Afghanistan was already considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, a consequence of decades of war and religious extremism.
But for some Afghan journalists, the risks have been amplified after a cleric in the western city of Herat recently declared jihad, or holy war, against the country’s besieged media.
The move has led to condemnation by religious authorities and the country's independent media, which have come under increasing attack and pressure from militants, ex-warlords, and sometimes even the government itself.
Hard-line clerics in the past have issued fatwas against media channels airing programs they deem un-Islamic or modeled on Western shows, although it is unclear why the cleric in Herat issued a religious decree against the media on July 15.
During a Friday Prayers sermon, preacher Fazlur Rahman Ansari issued a fatwa, or religious decree, in which he said jihad against the media was "obligatory." It was unclear if Ansari is an official cleric.
"Whoever eliminates them is fulfilling jihad," the cleric told those in attendance. "Whoever is killed by them is a martyr."
NAI, an independent Afghan media watchdog, has condemned the fatwa and said such "irresponsible" actions could harm journalists.
"Such irresponsible fatwas will be exploited by extremist groups," said Hamed Momen, who heads NAI’s office in Herat.
The Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) extremist group have threatened and deliberately targeted major TV and radio stations and their staff members in recent years across Afghanistan, carrying out deadly attacks that have killed dozens of journalists and media employees.
'No Right' To Issue Fatwas
Jilani Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said it has launched an investigation and would address the issue.
The provincial department for religious affairs and the hajj said the preacher's fatwa was illegal and that only Afghanistan's Ulema Council can issue religious directives.
Sayed Mohammad Shirzadi, the head of the department, said hundreds of privately run mosques have been built in recent years in Herat Province and religious authorities do not recognize the credentials of its preachers. It was unclear if Ansari is among them.
"The decree of one individual does not represent the views of the Ulema Council and we will never recognize the fatwa of one individual," said Shirzadi. "This is simply the personal views of one individual who does not have the right to issue fatwas."
Afghanistan's constitution prescribes that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam" and sometimes appears at odds with more liberal and democratic elements within it.
Islamic clerics on Afghanistan's Ulema Council are the country's religious authorities. But even their opinions on questions of Islamic law -- or fatwas -- are treated as guidance rather than legally binding decrees.
Afghan Media Under Attack
With 11 journalists killed, nine of them during a suicide attack claimed by IS militants in April, the first six months of 2018 have been the "bloodiest reporting period" ever for journalists in Afghanistan, the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), a local watchdog, said in a report on July 18.
Nine journalists, including two RFE/RL reporters and a trainee, were killed in the attack in the capital, Kabul, on April 30. Disguised as a reporter, the suicide bomber detonated his explosives among journalists who had gathered to cover an earlier suicide attack.
The AJSC said the attack was "a turning point in the nature of threats against media workers" and said "the intensity and scale of violence has been unprecedented." The committee said 10 journalists were killed over the same period in 2017. In total, 20 journalists and media workers were killed in 2017.
In November, IS militants killed a security guard and opened fire on the staff of Shamshad TV, a private television station in Kabul. In May, IS militants attacked the building of state-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing six people, including four RTA employees.
A suicide bomber in January 2016 attacked a minibus and killed seven employees of Tolo TV, the country’s largest private television network.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate, the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA), said at least 73 journalists and media workers were killed in Afghanistan from 1994 to 2017.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Afghanistan 118th out of the 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index.
Despite the dire numbers, Afghanistan's media development is often cited as one of the biggest achievements of the past decade, following years of Taliban strictures or outright prohibitions on all forms of music and television, as well as independently reported news.