Afghan journalists seek cover in Kabul on Jan. 18, 2010 during a series of co-ordinated attacks by Taliban militants in the Afghan capital that killed at least 10 people and injured 32.

(Kabul) – Violence and threats against Afghanistan’s journalists by the government and security forces are increasing, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. These attacks put at risk the gains in media freedom in Afghanistan since 2001.

The 48-page report, “‘Stop Reporting or We’ll Kill Your Family’: Threats to Media Freedom in Afghanistan,” documents harassment, intimidation, and attacks on journalists and the Afghan government’s failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible. The failure to protect journalistic freedom has emboldened those determined to suppress criticism of the government, the security forces, and other powerful entities in Afghan society. The Taliban insurgency has greatly contributed to the climate of fear by explicitly targeting journalists for reporting deemed unfavorable. The government should act decisively to end the violence and intimidation, and the Taliban should end its attacks on civilian organizations, including the media.

“Afghan officials, warlords, and insurgents have threatened, assaulted, and killed dozens of journalists since 2002 without any fear of prosecution,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “President Ashraf Ghani needs to back-up his campaign promises to protect media freedom by bringing to justice anyone who abuses members of the press.”

Increasing intimidation and violence from both state and non-state figures combined with a lack of government protection and waning international support are jeopardizing media freedom in Afghanistan. In its most recent report, the Afghan media advocacy organization Nai stated that 2014 had been the most violent year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with attacks up by 64 percent from 2013. Afghan government and foreign donor support for the fragile gains in media freedom since 2001 will be particularly important in the post-2014 period when most foreign military forces will have withdrawn from the country.

Human Rights Watch conducted more than 30 interviews with journalists, editors, publishers, and media directors in Afghanistan. Afghan journalists indicated that they often respond to the threats, intimidation, and violence with self-censorship. Many steer clear of reporting on sensitive issues – including corruption, land grabbing, violence against women, and human rights abuses.

“The governor told me in the presence of everyone: ‘Why have you reported on this? … You have no right to report it. I will imprison you. Your life is nothing to me,’” said a journalist from Paktika province who had reported on an attack on an Afghan security base that killed two officers. “It's been 12 or 13 months since the threats and I am afraid even when I go home.”

Journalists working outside the country’s main cities are especially vulnerable to reprisals from powerful individuals and groups because they lack the protection provided by larger Afghan media organizations and international presence. Cultural and social conservatism also contributes to the difficulty of reporting on controversial issues.

Throughout 2014, the Taliban have explicitly threatened the media, most recently in the group’s December 13 statement that journalists seen as supporting “Western values” would be targeted for attack. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have also used the media as a propaganda platform, and actively court the media in their campaign against the government, including pressuring reporters to cover their statements or not write articles deemed critical.

Female journalists face particularly formidable challenges. Social and cultural restrictions limit their mobility in urban as well as rural areas, and increase their vulnerability to threats and attacks, including sexual violence.

President Ghani had pledged during his election campaign that he would drop all politically motivated and unsubstantiated charges against journalists. He and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also committed to upholding freedom of expression and protecting journalists against abuse.

Ghani should publicly condemn all attacks on journalists and media organizations, and ensure that attacks on journalists are promptly investigated and those responsible for abuse prosecuted. Lack of effective complaint mechanisms and compliance with media laws and regulations remains a substantial hurdle to media freedom. The new government should work with Afghan journalists, media organizations, and media monitoring groups to establish a mechanism for journalists to report on all such attacks.

“Reforming the law would be a vital step in ensuring that Afghan journalists can do their jobs,” Kine said. “But Afghanistan’s new government will need to address the security threats from all sides before journalists will have confidence that they can go to work without risking their lives.”