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Afghan relatives attend a funeral for Afghan interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna in Kabul in June 2016.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says the number of killings of working journalists and news staff increased in 2018, ending an overall decline experienced in recent years, with Afghanistan topping the danger list.

The trade association said in its annual report released on December 31 that 94 journalists and media workers died in targeted killings, bomb attacks, and conflict crossfire in 2018.

That was an increase from the 82 deaths reported in 2017, the Brussels-based group said.

The toll this year was the highest since 121 people working for news organizations were killed in 2012.

Since the IFJ began its annual count in 1990, the peak year was 2006, when 155 work-related killings were reported.

The deadliest country in 2018 was Afghanistan, where 16 of the killings occurred. That was followed by Mexico with 11, Yemen with nine, and Syria with eight.

Nine of those slain in Afghanistan were killed in April by a suicide attack against a group of journalists in Kabul. Two others were killed in June when a second bomb exploded after they rushed to cover a bombing at a wrestling training center in Kabul.

"Journalists are targeted because they are witnesses," IFJ President Philippe Leruth told the Associated Press. "And the result of this, when a journalist or many journalists are killed in a country, you see an increase of self-censorship."

The United States soared to sixth on the list, with five killings, tied with Somalia and Pakistan. On June 28, a gunman in Annapolis, Maryland, fatally shot four journalists and a sales associate in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper. The man had threatened the publication after losing a defamation lawsuit.

The most high-profile journalist slaying was that of Saudi opposition writer Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post and a U.S. resident.

Khashoggi, a critic of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, was killed by a team of Saudi agents in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

Saudi Arabia has denied reports that the crown prince was linked to the murder that sparked global condemnations.

"Jamal Khashoggi was a very well-known figure, but you know, the most shocking statistic is that we know that nine of 10 journalist murders remain unpunished in the world," the IFJ's Leruth said.

The media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on December 18 said 2018 was a year of "unprecedented" hostility toward journalists around the world.

More than half of the journalists killed during the year were "deliberately targeted."

The reports reinforce findings of the media rights group Committee to Protect Journalists, which said in October that 324 journalists during the past decade had been "silenced through murder worldwide" and that no perpetrators had been convicted in more than 85 percent of those cases.

With reporting by AP and AFP
Free speech or treason? The Afghan network 1TV interviewed a Taliban spokesman live on TV.

Three years ago, the Taliban branded two of Afghanistan's largest private television networks "intelligence outfits" and declared their employees legitimate targets due to their alleged "disrespectful and hostile actions" against the militant group.

Months later, in January 2016, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a minibus and killed seven employees of Tolo TV, one of the networks that was threatened.

On December 19, the other television network, 1TV, conducted a live telephone interview with the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabilullah Mujahid, about the three-day talks between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives in the United Arab Emirates, part of the effort to negotiate an end to Afghanistan's 17-year war.

While the Taliban spokesman did not say anything new or particularly inflammatory, 1TV’s interview -- described by critics as softball -- has stoked controversy, with many Afghans accusing the network of providing the Taliban with a platform to spread its propaganda.

Many Afghans also said the one-sided interview dishonored the victims of the Taliban, which is waging a deadly 17-year insurgency in which it has been blamed for killing thousands of civilians.

'Great Insult'

During the 12-minute interview, Mujahid said talks with U.S. officials in Abu Dhabi focused on ending what he called the foreign "occupation" and the alleged "atrocities" and "bombardments" committed against Afghan civilians by international forces.

Mujahid called the Western-backed Kabul government "illegitimate" and said it was propped up by foreigners. He said the Taliban does not target civilians, although he acknowledged that civilians had been "unintentionally" caught up in Taliban attacks against the government.

Farzad Lami, an Afghan journalist, said on Twitter on December 19 that "giving a voice to the Taliban on national TV is a disgrace," adding that 1TV had lost its "credibility."

Habibullah Sakhizada, a Kabul resident, wrote on Facebook that "conducting a live interview with him is a great insult to the Taliban's victims and the country's security forces,” adding that the country’s independent media needed to act "responsibly."

Facebook user Mehran Arian said the interview was "against our national interests," and that 1TV executives should be "punished for treason."

Economist Rafi Fazil wrote on Twitter that giving the Taliban a prime-time TV slot "raises serious questions and is an insult to the victims of Taliban violence and our fallen heroes."

"In Afghanistan, on the one hand, we misunderstand or under-understand the Taliban; on the other, mainstreaming their views through the media has clear downsides," said Ahmad Shuja Jamal, an Afghan analyst who researches security and human rights issues, on Twitter.

Others defended the interview as free speech.

"As many politically charged condemnations are directed at 1TV for their interview with a Taliban spokesman, journalists must stand strong in defense of press freedom," Akmal Dawi, an Afghan journalist working at Voice of America, wrote on Twitter on December 19.

Women's rights activist Wazhma Frogh said on Twitter that while she understood the criticism directed at 1TV, she said it was important for Afghans to “talk and listen,” while free speech should be allowed “irrespective of who they are.”

Deadliest Country For Journalists

1TV was launched in 2009 by Afghan entrepreneur Fahim Hashimy. It’s part of a flourishing media scene that has been hailed as one of the biggest achievements of the past 17 years, coming after the Taliban had banned all forms of music and television, as well as independently reported news.

Under the Taliban regime, there was only state-owned radio, the Taliban's Voice of Shari'a, which was dominated by calls to prayer and religious teachings.

Despite the gains, independent media have come under constant attack and pressure from militant groups and even the government itself.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said in its annual report released on December 19 that Afghanistan was the deadliest country for journalists worldwide in 2018, with at least 15 reporters and media workers killed this year, the most since the CPJ began keeping track.

"In recent years, extremists have launched major bombings in Afghanistan, then detonated a second blast with the apparent express aim of killing journalists and other first responders," the New York-based media watchdog’s report said.

In April, a double suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group killed nine journalists, including a 1TV reporter and cameraman. The suicide bomber disguised himself as a media worker and detonated his explosives amid a group of reporters rushing to the scene of the first explosion.

Three RFE/RL journalists were also killed in the blast.

In September, twin bombings at a wrestling training center in a predominately Shi’ite neighborhood of Kabul killed at least 20 people, including a reporter and a cameraman from Tolo News.

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