KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — It was Mursal Wahidi’s dream job, landed right after finishing her studies in journalism — working at a local TV station in her home city in eastern Afghanistan.
This week, the 21-year-old left the office for the day and walked home. She only made it a few steps. A gunman shot her point blank in the head and chest. She died instantly.
At around the same time, two of her co-workers, 21-year-old Sadia Sadat and 20-year-old Shahnaz Raufi, left work together, jumping into an auto rickshaw. When they got out close to their homes, gunmen in another rickshaw that had been following them opened fire, killing both women and wounding two passers-by.
The coordinated killings of the three women were the latest in a bloody campaign against journalists in Afghanistan, a country that was already considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. In just the last six months, 15 journalists and media workers have been killed in a series of targeted killings.
The killings have spread fear among Afghanistan’s journalist community, prompting some to stop working or flee or self-censor to avoid angering militants or government officials, who have threatened journalists reporting on killings of civilians by government forces.
The fear is even worse because the perpetrators remain mysterious, a sign of the country’s fracturing security situation even as peace negotiations try to gain a foothold. Judges, lawyers and activists have also been targeted in a wave of assassinations since Washington signed a peace deal with the Taliban a year ago.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, including Tuesday’s slaying of the three women. But many others have gone unclaimed. The government blames most on the Taliban, trying to undermine the group’s support among Afghans. The Taliban deny any role and blame the government for the slayings, saying it wants to undermine the peace process.
Zabiullah Doorandish, who works for a local TV channel in Kabul, said false information flying around, including from the government, only fuels speculation. Some “start to think maybe there are groups inside the government that are targeting media,” he said. Some armed groups are connected to officials, but no one has put forward evidence they have a role in killings.
Doorandish, who often covers corruption, violence and human rights violations, was targeted by a roadside bomb attack in May. He survived, but two colleagues were killed. Now he’s afraid every time he steps out of the house, he said.
He said he gets death threats, some claiming to be from the Taliban, but others unknown. The threats, he said, prompted him to put aside for now a documentary he was preparing about the killings of journalists.
“Whenever I cover some incident, an explosion or attack, I am filled with fear and panic,” said Doorandish, a father of two.
On Wednesday, funerals were held for the three women, who worked for Enikass Radio and TV in the city of Jalalabad. They dubbed popular and often emotion-laden dramas from Turkey and India into Afghanistan’s local languages of Dari and Pashtu. In December, IS claimed the killing of another female employee at the station, Malala Maiwand.
Wahidi’s father said he had implored her to quit her job after Maiwand’s killing, but she refused, fiercely loving her work.
“Journalism was her life’s dream, she studied and was living her dream,” Wahidullah Khogyani told The Associated Press. He said he did not think that she had received any threats — but if she did, “she was hiding it.”
The aftermath of the killing underscored the government’s credibility problem.
Afghan officials claimed they arrested the killer of the three, identifying him as Qari Baser and insisting he was a Taliban. Police did not explain how the man could have carried out two near simultaneous attacks so far apart.
Hours after the killings, the Islamic State group said it killed the women because they worked for one of the “media stations loyal to the apostate Afghan government.” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the group had any role.
Afghanistan has over 2,000 officially registered media outlets. Violence against journalists was up 26% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, which recorded 132 threats and acts of violence against journalists and media workers last year.
Attacks against the media have been countrywide.
Last month in northern Afghanistan, the former head of a journalist association was killed and in western Ghor province a journalist and his family was killed.
Early this year, an angry mob ransacked Radio Zohra, a local radio station in northern Afghanistan, after a mosque imam incited the attackers, claiming the station’s music interfered with prayers. The station’s equipment was damaged, and it had to halt broadcasting.
One female TV presenter told the AP she fled her home after receiving death threats by phone from a person claiming to be from the Taliban. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the caller had no connection to the insurgent group and the Taliban had no issue with the work she was doing.
“As a mother, I get depressed thinking about my children’s future. What will happen to them if something happens to me?” said the presenter. She spoke on condition she not be named or her hometown or current location identified to protect her security.
She also criticized the government, saying her pleas for help have gone unanswered. They just tell her to be careful.
“The government doesn’t do anything about these targeted killings,” she said. “They don’t care.”
Mohammad Naweed, a journalist who is now in hiding, said no side can be trusted.
“All sides in the war are seeking their own interests.”
Latif Mahmood, the director of the government media and information center, said the government is working for the safety of journalists and media workers and insisted officials provide accurate information. He blamed the Taliban for most of the attacks.
“Our investigations show that armed opponents of the government are behind the target killings, we have identified them, suspects are arrested, and they have confessed, their base and aim are totally clear,” he said.
The head of the journalist safety committee, Najeeb Sharifi, said he expected killings to continue until a final peace agreement is reached.
“The targeted killing of journalists is very much linked to the larger political landscape in Afghanistan.”
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.
Mursal Wahidi, Sadia Sadat and Shahnaz Roafi — all reportedly in their early 20s — worked in the voice-over department at the privately owned Enikass Radio and TV in the city of Jalalabad in Nangahar province, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). As part of their work, they dubbed TV shows and films into local languages.
In December, another female journalist at the station, Malalai Maiwand, 26, was similarly gunned down, along with her driver, in an attack also claimed by the Islamic State.
The slayings underscore the deep security challenges facing Afghanistan ahead of a May 1 deadline for President Biden to decide whether to withdraw U.S. troops. Last February, the United States and Taliban leaders signed a deal conditioning the removal of U.S. soldiers by May on the Taliban reducing violence and cutting ties with extremist groups.
Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid, however, denied the group was involved in a statement Tuesday on Twitter.
Instead, the Islamic State claimed responsibility late Tuesday, saying the women were targeted because they worked for media outlets “loyal” to the “apostate Afghan government,” CBS News reported.
Such targeted assassinations in Afghanistan have largely gone unsolved. While typically no specific group claims responsibility, such attacks by insurgent groups undermine efforts by the embattled Afghan government to assert control over the conflict-ridden country.
“Working for a news outlet or broadcaster in Afghanistan carries immense risk, and impunity will only further the cycle of violence and fear,” Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, said in a statement Tuesday.
Women have been targeted in part because of the gains they’ve made in the two decades since the highly conservative Taliban, which denied women of many of their basic rights, was pushed from power.
After many years of a U.S.-led war against the Taliban, however, the situation remains dangerous.
Shaharzad Akbar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, lamented in a statement on Twitter that the “Afghan media community has suffered too much” and “Afghan women have been targeted & killed too often.” The killing of civilians, she wrote, is destroying Afghanistan’s future.