The truth can get you killed in Afghanistan

The headless body of the 25-year-old Afghani radio journalist Sadim Khan Bhadrzai was discovered in February 2012. Efforts to find his killers have drawn a blank. © Pajhwok Afghan News

Killing condemned by UNESCO DG, 24 February 2012

Sadim Khan Bhadrzai - Afghanistan – Killed, 21 February 2012

Just over a year ago, Afghani radio journalist Sadim Khan Bhadrzai, 25, was in the job of his dreams: the local radio station he had established in 2011 in Paktika Province had rapidly won itself a broad listener-base in southeastern Afghanistan.

The station’s profile was nothing very special: discussion of ever-topical issues such as the yearly round, harvest prospects, or the weather, notices from public authorities, a certain amount of local politics, some bland “inoffensive” entertainment - just the sort of programming that one might imagine could appeal to all.

But in Afghanistan, strong audience figures also mean power. Illiteracy is one of the key challenges in this developing country: according to various statistics, only perhaps one in ten women over the age of 15 can read and write, while even for men the figure is below 50%.

Under these conditions, radio stations are extraordinarily important media outlets for all political groupings and factions:  it is easier - and quicker - to shape opinions via radio broadcasts than through newspapers or television or the internet.

Back in 2001, in the very earliest months of “Operation Enduring Freedom”, US and British forces dropped cheap battery- and solar-powered radio receivers into remote areas of Afghanistan, in the hope that people would use them to listen to anti-Taliban propaganda, designed to win over hearts and minds.  These days, the Taliban themselves have been known to use their own pirate “Mullah Radio” stations, which the ISAF troops try to destroy where they can.

In this sort of media climate, anyone who seeks to present something that even passes in places for “impartial information” is right in the cross-hairs of both those in power and those who strive to be in power.

On the evening of February 21st, 2012, Sadim Khan Bhadrzai received a strange phone message at home, left the house, and vanished. The headless body of the young journalist was found the next day.

Ritual decapitation has been regarded before this as a typical Taliban calling-card. However, while the Taliban movement has not been shy of boasting about the summary execution of journalists, on this occasion the rebels vehemently denied any involvement in Bhadrzai’s murder.

It is conceivable the perpetrators are to be found elsewhere. The provincial government appointments are divided up among families and clans and warlords according to trade relationships and other ties, and some supporters of the government look no more favourably upon dissenting opinions than do the extreme Islamist organisations. The means used to silence those who would speak the truth are no different on either side. 

The authorities’ investigations into Bhadrzai’s murder have not led anywhere.

According to UNESCO figures, nine journalists have been murdered in Afghanistan since 2008. 

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This article was originally printed in the Finnish newspaper Ilta Sanomat. The content of the article may have been modified and/or updated as information became available following the date of publication.
UNESCO encourages all media outlets to inform the public of violations of press freedom; to raise awareness of issues impacting the safety of journalists around the world; and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
The original article in Finnish can be found here.

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