Prominent Pakistani Journalist Assassinated in Pashtun Heartland

Wilder Davenport
Wilder Davenport
Wilder studies political philosophy at St. John's College, focusing on Central Asian economics and politics. He studied creative writing at University of Iowa. With extensive experience in academic and creative writing, Wilder brings a nuanced perspective to the Central Asia Desk for Atlas News.

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On June 18th, Khalil Afridi, a Khyber News journalist, was assassinated in the Mazarina area of Landi Kotal Tehsil, in the Khyber district of northwestern Pakistan. In response to his death, journalists protested yesterday, and more protests have been planned for this weekend. Khalil is the sixth journalist to have been killed in Pakistan since January.

The Details

Khalil worked for Khyber News, a Pashto-language news outlet. He was in the car with three others, returning from his home village of Sultan Khel in Punjab Province, when the car was stopped by militants, and Khalil was forced to get out, before being gunned down by unidentified attackers. Local media also reported that Khalil’s body lay on the street for approximately an hour before being taken to a local hospital.

Khalil was also a civil society activist and oftentimes reported on local militancy with the assistance of governmental sources. He reportedly received threats from militant groups before over his reporting, and according to his family, he was the victim of a grenade attack and a car bomb in 2017. Local journalists were reported to be advocating for the establishment of a commission to investigate the murders of journalists by militants who go unpunished. It’s currently unclear if Khalil was one of these advocates.

Before the funeral prayers for Khalil, his body was taken to the Pak-Afghan highway to block traffic in protest. Protestors demanded that the area be rid of militants, and called for justice against Khalil’s killers. His funeral in Landi Kotal was attended by around one thousand local residents.

The funeral procession for Khalil Afridi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province on June 19 (Photo by RFE/RL)

Journalists and Militants in Pakistan

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Six journalists have been killed this year, adding to a total of 97 killed in the past 30 years. Despite outrage from international and local journalist associations, the murders are labeled as “unsolved” by the government, which prompts critics to accuse the government of treating the militants with impunity. However, the number of killings pales in comparison to the number of kidnappings of journalists since 2011: 3,500. According to the International Federation of Journalists, from August 2022 to August 2023, 37.5 percent of journalists in Pakistan were either harassed or faced physical violence. Since 2008, Pakistan has topped the list of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist, behind Somalia, Iraq, Mexico, the Philippines, and India, all of which, including Pakistan, have been on the index every year since its inception, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

So far, no arrests have been made in connection with Khalil’s murder, and it’s unclear what militant group targeted him.

Militant attacks in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area have surged in recent years. For example, on May 21st, Kamran Dawar, a prominent journalist and activist, was killed in the province. Reportedly, the increase in militant violence is in part due to the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government in 2021 and the end of a ceasefire between the Pakistani Taliban—also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP—and the Pakistani government in 2022.

The Pakistan Coalition of Media on Safety was created after Pakistan endorsed the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity in 2013 to protect Pakistani journalists. But there are no provincial laws to protect journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, or Punjab, as media outlet Dawn has noted. Additionally, kidnappings are not currently criminalized in Pakistan. The Pakistani government doesn’t take appropriate action against militant attacks, and is ill-equipped to punish abductions. The protests over Khalil’s death, in part, hope to change that.