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KABUL, Afghanistan – When Afghan journalist Hussain Sirat's car disappeared in late December, he assumed it was simply theft, until a man called to say that he had the vehicle, and a gun with which he planned to kill him.
In the weeks since then, Sirat, an editor at Afghanistan's biggest daily newspaper 8AM who also works for Deutsche Welle, has been attacked in the street and received death threats in text messages that accuse him of being an "infidel" — which he assumes is related to his work for the German broadcaster.
"I don't feel safe," he said. The 33-year-old has moved to a safe house away from his wife and five children, who are afraid to go outside. Neither the police nor security services have been able to find the people who threatened him. "They can't make me feel any safer," he said.
Eight journalists were killed in Afghanistan in 2014, making it the deadliest year for the media since 2001, when the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban, rights groups say.
A free media had been hailed as one of Afghanistan's greatest achievements since the 2001 invasion, with almost 1,000 news organizations operating, compared to just 15 under the Taliban's extremist rule.
But more than 40 journalists have been killed since then, according to Nai, a media support organization in Kabul. Many reporters feel pressured by the government, insurgents and corrupt warlords to self-censor to avoid trouble or leave journalism entirely.
"There is no doubt that things are getting worse," said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, Nai's executive director. Incidents of violence, threats and intimidation were up 65 percent in 2014 compared with 2013, he said. The killing of journalists more than doubled from three the previous year.
New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, which released a report Wednesday titled "Stop Reporting or We'll Kill Your Family," says perpetrators of violence against journalists are rarely punished, reflecting a "wider impunity and failure to establish the rule of law in Afghanistan."
"Afghan journalists face threats from all sides: government officials exploiting weak legal protections to intimidate reporters and editors to compel them not to cover controversial topics; the Taliban and other insurgent groups using threats and violence to compel reporting they consider favorable; and police and justice officials letting threats, assaults and even murders go uninvestigated and unprosecuted," it says.
Much of the violence and intimidation takes place outside the capital, Kabul, "away from the concentrated spotlight of both domestic and international media," said HRW's researcher on Afghanistan, Patricia Grossman.
President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival-turned-chief executive Abdullah Abdullah pledged during campaigning last year to uphold constitutional protections for a free media. Abdullah vowed in November to end impunity for crimes against journalists.
Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit group, said over the weekend that the initial months of Ghani's administration "have seen significant advances for media freedom," including improving access to information and the planned establishment of a media regulatory body.
But it ranked Afghanistan 128 out of 180 countries on its 2014 press freedom index.
"The main reason for the continuing violence (against journalists) and resulting instability has been the war waged by the Taliban against the desire for peace and democracy that the Afghan people demonstrated in the president election," said Reza Moini, head of the organization's Iran-Afghanistan desk.
"But news media and journalists are increasingly being threatened by local government officials and military personnel. All of these abuses must be stopped," he said.
Female Afghan journalists are especially vulnerable.
"Along with the threats, intimidation and violence faced by all journalists, female reporters are impeded by social and cultural restrictions," the HRW report said. "The mere act of appearing on television can be particularly controversial for a woman in Afghanistan," it added.
Royeen Rahnosh, 27, an editor at Khaama Press, was attacked by a man with a knife as he walked home from his Kabul office last year. He believes he was targeted because of reports he wrote about Taliban violence — which has intensified in the past year as U.S. and NATO troops have ended their combat role.
"I no longer write specifically about the Taliban, I refer to them now as 'armed anti-government forces,'" he said. "I haven't changed my own views, and my reporting doesn't hide the reality, but the use of language has changed."
"A free media is a huge achievement for this country made by the people and journalists, not the government. If this situation doesn't change, the small independent news organizations like Khaama will disappear because they cannot function without protection," he said.