KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban suicide bombing against a bus carrying employees of Afghanistan's biggest media company last month has shocked local journalists, who fear they are now in the cross hairs of an increasingly lethal insurgency.
Journalism has always been a dangerous line of work in Afghanistan, and reporters have long had to contend with threats and occasional attacks by various armed groups. But after Tolo TV, the most popular Afghan broadcaster, falsely accused the Taliban of mass rape in a report carried late last year, the insurgents declared war.
"We saw in late 2015 a statement from the very highest levels of the Taliban staking out a very clear position that they are going to be deliberately targeting as 'military objectives' two of Afghanistan's largest TV networks," said Ahmad Shuja, a researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Calling it "a watershed moment," he said the Taliban now equate attacks on media with "any other military operations they've done and taken credit for — and the implications are chilling."
In the Jan. 20 attack, a suicide bomber struck a bus belonging to the Moby Group, Tolo's owner, killing seven people and wounding at least 25. The Taliban claimed responsibility, calling Tolo a tool of decadent Western influence and warning that other media outlets could be next.
The Taliban were angered by a Tolo report last year alleging that the insurgents had raped female university students during their brief occupation of the northern city of Kunduz. The station has acknowledged the allegations were false and said it clarified the report, but the Taliban have shown no sign of backing down.
"The Taliban came to the conclusion that media have become an obstacle against their war strategies, and they would have (attacked) it anyway," said Najib Sharifi, director of the Afghan Journalists' Safety Committee. "But the incident in the Kunduz report gave the Taliban an excuse on which to build and further to justify their attacks."
Afghanistan's intelligence service said it has arrested eight people in connection with the Tolo attack, all associated with the Haqqani network, a close Taliban ally based in neighboring Pakistan.
But many journalists have yet to return to work, fearing further attacks. An executive at 1TV, the other major media outlet that was threatened, said the intelligence service told him to move to a new home and buy a weapon. He also said a car bomb was recently defused outside the station's gate. The executive spoke on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns.
The escalation in violence has cast a pall over the surprisingly vibrant media landscape that emerged after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban.
Afghanistan has 75 television networks, 175 radio stations and hundreds of newspapers, magazines and websites employing thousands of journalists, mainly young people who came of age after the brutal rule of the Taliban, who banned television. Afghan journalists are often alone in reporting from the front lines of the conflict, and have defied intimidation to challenge claims by the government, local warlords and the insurgents.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Afghanistan 122nd out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index last year, up from the previous year but well below 2004, when Afghanistan was 97th. The low ranking reflects the dangers faced by local journalists, who work in conflict zones and face threats from all sides.
"Not all of us are everyday heroes," Shuja said. "There's only a certain amount of risk that all of us can take in the face of a diabolical enemy such as the Taliban."
Relatives of those killed and wounded in the bus attack have complained about the security measures taken by Moby.
"What really kills me is that Tolo knew about the threats, even on that day, and didn't insist on sending them in smaller cars, rather than in one bus — and then they were all attacked," said Zahara Mirzaee, whose 25-year-old daughter Zainab, a boom operator, was killed.
The Afghanistan Journalists' Federation has called on media owners to provide protection and compensation for their employees in accordance with existing laws. President Ashraf Ghani has promised to support and monitor media safety through a ministerial commission.
The Mirzaee family meanwhile fears for another daughter, Golsum, 27, who works at 1TV dubbing Turkish soap operas into Farsi. She hasn't returned to work since the attack, despite the fact that she and her late sister were supporting the family.
"I'm afraid, but I just don't know what to do," she said. "If I don't go back to work, then there will be no money coming in... I was going to go back yesterday, but I heard that the security service defused a car bomb at the gate. The risk is now very high."