On Saturday, May 11th in south-east Kabul, prominent Afghan journalist Mena Mangal was shot dead. She was on her way to work when she was gunned down in broad daylight on the sidewalk.
In a Facebook post on the 3rd of May, Mangal announced she was being sent messages that threatened her life. She didn’t name the sender or senders, but instead said a ‘strong woman wasn’t afraid of death’ and that she loved her country.
Mangal was not reporting from a war zone; she was not a victim of the collateral damage of conflict. She was gunned down in broad daylight because she was a vocal supporter of women’s rights in a country where those rights are often overlooked.
Mangal’s mother, Anisa Mangal, named a group of men connected to the journalist’s ex-husband as suspected killers
Mangal had been forced into an arranged marriage in 2017. Anisa describes Mena’s ex-husband, Jawed, as unstable. Speaking to Radio Free Europe, she said both the journalist and her family had reservations about going ahead with the marriage and considered terminating it. “But he threatened to kill her if we didn’t approve the marriage,” according to Anisa, “Mena didn’t have a choice because she didn’t want to create enmity between the families.”
Within two weeks of the couple being married, Anisa says Jawed and several male family members drove her daughter to an unknown location where she was beaten and tortured. Her family filed for a divorce.
Mangal was most well known for her work as a presenter on Ariana TV, a program on the Pashto-language channel, Lamar. She had also worked for the national television broadcaster Shamshad TV. She wrote extensively about her arranged marriage and the process she had to go through to obtain a divorce legally in the male-dominated Afghani justice system. She was also involved in the running of popular social-media pages discussing women’s rights in Afghanistan, including the right for women to work and for girls to attend school.
She had left journalism in recent years and taken up a position as an adviser to the Religious and Cultural Affairs Committee in the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament where she worked to promote women’s rights. She dreamed of building a better country.
The death of Mena Mangal has ignited both anger and grief in women’s rights activist in Afghanistan and across the globe. There’s no doubt Mena Mangal was a bright, passionate, and dedicated young woman. Her decision to speak openly about her own experiences and fight for the rights of women in Afghanistan, even in the face of threats and violence, was a brave and powerful statement.
Mena Mangal is not the only journalist whose story has been cut short in recent years. Reprisal killings against journalists are the highest they have been in three years. In contrast, the number of journalists killed in conflicts fell to the lowest level since 2011, but fatal attacks on female journalists have also been increasing in recent years. 2017 saw the average percentage of female journalists murdered rise to 19%. The average has never risen above 7% before.
In October 2018, Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova was raped, beaten, and strangled to death. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent non-profit dedicated to press freedom, is still investigating the motive behind her murder.
In 2017, celebrated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated by a car bomb as she drove near her home. According to her son, she had 57 defamation cases filed against her at the time. That same year, Kim Wall, a Swedish journalist, was stabbed to death while on an interview assignment by her subject, the Danish inventor Peter Madsen.
Journalism is a dangerous job. It puts ordinary people in a position to speak not only to power, but to the public. Both audiences have the potential to turn deadly. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], a journalist is killed every five days simply for doing their job; reporting information to the public. These attacks happen in places outside of armed conflicts. They can be perpetrated by anyone, from organised crime groups to angry and unstable members of the public, to militia forces and even local police forces. Across the world, local journalists have become more vulnerable to the dangers of their occupation.
At the 62nd edition of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2018, Filipino journalist Maria Ressa spoke about her experiences with orchestrated trolling, including countless threats of sexual violence and murder. Over the course of a single month, Ressa received 90 hate messages per hour, 24 hours a day. As she points out, women are targeted by this kind of harassment online three times more than men. For female journalists, who put themselves and their work in the public eye, the harassment can even become directed at their family members.
“Things are getting worse, not better,” she said. “We need to break this cycle, and for that we need to break the silence and find our voices. We must talk global and talk local.”
After the Commission convened, UNESCO called for greater protections to be provided to female journalists.
In 2017, the International Association of Women in Radio and Television created the Safety Handbook for Women Journalists. It is designed to help women navigate the dangers they face by putting themselves in the public eye, both online and in their daily lives. Last year on International Women’s Day, PEN International, an organisation dedicated to freedom of expression, launched their Women’s Manifesto to combat the silencing of women writers worldwide.
But these are only small steps.
As we mourn the loss of another strong woman in the media, we should also reflect on some of these statistics and take the advice of Maria Ressa on board. It’s time to break the cycle and look at the patterns both locally and globally that have led to the concerning rise of targeted harassment and violence against women. It’s time to find our voices and have the hard discussions necessary, before another Mena Mangal loses her life.