Two Afghan journalists arrested, news agency harassed

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arrests of two journalists by Afghanistan’s National Department of Security (NDS) and the harassment to which the Pajhwok Afghan News agency has been subjected since covering the theft of ventilators intended for Afghanistan’s Covid-19 patients.

One of the journalists, Mahboboalah Hakimi of Radio Bayan (Word), has been arrested twice in the past eight days. He was first arrested on 1 July when NDS agents arrested him at his home in Qalat, the capital of the southern province of Zabol, for alleging insulting President Ashraf Ghani by calling him an “unbeliever” in a Facebook post.

Just before his arrest, he had nonetheless denied being the post’s author in a video, explaining that someone had hacked into his Facebook account.

He appeared in another video two days later, this one recorded by the NDS. And this time he confessed to being responsible for the original video and apologized to the president. Shortly after being released yesterday, he said he had been tortured and forced to make a confession. He was arrested again when he went back to the local headquarters of the NDS this morning to collect his personal effects.

Farough jan Mangol, the Reuters news agency’s correspondent in the southeastern city of Khost, was arrested on 1 July when NDS agents searched his and his brother’s home without a warrant. His brother, Seifollah Hayat, is the local representative of the Committee for the Safety of Journalists.

After finishing the search, the NDS grabbed Mangol and took back to NDS headquarters in Khost, where they questioned him for two hours and then released him, saying his arrest had been a mistake.

Afghanistan’s biggest news agency, Pajhwok Afghan News, has meanwhile been harassed ever since 22 June, when it reported that 32 ventilators intended for Afghan coronavirus patients had been stolen and sold to Pakistan.

When Danish Karokhel, Pajhwok’s director, was invited by the parliamentary commission for culture for what was described as a consultation, he was subjected to a full-blown interrogation in which health ministry representatives took part and the news agency was accused of acting “against national security.”

The next day, Vice-President Amrullah Saleh accused Pajhwok of lying in a tweet: “NO ventilator is missing from the health ministry inventory in Kabul or the provinces. NOT ONE. Don’t fall into the trap of lies and dishonesty. When someone tells you the cat has stolen your nose, touch your nose first before chasing the cat, who is looking at you. Calm down.”

We call on President Ashraf Ghani and Vice-President Amrullah Saleh to respect the press law they promised to implement,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Afghanistan desk. “The country’s authorities and security officials must respect this pledge and this law when taking action against ‘rumours and fake news.’ It is vital that the media should be able to do their work without impediment, in order to inform the public what is being done to combat corruption and any shortcomings.

According to the press law, complaints against media and journalists must first be handled by the Commission for the Verification of Press Offences, which transfers them to the courts when appropriate. Neither parliament, not the vice-president nor the NDS has the right to directly summon, arrest or threaten journalists. No formal action has been taken against Pajhwok, whose damning report was extensively documented.

Afghanistan is ranked 122nd out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.