After Traditional Media, Taliban Launches War On New Age Media and Its Users In A Bid To Curb Freedom Of Expression

Tahera Rahmani and Shivani Singh

It’s the social war which the Taliban is secretly launching which is slowly garnering headlines. After restricting media organizations from functioning, threatening journalists from reporting the truth and detaining and torturing activists in order to curb freedom of expression in Afghanistan, it’s time for the extreme radicals to act on free-flowing social media thoughts from ordinary citizens too. In their latest move, Ajmal Haqiqi, an Afghan YouTuber and model, was arrested by the Taliban intelligence forces along with his three other colleagues on charges of blasphemy. The news of his arrest was confirmed by a video released by Taliban intelligence on June 8.

These moves are directly in line with the group’s cultural and religious moral policing currently underway in the country. In a country plagued with human rights violations, humanitarian crisis, illegal torture and detention and where living each day is a struggle, media comes as a respite to the suffering masses- be it TVs, movies, music, newspapers, radio or even social media. These also form a way to communicate and document the on-ground situation in a detailed manner. During the earlier Taliban regime, internet access was banned and tales of torture, genocide, and suffering had been restricted to the victims who couldn’t voice their opinions. Now with social media as a tool, video evidences come to the fore daily regarding the Taliban’s oppressive rule and hence, the hardline group has now decided to restrict the access to it and punish those who dare to use it to depict the real picture of the Taliban’s failing regime.

Go deeper: A video released by the Taliban’s intelligence service, the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) shows four people, including Ajmal Haqiqi, handcuffed and confessing to “promoting prostitution and insulting the verses of the Qur’an”. “No one is allowed to insult or ridicule the verses of the Qur’an, the hadiths of the Prophet and Islamic sanctities during the rule of the Islamic Emirate system,” the Taliban intelligence service said in the video released.

    • “In our published video, verses of the Holy Quran have been insulted. That is why we are ready to accept any ruling issued by the court,” Ajmal Haqiqi said, adding, “The republican system (previous government) was supporting me to promote prostitution and modeling. By doing so, I was trying to promote the values of western countries in Afghanistan and now, I apologize to the Taliban.”
    • The Taliban, who banned the internet the first time they controlled Afghanistan, have turned social media into a powerful tool to tame opposition and broadcast their messages. Now firmly in control of the country, they are using thousands of Twitter accounts — some official and others anonymous — to placate Afghanistan’s terrified but increasingly tech-savvy urban base.
    • The images of peace and stability projected by the Taliban contrast sharply with the scenes broadcast around the world of the chaotic footage of protesters being beaten and shot at or videos of tortured residents. Since the internet was introduced to Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago, the World Bank estimates that 13.5% of Afghans (9 million of 38 million) currently have access, according to figures published in January from DataReportal, an independent data collector. This forms a large portion of the education population of the country currently threatened under the Taliban’s restrictions. There are around four million social media users, with Facebook being the most popular.

Back story: A while ago, a video was posted on Haqiqii’s YouTube channel. In this widely circulated and contentious video, Haqiqi is seen laughing as his colleague Ghulam Sakhi — who is known to have a speech impediment that he uses for humor — recites verses of the Quran in Arabic, in a comical voice. Many people including other Youtubers and religious scholars criticized the video and also blamed the Taliban for negligence in response to the issue. So, before their detention by the Taliban, Haqiqi and Sakhi, had already released two more videos and apologized and emphasized that they won’t do it again.

    • Take note that Sakhi was previously addicted to drugs and with the cooperation of Ajmal Haqiqi, he gave up his addiction, but still suffers from psychological problems. But, maybe it wasn’t enough and hence, their detention seemed imminent. Neither Ajmal Haqiqi’s apology nor Ghulam Sakhi’s mental illness seemed to waiver the Taliban intelligence officials from their resolve of making Sakhi and Haqiqi pay dearly for their mistakes.
    • The group has previously too tried to restrain activities of the public by ordering a ban on video-sharing app TikTok and online multi-player game PUBG, claiming they were leading Afghan youths “astray”.
    • In addition, the hardline Islamist group also stopped women from starring in movies and TV series and ordered female reporters to cover their faces when appearing on television. These days, female journalists in Afghanistan wear masks while covering their programs.

Forced confessions? However, what is most striking is that this confession seems to have been taken by force. Both the detainees have been held in front of the camera with their hands tied and the effects of torture on their faces are clearly visible and then, they are seen confessing to their mistake. Experts also believe that Haqiqi, who seems to read sentences from a pre-prepared text, speaks in a way that reassures any listener that the confession is mandatory.

    • But, do you know what’s most eye-catching? Experts say that the forced confessions are like a repetition of confessions which came during the Taliban’s previous regime and also resembles in literature and in content, to the video confessions, which were apparently released by women human rights activists and journalists who too had been detained by the Taliban, earlier this year.
    • Bilal Sarwary, a well-known Afghan journalist reacted to the forced confession of Haqiqi and said, “It is no different from the forced confessions made during the Russian presence in Afghanistan. The literature used is dictated word for word, and every word is in the interest of the interrogator and the intelligence.” Authoritarian rule does not last, Sarwary added.

Take note: The Taliban’s move reeks of hypocrisy as remarks by Sirajuddin Haqqani and Zabihullah Mujahid have been also known to mistakenly quote the Qu’ran wrong, but they had not faced backlash while others who make the same mistake, even if unintentional and for which an apology has been made, will still be tortured and punished.

Global community reacts: Looking at the Taliban choking freedom of expression, many global personalities and organizations have condemned the move.

    • Amnesty International has called on the Taliban to release Afghan model and YouTuber Ajmal Haqiqi and his colleagues immediately. Amnesty International described the arrests as a “blatant attack on freedom of expression” and a flagrant breach of international law, according to the statement. Amnesty International further stated that the Taliban should promptly release these individuals and not censor the ideas of those who choose to express themselves.
    • A large number of social media users too have reacted to the arrest and forced confession of Ajmal Haqiqi and demanded his release using the Hashtag #FreeAjmalHaqiqi.
    • Ainuddin Bahodury, former access to information commission chairperson says that Ajmal Haqiqi has rescued Ghulam Sakhi from addiction and brought hope to his life, so he is a real hero and Ghulam Sakhi who has metal illness does not deserve a nightmare again.
    • Another Afghan journalist Parwiz Shamal said that “Ajmal saved the life of Ghulam Sakhi and brought him back from the dark world of addiction to human society. He did not do anything wrong, please try to free them.”

Zoom out: The international community needs to come together to aid Afghan residents to protect their digital identities and data, including what’s stored on their phones and social media pages, and quickly remove information and links to people that could endanger them under Taliban rule.

    • The ever-increasing restrictions against freedom of expression in Afghanistan have also drawn widespread criticism globally with the United Nations (UN) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) decrying the arrests, demanding the Taliban stop harassing those who voice their opinions.
    • While the United Nations Assistant Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has also expressed concern over the situation of media in the country, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have written to Richard Bennett, the UN’s new special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, calling for urgent action to defend journalists and press freedom in Afghanistan, where arbitrary arrests are on the rise and a climate of fear has taken hold in all media outlets.
    • More needs to be done to protect the voice of the people of Afghanistan. Taliban is creating a climate of fear in Afghanistan by using arbitrary arrests and coercion to force people into silence.

Fatema Farhang also contributed in this report.

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