Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.
Freedom of Expression: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. On April 30, a suicide bomber, wearing a media credentials badge and mixed in with reporters covering an earlier attack, killed nine reporters and photographers in Kabul. The bombing compounded a pattern of intimidation, harassment, beatings, shootings, and killings of journalists, by insurgent groups.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. The Access to Information Law was amended during the year and received high ratings Transparency International. Implementation remained inconsistent and media reports consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders report that the government has not fully implemented the Access to Information Law and journalists often do not receive access to information they seek. The head of Tolo News, reported that attacks, which killed journalists, had led to increased government restrictions, less access, and less support.
Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. Human Rights Watch reported dozens of cases of violence against journalists by security forces, members of parliament, and other officials that the government failed to prosecute. According to news reports, NDS forces forcibly prevented four journalists from 1TV and Tamadon from investigating the bombing of a mosque in Herat on March 25.
Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Some provinces had limited media presence altogether.
Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and dailies openly criticized the government. Still, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. Due to high levels of illiteracy, most citizens preferred broadcast to print or online media. A greater percentage of the population, including those in distant provinces, had access to radio.
Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats of violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. According to media reports, NDS forces beat several journalists covering a suicide bombing in Kabul on July 26 and intentionally destroyed their equipment in an effort to impede their reporting. Following the release of news reports detailing corruption involving a high-ranking government official, one media outlet reported threats against the journalist by the official’s security guards.
The Afghan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC) reported 11 journalists killed in the first six months of the year. During the same period, the AJSC recorded 89 cases of violence against journalists, which included killing, beating, inflicting injury and humiliation, intimidation, and detention of journalists–a 22 percent increase from the first six months of 2017. Government-affiliated individuals or security forces were responsible for 36 instances of violence, approximately the same number as in 2017 when 34 cases were attributed to them. Instances of violence attributed to the Taliban and ISIS-K rose sharply by 70 percent over the same period in 2017–from 22 cases to 37 cases.
The Taliban continued to attack media organizations, including during their military offensive on Ghazni Province in August, when they reportedly burned a local radio station.
Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. Media organizations and journalists operating in remote areas were more vulnerable to threats, intimidation, and violence from insurgents, warlords, and organized criminals. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals. They also reported local governmental authorities were less cooperative in facilitating access to information.
In August 2016 the Office of the National Security Council approved a new set of guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines have not been fully implemented. The initiative created a joint national committee in Kabul and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported that, although the committee met and referred cases to the Attorney General’s Office, it did not increase protection for journalists. In response to recent attacks on journalists, President Ghani announced the expansion of the Journalists Support Fund in October to assist family members of journalists killed in the line of duty.
Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to one group, there were no female journalists in nine provinces: Helmand, Nuristan, Uruzgan, Paktiya, Paktika, Zabul, Logar, Sar-e Pul, and Laghman.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Journalists and NGOs reported that although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials were rarely held accountable. A Kabul Press Club survey showed more than half of journalists were dissatisfied with the level of access to government information. An NGO supporting media freedom surveyed government offices and found that one-third did not have dedicated offices for providing information to the public.
Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe jail sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.
National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.
Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 11.4 percent of the population had internet access, mostly in urban areas, in 2017.
Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high prices, a lack of local content, and illiteracy.
There were many reports during the year of Taliban attempts to restrict access to information, often by destroying or shutting down telecommunications antennae and other equipment.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year. The Helmand Peace March Initiative–the “peace tent” protest that launched in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah on March 26 following a deadly car bombing–inspired antiwar demonstrations in at least 16 other provinces, which were largely peaceful.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for the right to freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. The 2009 law on political parties obliges political parties to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. In 2012 the Council of Ministers approved a regulation requiring political parties to open offices in at least 20 provinces within one year of registration. In 2017 President Ghani signed a decree prohibiting employees and officials of security and judicial institutions, specifically the Supreme Court, Attorney General’s Office, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, and National Directorate of Security, from political party membership while government employees. Noncompliant employees could be fired.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern. The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces and insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers. The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country was the lack of security. Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without male consent or a male chaperone.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
Internal population movements increased during the year because of armed conflict and an historic drought. Nearly 470,000 individuals were internally displaced from January 1 to September 9. The 250,000 displacements caused by severe drought surpassed by approximately 30,000 the number of those displaced by conflict during the year. Most IDPs left insecure rural areas and small towns to seek relatively greater safety and government services in larger towns and cities in the same province. All 34 provinces hosted IDP populations.
Limited humanitarian access because of the deteriorating security situation caused delays in identifying, assessing, and providing timely assistance to IDPs, who continued to lack access to basic protection, including personal and physical security and shelter. Many IDPs, especially in households with a female head, faced difficulty obtaining basic services because they did not have identity documents. Many IDPs in urban areas reportedly faced discrimination, lacked adequate sanitation and other basic services, and lived in constant risk of eviction from illegally occupied displacement sites, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Women in IDP camps reported high levels of domestic violence. Limited opportunities to earn a livelihood following the initial displacement often led to secondary displacement, making tracking of vulnerable persons difficult. Even IDPs who had access to local social services sometimes had less access than their non-IDP neighbors, due to distance from the services or other factors.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The country is a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, which guarantee protection of refugees, including nonrefoulement. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees registers, and mitigates protection risks of, approximately 500 refugees in urban areas throughout the country. Although the government has not adopted a draft national refugee law and asylum framework, it allows refugees and asylum-seekers access to education and health care.
Durable Solutions: The government did not officially accept refugees for resettlement, offer naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, or assist in their voluntary return to their homes. Registered refugee returns from Pakistan and Iran slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 12,052 returns as of September 8, 75 percent less than the same period in 2017 when 48,055 Afghan refugees returned. The International Organization for Migration reported a significant increase in unregistered returnees during the year, with 545,708 in total as of September 8, due in large part to drought and the decline in value of the Iranian rial.
On June 16, the government announced its decision to join the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework as a country of origin. Through its Displacement and Returnees Executive Committee, the government continued to develop policies to promote the inclusion of returnees and IDPs in national programs and to ensure dignified, voluntary repatriations and reintegration.
NGOs noted the lack of official birth registration for refugee children as a significant challenge and protection concern, due to the risk of statelessness and potential long-term disadvantage.