Update: On August 31, 2016, President Ashraf Ghani’s office released a statement directing officials “to evaluate and ponder all aspects of the [Bamiyan] case comprehensively and present the results to the presidency so that… violators can be dealt with under law.” Human Rights Watch said that in addition to investigating and appropriately prosecuting those responsible for the assaults on journalists, the authorities should also investigate the apparently arbitrary detention of 12 to 15 protest organizers in Bamiyan province on the evening before the president’s visit.
(Kabul) – Afghan authorities should urgently investigate allegations that security forces physically assaulted and detained journalists after violence broke out during a protest in central Bamiyan province on August 29, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. The demonstrators had been organizing a protest about a major power transmission line during a visit to the area by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Witnesses and some detainees said that on August 28, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), also arbitrarily detained for 24 hours 12 to 15 activists who were encouraging the protest.
“Beating reporters who are doing their job sends a message to all journalists that the Afghan government cares little for their press freedom rights,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Afghan authorities should investigate the Bamiyan incident and punish the officials responsible.”
On the morning of August 29, Afghan National Police equipped with riot gear attempted to disperse protesters from the main city thoroughfare that Ghani was scheduled to cross, witnesses said. TOLO News and Sulaiman Ahmadi, a journalist at the scene who was among those later detained, said that violence broke out at this moment. One nongovernmental source reported that a number of people in the crowd threw stones, and that some Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel were injured. Reports, video, and still images from the scene suggest that police responded to the rock-throwing by firing tear gas and warning shots into the air. Media reports indicated that police subsequently detained about 30 protesters and journalists who were covering the protest.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Shahhussain Murtazawi, who accompanied the president on the visit, told Human Rights Watch that all Bamiyan journalists had participated in the events involving the president, including the president’s speech. “Nothing happened to reporters in this time,” said Murtazawi.
However, journalists told Human Rights Watch that at about 2 p.m., security forces physically attacked seven journalists after they left the event with the president and arrived at the scene of the protest. NDS personnel kicked, punched, and slapped journalists and hit at least one reporter with a baton. Security forces did not apparently inflict any physical injuries, but did damage the journalists’ equipment, including a camera. They confiscated the mobile phone of one reporter and erased footage of the protest from the video camera of another.
One photographer said the journalists’ identity should have been clear to the security forces because of their large press badges: “The badges are not small,” he said. “They’re clearly visible to anyone.”
“They [the security forces personnel] wanted to take away my camera but I resisted,” Abbas Naderi, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, told Human Rights Watch. “They were using swear words at me and kicked and punched me. They didn’t want us to film the security forces using force to disperse the protest.”
Bamiyan provincial council head, Malawi Yusuf, and local journalists told Human Rights Watch that on the previous day, security personnel detained protest organizers who were driving around Bamiyan city with loudspeakers urging people to participate in protests during President Ghani’s scheduled visit. The organizers belonged to the Enlightenment Movement, a protest group demanding that a major power transmission line be routed through the province of Bamiyan, which is dominated by ethnic minority Hazaras. The NDS detained the protesters overnight and released them the following evening without charge after the protests had ended and Ghani had left Bamiyan.
On August 28, the NDS also detained Deutsche Welle journalist Zaman Ahmadi, who had been accompanying protest organizers. The nongovernmental media advocacy group Nai reported that the Bamiyan governor, Tahir Zuhair, ordered the detention of Ahmadi and the protest organizers.
Abdulrahman Ahmadi, spokesperson for the Bamiyan provincial governor, told Human Rights Watch that Bamiyan security forces had rounded up “some people” as part of the broader security plan ahead of the president’s visit. Ahmadi said the detentions were justified: “Based on [intelligence] reports we had received that a number of faces [people] from outside Bamiyan – people that our elders, community members, and activists did not know – had sought to create disorder during the president’s visit.”
He said that for security considerations and “because these people wanted to create disorder, under these extraordinary circumstances, the security forces took steps [to detain protest organizers].”
Afghan security officials have legitimate concerns about violence at public protests, Human Rights Watch said. Twin explosions at a large Enlightenment Movement rally in Kabul on July 23 killed more than 80 people and wounded more than 230. The extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for that attack.
Afghanistan’s burgeoning media, considered one of the country’s major achievements since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, has been increasingly under attack. Ten journalists have been killed in the first six months of 2016, making this year the deadliest on record. The Taliban and other insurgents have been implicated in most of the attacks, but Afghan government officials and security forces have also been responsible for assaulting and intimidating journalists.
On World Press Freedom Day this year, President Ghani reiterated his support for the press, saying: “So long as I have the responsibility of the country, I will support freedom of the press 100 percent.” However, this has not translated into holding anyone accountable for attacks on the media, Human Rights Watch said.
“President Ghani should make good on his words and hold to account security forces involved in mistreatment of journalists,” Gossman said. “As President Ghani has said, a free media and vibrant civil society are good for Afghanistan.”
Accounts by journalists
Sulaiman Ahmad, a journalist with the Bamiyan-based Negah-e Jawan magazine, described his arrest and detention on August 29:
The riot police were dispersing the crowds nearby and I was talking to the deputy Bamiyan NDS chief, Mr. Paikar, when a number of NDS soldiers suddenly arrested me. They didn’t give me a chance to ask a question or explain anything. Things were moving too fast, there was no time. They kept us in the Bamiyan City NDS facility from 9 a.m. until evening. Inside, the soldiers’ behavior was good. They were low-level soldiers and didn’t have the authority to do anything to us anyway. When they let me go in the evening, they returned all of my belongings except my Samsung Galaxy phone, which I used in my reporting.
Sayed Muhammad Hashemi, a photographer for Jomhor News, an online news site, described the police attack:
I was on the roof of a shop photographing the police beating a protester on the street when I heard people shouting, “Watch out, he’s coming to beat you!” I had barely registered what was going on when a policeman kicked me on the back. He pulled at my mic and threw it on the ground. He grabbed at my camera, a Nikon D90, but I resisted. In this struggle, my camera slammed against something and the lens was damaged. After that, I broke free and ran away. I didn’t look back. I had two press badges hanging from my neck, one issued by the Ministry of Information and Culture, the other by Bamiyan government to cover the president’s visit. The badges are not small; they’re clearly visible to anyone.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter Abbas Naderi said that he was kicked and punched by security forces personnel:
They [the security forces personnel] wanted to take away my camera but I resisted. They were using swear words at me and kicked and punched me. They didn’t want us to film the security forces using force to disperse the protest. I was released only when two policemen from Bamiyan, who knew me from covering other events, intervened. The soldiers who beat me were not from Bamiyan. I have never seen them in Bamiyan before in my 12 years as a reporter. Most probably they came from Kabul as part of the president’s security detail and belong to NDS Directorate 10 [a unit tasked with protection for senior government officials].
Sayed Mahdi Murtazawi, a reporter for Tamaddon TV, told Human Rights Watch that he was beaten and the footage on his camera erased:
I had barely started filming when 18 to 20 NDS officials ran towards me. One of them snatched my bag, another pulled me away, a third tried to snatch my camera but I resisted. They could see my press badge hanging from my neck. They could also see the logo of my TV station on my camera. I tried to explain to them that I was a journalist, but they said, “You’re not allowed to film the protest, no matter who you are because you cover negative points about the protest.” They punched and slapped me and erased my footage. These men belonged to Directorate 10 because they had the same uniforms as the men we had seen at an event with President Ghani that morning. A presidential media aide had explained to us that the men in the unknown uniforms were from Directorate 10.
Enayatullah Zia, a reporter for Aina TV, said that security personnel mistreated him and Naderi:
I made it past the security cordon although the officials there used abusive words. At the protest site, I saw that security forces had RFE/RL journalist Mr. Naderi and were pushing and pulling on his camera. We tried to intervene and said that we were press, but they told us we should not photograph the security forces. They kicked us out of that area, so we went to a different place. I finished interviewing a few protesters and was walking away to go to an internet cafe and file my report when security forces stopped me from going into that street. I showed them my press badge but one of them with a baton hit me on the leg. Then I tried to explain that as a reporter, I should not be stopped, but another security official slapped me and said, “Who are you to be teaching us anything?” I had to give up and walk away. I couldn’t tell what security unit they belonged to but they were not anti-riot police from Bamiyan. They had a radio in one hand and a baton on the other. They wore the same uniform as the men who scuffled with Abbas Naderi.
Zaman Ahmadi, a reporter with Deutsche Welle, said that security detained him on the evening of August 28, the day before President Ghani’s visit:
I was with an outreach team of protest organizers in the Zargaran area when a group of four or five security officials, including the deputy NDS director Mr. Paikar, suddenly surrounded us. They treated us very roughly and arrested us like we were criminals. I told them I was a journalist, but they didn’t listen. I asked one plainclothes security official to show me his ID card, but he said in a rough tone, “We will show you the card when we take you to the station.” They wouldn’t tell us for what crime they were detaining us. They took away all of our phones so we couldn’t contact anyone. Once we were inside the Bamiyan City NDS, they kept telling us that high-level officials will soon come to talk to us. We kept asking Mr. Paikar why we were detained, but he said he was just doing his job and he had orders from the governor. They never specified who the high-level officials were and the officials never came to talk to us. The NDS behavior in custody was not bad. I was among three people they detained from Zargaran. But although we were kept in separate cells in detention, I saw more people brought in who were part of other outreach teams.
Salam Watandar Radio also announced that security forces mistreated its reporter, Ilyas Taheri, and confiscated his phone. Tolo News reported that police also assaulted Najibullah Ulfat, a reporter for local Radio Nasim, and Ishaq Akrami of Killid News during the protest, but didn’t provide any details of injuries.