By Hamid Shalizi and Josh Smith
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan journalists say they are facing more risks than ever as both insurgents and unscrupulous government officials increasingly threaten, assault, and even murder reporters.
At least 13 journalists were killed in Afghanistan last year, making it the deadliest year on record for Afghan media, the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) said on Wednesday.
"This is an ugly, worrying and serious trend, and if certain actions are not taken, 2017 could be worse," said AJSC head Najib Sharifi.
Journalists are increasingly in the firing line of a conflict between the Western-backed government and Islamist militants like the Taliban, who threaten several major cities.
Besides the 13 deaths, the press group documented at least 88 incidents of assault, intimidation, abuse, and other physical attacks, a 38 percent increase over numbers recorded in 2015.
"Direct attacks on journalists are very worrying," said Parwiz Kawa, editor of the 8 A.M. Daily newspaper.
"It limits the ability of journalists to move and produce stories and increases the cost of media outlets for additional security."
Targeted violence has forced some journalists to find safer work, he added.
The AJSC blamed the deaths of at least 10 of the 13 journalists on the Taliban, saying the group had "drastically increased" its targeting and intimidation of journalists, leading in some cases to more self-censorship by media.
In late 2015, the Taliban issued death threats against journalists over what they perceived as unfavourable coverage.
The militants followed up with a deadly attack against employees of Tolo, one of Afghanistan's largest TV stations.
They said the station was an "intelligence network" opposed to national unity and religious values, not an impartial media outlet. Tolo rejected the accusations.
A Taliban spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment on the AJSC's findings.
The AJSC credited the government with policies aimed at protecting a free media, but individuals linked to the government accounted for about half of the incidents reported.
"It is alarming that the government continues to be responsible for so many cases," European Union Special Representative Franz-Michael Mellbin said in a statement, urging the government to bring perpetrators to justice.
A spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani said acts of intimidation had been by individuals, but not by the government and the president was committed to a free press.
"There are no journalists in jail in the whole country and the attorney general's office has prosecuted those government officials who have threatened or acted against journalists."
(Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)