Taliban’s Afghanistan in Crisis: Media Industry Strangulated Under Taliban as Journalists Talk of Restrictions, Arrests, & Threats to Suppress Freedom of Speech

Control your pen, soften your words and comply or face action. This is the state of media in Afghanistan under Taliban’s one year regime. Freedom of speech is a thing of the past and the Taliban have made sure that journalists, at least those who still live in the country, tow their line otherwise they would face disastrous consequences by the hand of the group’s intelligence directorate. “It is not just about censorship, but currently the Taliban also dictates what the media of the country should report, in order to make sure that nothing bad goes out to the world. So, it is also about freedom of access to information about the ground realities of the country, which the global world should be aware of,” explains AliSher Shahir, a former Afghan journalist who left Afghanistan soon after the Taliban takeover. Ever since the group has seized power on August 15, 2021, it has imposed severe restrictions and used violence against media professionals across Afghanistan to suppress their voice. With a history of violence and terror against freedom of speech in the past two decades, there have been concerns about the safety and future of media and journalism in Afghanistan with the Taliban constantly targeting journalists, especially those who were against them, previously. However, investigations and reports by international media supporters and human rights organizations reflect how the Taliban has been widely oppressing the free voice of the media over the past one year. These facts are actually being recorded. In August, the Afghanistan Federation of Journalist and Media expressed concerns regarding the media situation in Afghanistan. This organization stated that more than 200 media outlets have been closed and 7,000 media workers lost their jobs ever since the Taliban takeover, including 2,100 women journalists who couldn’t continue in their roles due to multiple factors. According to the Afghanistan Federation of Journalists and Media, more than 2,800 women had been employed in the media sector before the Taliban takeover in 2021.

Hujatullah Mujaddedi, head of Free Association of Afghan Journalists, said “Of 544 media outlets, 218 have closed down and 7,000 media workers remain unemployed over the past one year.” With the economic crisis in Afghanistan, most of the outlets are unable to pay their staff and a director of a local media outlet in Takhar province said, “Nine of 13 media outlets in that region shut down due to economic challenges.” However, the most revealing of all the reports was a survey by Reporters Without Border (RSF) which was released on August 10. The report indicates that 219 media outlets have been closed in the past one year and 39.59% of media outlets have been closed. It added that 59.86% of journalists have been unemployed or are not working, while, before August 15, 2021, there had been 547 active media outlets and 11,857 journalists operating in Afghanistan. According to the RSF, women have been affected the most among the journalists as 76.19% of them lost their jobs. From 2,756 women journalists and media workers in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover only 656 still work, with 84.6% of them working in Kabul. Women journalists have been completely wiped out from the media scene in 11 provinces of Afghanistan- Badghis, Helmand, Ghazni, Nimroz, Wardak, Daikundi, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktia, Zabul and Samangan provinces.

Let’s talk statistically:

    • 86 percent of Afghan journalists are not working anymore. 7,098 journalists, male and female are unemployed and no longer work, while before Taliban’s takeover 9,101 journalists were working across Afghanistan.
    • No female journalists are working in 11 of 34 provinces in Afghanistan.
    • Taliban has restricted media outlets from employing female journalists in many provinces.
    • Outside the capital, Taliban has banned many female journalists from continuing their job and told them to stay at home.
    • On May 2022, women TV presenters appeared with face masks on screen as the Taliban decreed them to cover their faces while on air.
    • Only 69 media outlets remain active in Kabul from the 133 before Taliban’s takeover.
    • Balkh, Bamiyan, Panjshir, Parwan, Takhar, Herat and Faryab have recorded the most media closures.
    • Four of every 10 media outlets have been closed in a year after under the Taliban rule.
    • Afghanistan is now ranked 156th in RSF’s press freedom index in 2022 while it had risen to 122nd of 180 countries in 2021.

Replacing music and news broadcasts with religious content has led to many media outlets opting to shut down. With the stoppage of international and national funds and the ongoing economic crisis in the country, lack of money too has been one of the major reasons for the closure of media outlets in Afghanistan. Talking about the ground realities of the media scene in the country, Shahir, in an interview with Reporterly said, “In the past one year, freedom of expression and freedom of media have become negligible. No media outlet or journalist can freely express the truth that exists under the Taliban’s rule and if a journalist reports something against the wishes of the group, he/she will be arrested, tortured, imprisoned or will be threatened, so that in the end, they have to comply.” Comparing the previous years of Republic era, Shahir admits that things weren’t as rosy under the previous government as well, however, at least they didn’t have curbs put on them. “We had certain limitations under the Republic regime, however, media outlets and journalists weren’t dictated about the what content which has to be published or broadcast,” said Shahir, adding, “Currently, it’s not just about censorship and restrictions, but the hold that Taliban has over the media content in the country. They are forced to align their publication and broadcasting with Taliban’s interests, which seems absurd when someone talks of freedom of speech.” Talking about transparency and access to information, Shahir touches upon a very valid point regarding portrayal of the actualities happening in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Access of information is one of the major challenges for media personnel in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Most of the journalists, either inside or outside the country, working on Afghanistan, face the problem of lack of access to the information severely as there is no law to govern the Taliban to provide information regarding various subjects. “In the previous government, we had a law for access to information and even, a commission of access to information. This commission had been assigned the power to put pressure on every ministry or [government] organizations that weren’t providing information and make them responsive to media outlets through law. However, now, there are no such order or channel to make them responsive to media,” said Shahir.

Taliban’s 11 Journalism Rules: On September 2021, Taliban’s acting director of Government Media and Information Center (GMIC), Qari Mohammad Yousuf Ahmadi, introduced an “11 journalism rule”, placing more restrictions on media and journalists without any consultation with outlets and journalists which also have been defined as “dangerous way to censorship and tyranny”. Reporter Without Border (RSF) secretary-general Christophe Deloire in reaction to the Taliban’s rule had said, “They establish a regulatory framework based on principles and methods that contradict the practice of journalism and leave room for oppressive interpretation, instead of providing a protective framework allowing journalists, including women, to go back to work in acceptable conditions. These rules open the way to tyranny and persecution.” These Taliban rules at the beginning seem to be based on the previous government’s national media law:

    • As in three first rules, it forbids media and journalists from publishing or broadcasting contents “contrary to Islam, insult national figure, or violate privacy. However, the previous media law adhered to international norms like human rights, while Taliban hasn’t mentioned any such standards, in a way leaving it open for interpretation and misuse.
    • “Not distorting news content”, “following journalism principles” and “balanced reporting” come in as rules 4 to 6.
    • With rules 7 and 8, Taliban seem to be creeping up their control over media outlets, as it restricts media outlets from publishing content without the group’s “official confirmation” or “matters that can have negative impact on public attitude”.
    • Taliban’s rule 9 calls on media outlets to maintain principle of neutrality.
    • Furthermore, rules 10 and 11 state that outlets should be aligned with “Taliban’s ideology” and even asked media and journalists to coordinate with GMIC on reporting.

A female journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “Unfortunately for us, media professionals can’t even freely cover or publish news. Every report should first be confirmed through Taliban officials and if these reports are published without permission, the Taliban will prosecute organization and the journalist. The Taliban has a specific committee for supervision of media and internal media should be alert about every sentence or word of their news or reports,” she warned. In fact, Shahir too warns that currently no journalist can reveal and publish the truth which is detrimental to the Taliban, because if they do, they will be arrested. That’s why most of the journalists are currently working under an alias, but even with the alias, they are not completely secure as the Taliban intelligence officials identify them and arrest them later,” Shahir adds. Data reveals that a lot of journalists have been murdered in targeted killings and a large number of them have been forced to leave the country. This has given rise to a subordinate and subjugate mentality, where the journalists who remain in the country have to support the Taliban’s radical ideas and not portray any objection to the group. “A great sample of this comes from Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah’s announcement, in which he said that objecting to Taliban leaders and officials is against Islamic sharia. It shows the extent to which the Taliban is putting pressure on scribes per say,” said Shahir.

Use of violence and threats against media: Journalists have been faced violence and other severe consequences for reporting about anti-Taliban protests, arbitrary arrests and other subjects that reflect Taliban’s tyranny on ground over the past year. According to UNAMA’s report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, 173 cases of violence against journalists and media workers have been reported, of which 163 were attributed to the Taliban.

    • 122 journalists have been arbitrarily detained or arrested by Taliban
    • 58 cases of ill-treatment have been recorded
    • 33 cases of threats and intimidation
    • 12 cases of incommunicado detentions
    • Six Journalists have been killed (5 by IS-K and 1 by unknown perpetrators).
    • Taliban has even confiscated a large number of journalists’ equipment such as cameras, smartphones, tripods and among other things.

One of the most prominent and well-documented incident of Taliban’s violence, threat and intimidation against media professional was highlighted through the threatening and forceful apology by Australian journalist, Lynne O’Donnell. On July 19, O’Donnell in a thread had stated, “l apologize for 3 or 4 reports written by me accusing the present authorities of forcefully marrying teenage girls and using teenage girls as sexual slaves by Taliban commanders...”. Later, when she could leave Kabul, she laid bare the true facts in a report stating that the Taliban officials had refused to grant her registration as a foreign journalist. Later, she had been taken to the group’s intelligence office and threatened. She was asked to either apologize for her report in 2021 about Taliban in Afghanistan or face jail time. She added that the Taliban officials even recorded a video of her apologizing. On another occasion, on October 24, 2021, Sadaqat Ghorzang, a freelance journalist on assignment for TOLOnews, reporting from the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the eastern province Nangarhar, was beaten up by Taliban forces, even though he had permission from a Taliban commander. Ghorzang told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that a Taliban patrolling guard approached him and broke his phone, confiscated his tripod, microphone and camera and threw them to the river. He added that the Taliban guard repeatedly beat him up with a rifle in the head and arm. These are just a few of cases wherein the full extent of Taliban’s torture, intimidation and violence against the media community comes to the fore.

Freedom of speech? For the past two decades, the Taliban has threatened and conducted many terrorist attacks against Afghan media professionals, as it is one of the fundamental tools for the freedom of expression. In 2016, the group had targeted a vehicle ferrying TOLOnews staff members killing seven people. Even, in 2022, after the O’Donnell incident, Qahar Balkhi, a spokesperson of the Taliban said that “they are proud of it”. With the Taliban completely in the power seat, the pillars of free speech are on the verge of collapse in Afghanistan. In a year after the group’s takeover, they have tried to silence objections. Journalists have not been allowed to cover security incidents, protests and even the Taliban’s own Ulema gathering which had been held on June 29. In a year, the group has used violence and threatened journalists for covering anti-Taliban news and protests. For instance, the Taliban military court sentenced Khalid Qaderi, journalist, to a year in prison for spreading anti-Taliban propaganda and spying for foreign outlets in Herat province. In another case, on September 6-7, Taliban detained at least 14 journalists for covering a women’s protest in Kabul. A female journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “Whenever we try to contact Taliban officials in order to write their view or confirm a report, they don’t respond, and if they answer our calls, when they hear a female journalist on the other end of the line, they hang up and block the number.” In March this year, the group banned broadcast of three international media outlets - BBC, VOA and DW - in Afghanistan. In reaction to this, the US Department of State expressed concerns and said that freedom of expression is not a western value. “In addition to this restrictive new media policy, the Taliban continue to move Afghanistan in the wrong direction by failing to uphold commitments they have made, including their March 23 decision to prevent girls from attending secondary school”, added the US State Department press release.

This tale of torture and silence is not just restricted to journalists, but also others who too voice their opinions and indulge in free speech. Civil activists, university teachers, protestors and political opposition group members have also been victims of Taliban’s efforts in suppressing free speech. In January 2022, professor Faizullah Jalal, one of the Kabul university lecturers, was detained by the Taliban after he criticized the group on a news channel. Taliban’s spokesperson, Mujahid, confirmed the arrest and said that Jalal had been charged of inciting people against the regime and insulting people. Amnesty International had condemned the arrest of Professor Faizullah Jalal. “The Kabul university lecturer was only exercising his freedom of expression and criticizing the Taliban on a TV show. We call on the Taliban authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him,” reacted Amnesty International following the detention of Jalal. He was released after international organizations and figures put pressure on the Taliban. In another case, Taliban raided homes of Afghan women rights activist who protested against the group seeking their rights and criticizing the Taliban rule. On January 19 2022, Taliban forces detained Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parawana Ibrahimkhil, who had participated in several of these women protests in Kabul, from their home. Paryani’s video, which she recorded herself, when Taliban members were trying to enter her home, went viral on social media as she was screaming for help. As per the reports of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 86 journalists and media workers have been beaten, detained, threatened, sentenced to jail, forced to stop working or their houses been raided by the Taliban or unknown armed men. Media and freedom of speech is experiencing its dark days under the Taliban rule since Taliban’s takeover. Another Afghan journalist, Rohullah Tahiri, told Reporterly, “The Taliban and the group’s approach towards free speech is a challenge for the media industry in Afghanistan. The group’s suppression and fear too are challenges which freedom of expression and media personnel are currently facing on a daily basis. The Taliban arrests journalist, tortures them and then, release them denying the entire incident. Taliban fears the media because it is a reflection of their violation of human rights and war crimes. After their takeover, they had ordered media houses not to publish anything against Islamic sharia and the Taliban. The cycle of information has been stopped in Afghanistan and you can’t find any media outlet which can independently work in Afghanistan. The Taliban had arrested my colleague in Bamiyan and then, after he was released, he came to Kabul and was again arrested by the Taliban’s intelligence directorate officials. When we cover news from Panjshir, Andarab or Balkhab, Taliban orders us to stop it and accuses us of having connections with Taliban’s opposition groups.”

Zoom out: Media and freedom of speech have been one of the biggest accomplishments of Afghanistan over the past two decades in the Republic era. However, with the second reign of the Taliban government, the media scene is slowly eroding and free though is suffering a huge downgrade with the closure of nearly 40 media outlets. Freedom of expression is struggling to be keep alive in Afghanistan with the Taliban’s relentless suppression and restrictions. Despite all the challenges, the media community has been facing since the Taliban takeover, there are a few flames of hope, still not extinguished, working inside Afghanistan and trying to bring the ground realities to the world. The most important pillar of any given society -free media- may be collapsing under the Taliban reign with the group using force and violence to shut opposition voices and a year, into their rule, when we know things won’t change for the better, might be a good time to rethink our next step.

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