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Afghan media for democracy

With Afghanistan remaining the world's deadliest country for journalists, the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in the UK on Friday 12 July, in line with the Global Conference for Media Freedom, unrolled its rugs for the Afghan Media for Democracy Conference in London.

A throng of hand-picked British media pundits and academicians was invited, along with a delegation of 20 prominent Afghan journalists and media workers from Afghanistan, to discuss press freedom, the role of media in peace, women in journalism, journalists' safety and fake news in Afghanistan. Susanna Inkinen from International Media Support (IMS) and myself and Tim Gopsill from the NUJ London Freelance Branch were also invited.

In her opening remarks, Lynne O'Donnell, former Associated Press Bureau Chief in Kabul - who chaired the conference - paid generous tributes to Afghan women journalists for their bravery, sacrifices and outstanding journalism. She said Afghan women have come long way from the day when Jamila Mujahid first broadcast the news on Afghanistan's National TV after the fall of Taliban. Afghan media are the most free and unbiased in the region and Afghan women are taking on the mantle of journalism with style and charisma. Long it may continue.

But she went on to lament the continuous deadly attacks on Afghan journalists, citing the recent killing of Mena Mangal, a prominent female journalist who was killed either because of her gender or because of her profession, she said. She also referred to Javid Noori, 27, who was the first journalist in the world to get killed this year. Javid, a radio reporter in Farah province, was travelling on a bus on 5 January 2019 when he ran into a Taliban check point. Taliban identified Javid as a journalist, dragged him out of the bus and shot him dead in cold blood.

Dr Said T. Jawad, Ambassador of Afghanistan to the UK, focused in his keynote speech to the conference on the vibrancy and diversity of media in Afghanistan. He stated that there are now 3000 print media outlets, 200 TV channels, 300 radio stations and 70 news agencies in the country. He paid tribute to Afghan journalists for their role in promoting the rule of law, development, transparency and accountability in Afghanistan. On the issue of journalists' safety, he confessed that 34 per cent of all attacks on journalists are committed by groups within the Afghan government.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State for Commonwealth and UN, in his welcome address said "Truth is the first victim of war on journalists". He pledged that UK government is soon to launch a Media Defence Fund.

Farahnaz Frotan, a Tolo News reporter and member of an Afghan journalists' delegation highlighted the challenges Afghan women are facing in an environment where a woman journalist must work doubly hard to achieve what a male colleague can achieve by minimal effort.

Haroon Najafizada, a male journalist from Press TV and member of the Afghan delegation, highlighted the lack of access to information, financial woes and lack of security as three challenges that Afghan journalists are facing.

I had a question. The basic jobs of a media outlet are to inform, educate and entertain. But during my recent visit to Kabul I didn't come across a single person who read a book, a newspaper or a magazine in the entire city. Therefore, isn't the media establishment in its entirety in Afghanistan is a total failure? Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar - Executive Director of NAI and another member of the Afghan delegation - said, no, it's because of the media today that more than 9 million children go to school in Afghanistan. More than half of them are girls.

It was disappointing to find that no representation from the recently unified union the Federation of Afghanistan Journalists could make it to the conference.