One year since senseless attack that killed Anja Niedringhaus and injured Kathy Gannon

Thursday, April 2, 2015
In this October 2012 photo, Kathy Gannon and Anja Niedringhaus pose for a photo with Afghan police recruits at the main police training academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Gannon intends to return to Afghanistan and cover the country "for the both of us." PHOTO: AP
By Alexandra Zakreski This Saturday, April 4, will mark the one-year anniversary of the tragic and brutal attack in Afghanistan that killed German Associated Press (AP) photographer Anja Niedringhaus, and gravely injured AP’s special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Canadian journalist Kathy Gannon. On this somber anniversary, have any improvements been made to Afghanistan’s free expression landscape? Kathy Gannon continues to undergo extensive physical therapy and rehabilitation for the injuries she sustained in the attack, but remains connected with her friends and colleagues living and working in Afghanistan. In speaking with Gannon, it became clear that while there has been much rhetoric in support of press freedom in the country, meaningful action is still lacking. There has been some recognition of the importance of free expression: top Afghan government leaders have made numerous statements in support of freedom of information, and legislation has been introduced aimed at improving the climate for press freedom. However, there is still much work to be done to secure a safe environment for journalists and media workers in the country. Local journalists remain the most at risk, often lacking the protection of international media organizations to lobby on their behalf. These local workers with the least protections are the reporters who, in Gannon’s words, “take the real risks to report the story [and who are] always subject to much more severe penalties and intimidation than those who come from the outside to support.” Both leaders of the country’s unity government, President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, signed a pledge in September to take meaningful action to reduce impunity in journalist killings, investigate the use of spurious charges to silence or detain media workers, and to take measures to encourage respect for the media in the security forces, among other principles. Upon formation of the unity government in January 2015, the two leaders also appointed several human rights defenders and free expression advocates to key government positions – a positive step for press freedom in the country. However, these values have yet to trickle down to the level of local government and military officials, who remain two of the major culprits in attacks against the press in Afghanistan – although the Taliban continues to pose the greatest threat to journalists in the country. Unfortunately, attacks on the press are on the rise, with journalists across the country reporting being threatened, beaten or detained by militant groups, government officials and security officers with disturbing frequency. Many Afghan journalists admit to resorting to self-censorship to protect themselves, their families and their colleagues. Afghanistan has long been a bastion of impunity, and it sadly appears that there has been little change in this regard. In a rare case of judicial prosecution, Niedringhaus and Gannon’s attacker, police officer Naqibullah, was convicted for murdering Niedringhaus, and was given a final sentence of 20 years in prison. However, journalists’ killers and attackers in Afghanistan are very rarely prosecuted. Kathy Gannon knows this all too well, saying, “Journalists, like all Afghans regardless of their field, have difficulty in finding justice.” This is largely due to a “post-2001...return to the power of the gun as a means to become in a position of power.” While there have been steps towards establishing nominal judicial processes, a belief that “you can have recourse, or be confident that regardless of who you are you can go to the [judicial] system, has not developed.” For Gannon, Afghanistan’s best hope for breaking the cycle of violence against journalists and impunity lies in strengthening the justice system. “That needs to be dealt with head on; without justice you can’t have security or any of the other developmental processes. That was given short shrift [post-911] and journalists have suffered as a result, as have all other Afghans who are disappointed to see this is the case.” Despite a tense climate for media workers in Afghanistan, Gannon remains as committed as ever to returning to the country as AP’s special regional correspondent, saying, “The shooter does not reflect Afghanistan and its people. It was a pure joy for [myself and Anja] to cover the country, and I will again for the both of us.”
Alexandra Zakreski is CJFE’s International Programs Coordinator.

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