Afghan authorities have arrested four journalists on propaganda charges after they tried to enter the contested area of Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar province, where security forces have been clashing with Taliban fighters, officials said on Tuesday.
The move drew swift criticism from media and rights advocates, though the government said they wanted to ensure reporters were safe.
The Ministry of Interior said three journalists in Kandahar working for local radio and one working for local television had been arrested after ignoring a warning from the National Directorate of Security, the government intelligence agency, to all journalists not to enter the area.
"NDS did not allow...journalists to go the area, because security forces wanted to save their lives," said the interior ministry's deputy spokesperson Hamid Roshan.
Another interior ministry spokesperson later said that the journalists had arrested on charges of "propaganda to the enemy" and that security agencies were continuing their investigation.
"The Government of Afghanistan respects and is extremely committed to freedom of expression, but any propaganda in favour of the terrorist and the enemy, as well as against the interests of the country, is a crime," interior ministry spokesperson Mirwais Estanikzai said.
Local media advocates say the ability of media to report on crucial areas and battlefields as conflict rises in the country is increasingly hindered and international rights group Amnesty International called on the four journalists to be released.
"We are concerned about the detention of four journalists in Kandahar by National Security Directorate since yesterday," Amnesty International said on Twitter.
Mujib Khalwatgar, head of the Afghan media rights group NAI, said journalists had felt increasing pressure from both sides amid a sharp rise in violence in recent weeks after Washington announced it was withdrawing US troops by September.
"We expect the government...to support freedom of expression," he said. "If the government proceeds in this way, and wants to impose restrictions on the media, we will lose the greatest achievement."
The Taliban took control of the Spin Boldak area near the border with Pakistan earlier this month, sparking intense fighting as security forces try to re-take the strategic border crossing.
Reuters journalist Danish Siddiqui was killed this month covering clashes between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters in the area.