A deadly Taliban suicide bombing against Afghanistan’s leading private media group, Tolo News, sparked strong domestic and international outrage and condemnation as an assault on freedom of speech.
The bombing happened in a western part of Kabul Wednesday evening, when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a minibus transporting employees of the TV station from work to their homes.
The blast killed at least seven people and wounded 24 others. The victims included women and children.
Speaking to reporters in Kabul Thursday, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said the attack is under investigation and promised to enhance media professionals' security in consultation with their organizations.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the violence, saying it was meant to punish Tolo TV for broadcasting anti-Afghan and anti-Taliban programs.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) condemned the attack and reiterated that journalists, as civilians, should never be targeted.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a statement sent to reporters shortly after the bombing, also accused Tolo of being a "spy agency" and warned others against indulging in such activities. "If they do not stop their evil activities, this will not be the last attack on them," he added.
In response to the widespread condemnation, the Taliban on Thursday again justified its attack on Tolo TV workers, saying it aimed at an "intelligence network and not media."
In a statement, spokesman Mujahid went on to say that the condemnations by Afghan leaders, the United States and other organizations "can never break our resolve and neither will propaganda and media warnings change our path."
As the biggest TV station in Afghanistan, Tolo News employs dozens of journalists, many in the volatile provinces. It has been actively covering the fighting between national security forces and Taliban insurgents.
The Taliban, in an October statement, had designated as "military objectives" Tolo and other Afghan television stations it accused of airing baseless and inaccurate reports to "malign" the Taliban.
It particularly cited allegations of rape and other crimes against the group during the Taliban’s brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz in September.
"Attacks aimed at crushing independent media organizations in Afghanistan are a direct assault on the very foundation of Afghan democracy, a free and open press," said the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
It called on the Afghan government to seek out and prosecute the perpetrators of this crime as quickly as possible.
The attack on Tolo TV was an "atrocity designed to undermine Afghanistan’s still fragile media freedom," the Human Rights Watch organization said in a statement.