KABUL, Afghanistan

Press freedom groups have urged the Afghan government to ensure safe release and liberty of the four captive journalists who wished to report on the civilian casualties in the restive southern Kandahar province.

In a statement on Tuesday, NAI, an organization supporting open media in Afghanistan, said the journalists — Bismillah Watandoost, Qudrat Soltani, Moheb Obaidi, and Sanaullah Siam — went to the Taliban-held area in Kandahar to meet and interview one of the group’s commanders in connection with the civilian casualties there.

NAI said more than 24 hours have passed since they were taken into custody by the security forces in Kandahar, expressed concerns over the safety of journalists, and called for their release and liberty to work.

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry on Tuesday confirmed for the first time that the journalists have been taken into custody on charges of “propaganda for the enemy (the Taliban).”

Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai said on Tuesday that the security forces had launched an investigation into the matter. He stressed that the Afghan government respects freedom of expression, but that there are certain limits to freedom of expression in the constitution and other applicable laws. “Any propaganda in favor of the enemy and the terrorist and against the national interest is a crime,” he clarified.

Earlier on Monday, the Afghan Journalists Association also called for the release of the journalists, while expressing apprehensions over the prevailing situation in the country with some media outlets closing down in areas overrun by the Taliban.

In a statement, the Taliban also criticized the arrests of these four journalists in Kandahar. The group’s spokesman Mohammad Naeem said in a statement that the government arrested the journalists for their efforts to unearth facts.

Last week, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said 33 people were assassinated in Kandahar following the Taliban’s overtaking of the crossing point with Pakistan.

Findings by the AIHRC suggested that religious scholars, tribal elders, civil society activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and female journalists are being sacrificed in targeted attacks in Kandahar.

The grim situation in the Taliban-held area also caught the attention of international rights groups, with Human Rights Watch saying the Taliban have been targeting government officials and pro-government figures as well as their families.

“There are grave concerns that Taliban forces in Kandahar may commit further atrocities to retaliate against the government and security forces,” said Patricia Gossman, the associate Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Taliban leaders have denied responsibility for any abuses, but growing evidence of expulsions, arbitrary detentions, and killings in areas under their control are raising fears among the population.”

The Taliban, however, rejected the charges as their spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed in a statement called it “enemy propaganda.”

Earlier this month, the Taliban claimed overrunning the key crossing point with neighboring Pakistan in Kandahar. This was the third key border crossing after Sher Khan Port with Tajikistan and Tor Ghundi Port with Turkmenistan that have fallen to the insurgents.

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