KABUL -- Concerns are growing in Afghanistan and abroad about the Taliban's ongoing attempts to silence free speech through assassinations and intimidation of journalists and media workers.
"A wave of threats and killings has sent a chilling message to the Afghan media at a precarious moment as Afghans on all sides get set to negotiate free speech protections in a future Afghanistan," said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director, in a April 1 Human Rights Watch (HRW)report.
"By silencing critics through threats and violence, the Taliban have undermined hopes for preserving an open society in Afghanistan," she said.
Attacks on journalists have accelerated since the start of peace negotiations in Doha between the Afghan government and the Taliban last September.
The following are a few examples of this targeted violence in the past few months:
Yama Siawash, a former TOLOnews TV presenter in Kabul, was killed in a car bombing near his home on November 7.
In another incident just five days later, Azadi Radio reporter Aliyas Dayee, 33, was killed when a sticky bomb attached to his car exploded in Lashkargah, Helmand province.
In separate attacks, gunmen killed female journalist Malalai Maiwand on December 10 in Nangarhar province and Rahmatullah Nekzad on December 21 in Ghazni.
Gunmen on January 1 also murdered Bismillah Adel Aimaq, director of Voice of Ghor radio, in Firoz Koh, Ghor province.
On March 2, three female employees of the Enikass TV station were gunned down in in Jalalabad in two separate attacks just 10 minutes apart after they left the private TV station, in what one colleague described as an orchestrated hit.
"The Taliban have recently intensified attacks against journalists, media workers and freedom of expression activists in order to silence the voice of freedom of expression and so that the media can not cover crimes committed by the group," said Hamid Roshan, deputy spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs.
"The Taliban are responsible for all the crimes and attacks in which journalists, media workers and human rights and women's rights activists have been killed, and we have enough evidence in this regard," Roshan said.
Intimidation and threats
In addition to outright attacks, Taliban commanders and fighters have engaged in a pattern of threats, intimidation and violence against members of the media in areas where the Taliban have significant influence, as well as in Kabul, according to HRW.
"Those making the threats often have an intimate knowledge of a journalist's work, family and movements, and use this information to either compel them to self-censor, leave their work altogether, or face violent consequences," said the report.
In some cases, Taliban forces detained journalists for a few hours or overnight, it added.
After multiple sources told popular journalist Farahnaz Forotan that her name was on a hit list, she decided to leave the country.
"I had no choice ... every day we see [assassinations] increasing," she told AFP.
Another female reporter -- now in hiding -- said she was under pressure to stop working after Maiwand's slaying.
"I have not seen my children for months, and given these threats and killings, my family wants me to quit," she told AFP.
In Ghazni province, the Taliban had instructed the majority of the local media outlets that they would be permitted to continue media activities only if they followed Taliban directives, noted the report.
"When the Taliban were in power, there was no freedom of speech at all. Using a TV and a satellite connection was a crime," said Zabihullah Durandish, a Kabul-based reporter for Khurshid TV.
"Unfortunately, today, more than two decades later, there has been no change in the Taliban's mindset towards freedom of expression and the media. The Taliban consider journalists and the media their enemies," he said.
"The Taliban have recently been in close contact with the media for peace talks for the sake of their own interests and to show the world that they believe in freedom of speech, but unfortunately this is not the case," Durandish said.
"They are still against freedom of speech and those who work for free media."
At their political office in Doha, Qatar, Taliban officials have denied that their forces threaten the media, and say that they require journalists only to respect Islamic values.
Despite those denials, HRW urged Taliban leadership to "immediately cease intimidation, threats and attacks against the journalists and other media workers".
"It's not enough for Taliban officials in Doha to issue blanket denials that they're targeting journalists when Taliban forces on the ground continue to intimidate, harass and attack reporters for doing their jobs," said Gossman in the HRW report.
"Countries supporting the peace process should press for firm commitments from all parties to protect journalists, including women, and uphold the right to free expression in Afghanistan."
"Freedom of expression is the right of people, and the Taliban, who do not adhere to any human rights and Islamic principles, want to silence people's voices by targeting journalists and media workers and to put pressure on the Afghan government," said Abdul Mujib Khalwatgar, executive director of NAI, a non-profit organisation advocating for free media in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban are targeting the media, journalists and civil society activists for a number of reasons," he said.
"The first reason is that the Taliban do not believe in freedom of expression, human rights or women's rights," said Khalwatgar. "Secondly, only the media can show the true face of the Taliban and their crimes to the people."
Lastly, members of the media work to preserve Afghans' achievements of the last 20 years; "therefore, the Taliban want to target them so no one will dare to raise their voice" against the group, Khalwatgar said.
"Journalists, media and freedom of expression have many enemies, and one of these enemies are the Taliban, who want Afghanistan to go back 20 years. For this reason, they target journalists and civil rights activists so no one can criticise them in case of their potential return to power," said Nazari Paryani, the editor-in-chief of Mandegar newspaper.
"The media, journalists and civil society activists are the ones who are changing society. By targeting them, the militants are trying to create an atmosphere of fear and terror," he said.
[Sulaiman contributed to this report from Kabul.]