Q&A: The high price of freedom of speech in Afghanistan

Journalists and critics in Afghanistan say freedom of speech requires sacrifice – and many have made the ultimate one.

Ahmed Saeedi
Ahmed Saeedi was shot in November in an attempt he believes was made to silence him [YouTube]

Ahmad Saeedi, an Afghan political analyst and former diplomat, is a prominent critic and supporter of free speech in Afghanistan. He was shot and wounded by attackers in November 2015 in an attempt he believes was made to silence him.

Saeedi has criticised the country’s endemic corruption as well as anti-government elements embedded within the framework of the state, referred to in Afghanistan as the “fifth column”. Saeedi says it is this “fifth column” that is behind the attack on him, which nearly took his life.

While he survived, his hearing and sight were damaged. He still fears for his life.

Many journalists and critics have been attacked and killed for being critical of the Taliban. In October 2015, the Taliban threatened journalists from two Afghan news channels, Tolo News and 1TV, with “elimination” for “disrespectful and hostile actions” towards them. 

Al Jazeera spoke to Ahmad Saeedi about the violence against those with critical voices.

Al Jazeera: Who is behind the attempt on your life?

Saeedi: I believe that the enemies of the people of Afghanistan have not been victorious in the face-to-face war against the government, now they want to silence the media in order to force the government towards dictatorship.

 Taliban kills scores in Kandahar airport attack

Since I am a critic of the government, it’s the terrorists who attempted to kill me. This is the least that they could do to challenge the government and put it in a difficult position and make it seem like the government is trying to silence the media. But I think this is the work of the enemies of Afghanistan.

Al Jazeera: Why are there attempts to silence you?

Saeedi: I was one of the strong critics of the former government of Hamid Karzai and will continue to be.

I am not in favour of the return of Taliban or al-Qaeda or Daesh (ISIL). I regard the current system [of government] to be 1,000 times better than Daesh or the Taliban or other groups like those.

My concern is that if the government does not bring reforms and does not put things in order and work with the people, history has proven that the situation will undoubtedly tilt in favour of the enemies of Afghanistan.    

Al Jazeera: To what extent has the government followed your case – to identify or arrest your attackers?

Saeedi: I am not the only one who has been targeted in Afghanistan; there are others who have been killed or left wounded. Most of the cases have not been resolved. It is almost 40 days since I was attacked and so far no evidence has been found as to who was behind the attempt. A committee has been formed, but no progress so far.

Al Jazeera: Are you in contact with this investigative committee? Do you believe your attackers will be caught?  

Saeedi: I have been in contact with the head of the criminal investigation unit and he said ‘so far we don’t have any solid evidence that we can share with you or the media, however, we are trying our best’.

If they could not find any evidence in the last 40 days, I don’t think there will be any progress in the future either.

Al Jazerra: In your recent press conference, you said there was CCTV footage of the attempted assassination, but the initial report says it doesn’t exist. What do you think happened?

Saeedi: In the area where the attempt on my life was made … cameras that are static were installed and had captured the incident. I asked them [the investigators] about the footage and they said ‘we do not have access to it, they are destroyed somehow’.

Al Jazeera: You have said earlier the government or the “fifth column” within the government staged the attack on you. Is this true? If yes, could you elaborate please?


Saeedi: No … I did not say government, it is a misunderstanding. If you study the history of Spain in 1932, you will find there were people who on the surface were working with the government – but in essence were against it. That’s what is happening now here in Afghanistan. There are people who on the surface work with the government but underneath they collaborate with the enemies of Afghanistan. It is these people that are called the fifth column and are responsible for the attack carried out on me.

Al Jazeera: Do you trust the judiciary if the perpetrators are brought to justice?

Saeedi: My case has not gone to the judiciary yet so it’s too early to express my trust or lack of it. But I repeat that I do not believe my case would be investigated in a manner that could gain my satisfaction.

Al Jazeera: Earlier you have stated the government and intelligence services constantly contact you and warn that your life is in danger and you should not speak, write or be in contact with the media. You have also said they are waging a psychological war on you.

President Ashraf Ghani has offered you an ambassadorial post as a way to take you out of the country and foreign governments too have urged you to leave. Do you feel pressured?  

Saeedi: What you said is correct, but I have no intentions to leave Afghanistan. I was born here and I will be buried here. Currently, emotionally, I have not been provided any security. And with the threats and warnings that I get, I do feel I am psychologically affected and pressured.  I receive warnings from them [officials] through whoever that comes to visit me. They warn me not to travel around the country, to be cautious, and protect myself. Obviously when so much warning is given to someone, that person would be psychologically affected and pressured.     

Al Jazeera: Do you still fear for your life?

Saeedi: Undoubtedly. The enemy has not been defeated yet.

Al Jazeera: In your opinion, do you think freedom of speech will be sacrificed for peace with the Taliban?

Saeedi: Freedom of speech and media in Afghanistan cannot be achieved easily. It requires sacrifices. You see the war in Afghanistan is multidimensional. There is a local and regional war ongoing here. When there are intelligence wars between countries, they try to exert pressure from different angles. This way the media is silenced and individuals who fight for freedom of speech are threatened. And some are bribed or recruited, reluctantly we are drawn in such a war.

Al Jazeera: You have said if it were not for the media this government would become a dictatorship and act in a fascist manner. Do you think President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are no longer committed to freedom of speech?  

Saeedi: On the face of it they say they are committed, and so far they have not tried to suffocate it. But in Afghanistan – where there is war and interference from our neighbours and countries afar – the people should not let the load of this responsibility weigh on the shoulders of the president and chief executive.  

 Election at heart of Afghan TV coverage