World Press Freedom Day marked in Kabul, tinged with grief for lost colleagues and concern for media sector’s future

3 May 2021

World Press Freedom Day marked in Kabul, tinged with grief for lost colleagues and concern for media sector’s future

KABUL - World Press Freedom Day was marked in Kabul today with UN envoy Deborah Lyons joining Afghan reporters, media safety committees and senior government officials in calling for improved protection for journalists and press freedom.

The memory of recently killed journalists and concerns about the peace process coloured proceedings.

“I am deeply troubled by the number of Afghan media workers, including many women, who have been intimidated or killed in recent month. I am concerned by the possible culture of impunity,” said Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. “Without better protection and more robust measures to hold perpetrators to account, it is not just individual reporters who suffer, it will ultimately be the vibrant media sector itself and, by extension, all Afghans,” said the UN envoy.

“The voice of the media is the voice of society and that voice cannot be silenced,” emphasized Deborah Lyons.

The event, co-hosted by the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, UNESCO and UNAMA was held at a time when Afghanistan has seen an unprecedented attack on journalists, with widespread threats and several targeted killings taking place in recent months.

Second Vice President Sarwar Danish spoke about the need not only to protect the existing gains in freedom of expression but the necessity of further progress. “Media freedom has not been achieved easily but through tremendous sacrifices,” The Vice President asserted that the authorities are processing 572 cases of attacks on media workers and that “the Government is committed to safeguarding the freedom of press, journalists' safety and access to information.”

Najib Sharifi, AJSC Director, appealed for government security and justice branches to be more transparent and cooperative with victims’ families and the media when investigating cases involving slain journalists. He described how the spate of recent threats and attacks on media workers is weakening the resolve of the journalists, increasing self-censorship, and prompting many to seek safety outside the country. He said that as many as 43 journalists have recently left the country.

How to ensure freedom of the press in the context of the ongoing peace process and in the future was on the minds of all present. Vice president Danish said that Afghanistan is entering a new stage and argued that there is no justification for the continuation of violence. The UN envoy, Deborah Lyons declared that “With an entirely civilian work force the UN will be staying the course with the Afghan people,” and added “There is only one pathway, the pathway of peace.”

A family member of a media worker killed in Nangarhar urged the government and the international community to unanimously demand swift, thorough and transparent investigations into the cases of killings and violence against journalists by relevant justice bodies, as a way to deter future attacks.

In a joint statement issued today, governments of 12 countries, EU Delegation and the UN underscored that the media is integral to building public support, creating a shared understanding and support for peace and any future political settlement to the conflict, holding to account those who would oppose peace for their own narrow political ends. The statement recognises that the impunity for crimes against journalists remains a serious challenge and creates a chilling environment, limiting the media sector’s ability to operate freely. The international community reaffirmed their commitment to stand by Afghan journalists and the media sector.

World Press Freedom Day has its origins in a UNESCO conference in Windhoek, Namibia in 1991. The 2021 global event in Namibia returns World Press Freedom Day to its roots, focusing on contemporary issues for freedom of expression, access to information and the public service role of journalism within the changed communications ecosystem.

In advocating the notion of “information as a public good”, WPFD 2021 highlights the important difference between information and other kinds of communications content such as disinformation, hate speech, entertainment and data. The aim is to draw attention to the special role of journalism in producing news as verified information in the public interest, and to how this depends on a wider ecosystem which enables information as a public good.