Wednesday night when a suicide bomber slammed into a bus owned by Tolo TV, owned by Afghanistan’s biggest media company Moby Group. The strike was in retaliation for the broadcaster’s “severe hostility” toward Islam, the Taliban said in an e-mail statement. Taliban fighters had by and large refrained from targeting the media even though they have killed some journalists in the past, accusing them of being spies.

The blast jeopardizes hopes for peace as the U.S. and China seek to broker a deal between a resurgent Taliban and the Afghan government. The U.S. has lost more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers and spent more than $680 billion in an effort to build up democracy in Afghanistan.

“The attack underscores serious threats to the Afghan media and its newly-born democracy installed by U.S. and Western allies over the past 14 years,” said Ahmad Saeedi, a former Afghan diplomat and an independent political analyst. “If safety of media can’t be ensured, the country will move toward the collapse of freedom of speech and democracy.”

The Taliban in October picked two local broadcasters -- Tolo and 1tv -- as legitimate military targets after accusing them of misreporting their brief takeover of the northern city of Kunduz. The group cited a report that said the group raped girls at a hostel soon after they seized the city.

Both stations are tasked with promoting "the intellectual, cultural and information invasion of the infidels in Afghanistan," the Taliban said in its October statement posted on its website. With the backing of the U.S., it said, they “spread propaganda filled with hate and open enmity against Jihad and the Mujahideen.”

During the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, the group shut down all television stations and jailed Afghans watching any shows, saying Islam prohibits followers from watching TV and enjoying music.

The attack occurred in the western part of the nation’s capital, near the Russian embassy and the old parliament building. The bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into Tolo TV’s bus, which was ferrying more than 30 staff members home, according to the channel. The explosion wounded 26, it said.

"Such barbaric attacks won’t be the first or the last,” said Komail Mirshad Beig, president of Afghanistan Radio and Television Union. “Despite being under serious threat and danger, Afghan media will pursue to keep freedom of speech alive.”

The attack on the media van was broadly condemned, including by officials at the U.S., the United Nations and the European Union. Calling it a “barbaric act,” President Ashraf Ghani said it was an attempt to “silence the Afghan media and limit freedom of speech.”

The incident is designed to undermine Aghanistan’s "still fragile media freedom," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. Afghan journalists have faced increasing intimidation and violence from both state and non-state figures in recent years, it added.

Militants have stepped up deadly attacks nationwide after U.S. and allied forces concluded their combat mission in 2014 and switched to assisting and training the Afghan military. Kabul has recently witnessed more bombings and brutal attacks against government installations and diplomatic missions, killing scores.

In December, they killed six policemen and a civilian during a nine-hour siege at a guest house belonging to the Spanish embassy in Kabul.

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