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New Peril for Reporters in Afghanistan

Poster of slain journalist, Ajmal Naqshbandi

A poster of murdered Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi distributed at a rally in Kabul on April 9.

Editor's Note: This weekend, while FRONTLINE/World reporter, Roya Aziz, was working on stories for our April 10 broadcast on Afghanistan, news broke of the beheading of Afghan reporter, Ajmal Naqshbandi, who was abducted by the Taliban in March. Naqshbandi was traveling with Italian reporter, Daniele Mastrogiacomo and their driver, Sayed Agha, when all three men were captured by the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand. The driver was found beheaded three days later, and the Italian journalist, after negotiations involving the Taliban and the Afghan government, was released. Until this weekend, the fate of Naqshbandi was unknown, despite protests and international pressure to secure his release. Here, Aziz reports on the fallout from Naqshbandi's death and about the increasing dangers faced by journalists and aid workers in the country.

I didn't know Ajmal Naqshbandi, the young Afghan reporter who was beheaded by the Taliban this week, but I work with young men like Ajmal all the time. Two of them are journalist friends who act as my guides in Kandahar, which, along with Helmand province, is among the most dangerous places to be a reporter right now.

He asked me if it was OK from an ethical standpoint to carry a gun. I said, not really. He pulled out a handgun, turned to me and said: "Well, you're with me, and I'm going to protect you."

One of my fixers, whom I'll call Haji, was driving me to a location outside of Kandahar city one day last winter when he asked me if it was OK from an ethical standpoint to carry a gun. I said, not really. He pulled out a handgun, turned to me and said: "Well, you're with me, and I'm going to protect you."

I shrugged and thought, this is Afghanistan, after all. All the lines are blurred, which is why it's not too surprising that the government earlier this month made a deal with the Taliban for the release of an Italian journalist who had been kidnapped in Helmand along with Ajmal. The deal came just days after another media worker held with them, Syed Agha, was beheaded.

Afghan driver with gun on his lap.

The fixer for reporter Roya Aziz now carries a gun for protection working in southern Afghanistan.

On Monday, a day after Ajmal's murder, the media shut down for an hour. We held a silent protest and called for a ban on quoting members of the Taliban for one full week. We called Mullah Dadullah a murderer, condemned the government and demanded an investigation into why President Karzai exchanged the life of an Italian journalist for five Taliban prisoners, while Ajmal never made it out.

We are scared and we demand answers because, as journalists in Afghanistan, we've all seen the videos of how the Taliban execute prisoners and alleged spies. They hold the victims to the ground and take a knife to their throats, like slaughtering an animal. Nearly all of these deaths go unreported, but, by some estimates, more than 100 Afghans have died in this way. Some may have been spies, but many were villagers and others who were opposed to the Taliban, or were simply caught in the spiraling violence.

Journalists and human rights activists at a protest held Monday outside the Afghan Parliament in Kabul, in memory of Ajmal Naqshbandi.

We anticipate more kidnappings because the threats keep coming in; five aid workers were kidnapped a few days after the recent deal was made. Before, the Taliban were more cooperative -- they wanted local journalists and foreign correspondents to give their resurgent movement coverage. Now, the media is just leverage, and it's really no longer safe to work where NATO and the Taliban are battling each other.

I had planned a trip to Kandahar later this month to interview two teenagers who are part of the Taliban movement. My friend Nurullah, who said he would arrange the interviews for me, will ensure my safety, I know, but I'm left wondering who will ensure his, once I leave his province next time?

* * *

Roya Aziz is an Afghan-American reporter who divides her time between Kabul and California.

Related Stories

Read "The Trouble With Afghanistan," a recent dispatch by Roya Aziz.

Watch "Return of the Taliban," an October 2006 FRONTLINE report from the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where producer Martin Smith finds a safe haven and complex alliance of Al Qaeda and resurgent Taliban fighters.

Revisit our October 2003 broadcast where American war correspondent Sarah Chayes reports on Afghan villagers rebuilding their community in "A House for Haji Baba."

In this 2005 Rough Cut, "Weight of the World," Brent E. Huffman films an aspiring bodybuilding community in Kabul.