Afghanistan: Media under the Sword

The insecurity and safety anxieties that have defined the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan have resulted in a growing Afghan journalist exodus

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Afghan journalists attend a meeting in the Tolo newsroom, in Kabul, Afghanistan September 7, 2018. Picture taken September 7, 2018. [REUTERS/Omar Sobhani]

On July 31, 2023, the Taliban detained three journalists – Najib Faryad from Ariana News, and two local journalists, Hatef Aryan and Sebghatullah Turan – in Mazar-e-Sharif, capital of Balkh Province. Till the time of writing, local Taliban officials in the province had not provided any official statement regarding this incident.

On July 12, 2023, Radio Safa reporter Irfanullah Bidar was arrested by the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) from Jalalabad, Nangarhar province.

On June 18, 2023, journalist Reza Shahir was arrested by the Taliban as he crossed the border from Iran into Afghanistan in Zabul District. After his arrest, he was taken to an unknown location, where he was interrogated and tortured. It remains unclear whether Shahir was released or if he escaped in the night of June 19. Shahir, a reporter with Rah-e-Farda TV, left Afghanistan at the start of Taliban control in August 2021, taking refuge in Iran.

On May 9, 2023,  the Taliban detained four journalists (names not available) in Khost Province. While one was from Gharghesht Television Network, the other three (one each) were from three different private local radio stations, ChinarWolus Ghazh (People’s Voice) and Nan (Today).

On April 6, 2023, the Taliban arrested three journalists – Gholam-Ali Wahdat, from the Tanwir television network; Safiullah Wafa and Noor-Agha from Radio Television Afghanistan – from their respective homes in Pul-e-Khumri, the capital city of Baghlan Province.

On January 7, 2023, Mortaza Behboudi, a French-American journalist was arrested by the Taliban in Kabul.

According to partial data collated by Institute for Conflict Management, since August 15, 2021, when the Taliban seized power, at least 12 journalists have been arrested in seven incidents (data till August 6, 2023).

However, a May 2, 2023, Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC) report claimed that 70 journalists – of which at least two reporters (Murtaza Behbudi and Khairullah Parhar) are still in Taliban custody – had been arrested just since the previous World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2022. The report added that the findings of AFJC indicate that, during this period, at least 213 incidents of violence, threats, and detention of journalists had been recorded in the country.

Apart from frequent arrest and detention of journalists on March 12, 2023, three persons were killed and 30 were injured in an Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) orchestrated bomb blast carried out during a ceremony to honour journalists at the Tebyan Cultural Center in Police District–2 of Mazar-e-Sharif, capital city of Balkh Province.

In the almost two years since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, journalists, reporters, and media personnel have experienced a dramatic increase in arrests, harassment, and coercion, especially stemming directly from Taliban forces or the GDI.

Commenting on the present situation on July 25, 2023, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) observed,

The all too common disappearances, arrests, and attacks suffered by media workers under Taliban rule continue to quash press freedom and create a highly dangerous environment for journalists doing their jobs. The IFJ condemns Irfanullah Bidar’s detention and urges the Taliban to release all jailed journalists and cease its intimidation of Afghanistan’s media.

Apart from individual journalist, media outlets as a whole have also been targeted. As reported by BBC on March 21, 2023, Afghan media have faced multiple difficulties since the Taliban’s return to power. Outlets have endured severe restrictions, an economic crisis and waning Western support. There is growing self-censorship and editorial appeasement of the Taliban. Freedom of expression has largely disappeared. More than 300 media outlets have closed and many journalists and media activists have left the country. The AFJC report of May 2, 2023, also claimed that roughly half of 600 media outlets have ceased operation due to restrictions imposed by the ruling regime as well as economic problems.

The Paris-based, Reporters Without Borders stated on May 3, 2023,

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August 2021 radically changed the media landscape. In the space of three months, 43% of Afghan media outlets disappeared. Of the 10,780 people working in Afghan newsrooms (8,290 men and 2,490 women) at the beginning of August, only 4,360 were still working in December (3,950 men and 410 women), or four out of ten journalists.

It is pertinent to recall here that, on November 21, 2021, just a few months after ‘coming to power’, the spokesman of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) Zabihullah Mujahid had declared that all media outlets must observe ‘Islamic values’. “The media outlets have the status of a tribune and should work to enlighten the public and the new generation,” Zabihullah Mujahid asserted, at a joint meeting of the Ministry of Information and Culture and the Ministry of Ethics. Then, in July, 2022, Taliban ‘supreme leader’ Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada went further, warning reporters that they would be punished for ‘defaming’ government officials.

The insecurity and safety anxieties that have defined the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan have resulted in a growing Afghan journalist exodus, with hundreds escaping into neighbouring Iran, Pakistan or beyond, undermining the media’s capacity to articulate public opinion and important coverage, particularly in newspapers, on various Taliban ‘activities’. The Taliban want to suppress the voice of reason and, in doing so, target the media, creating enormous pressure on journalists and media organisations.

The Taliban has issued various ‘directives’ for journalists at provincial levels as well. For instance, on July 15, 2023, local media officials and journalists revealed that, in the Badghis Province, the Taliban had prohibited them from reporting on suicide attacks and targeted killings in the province, though the number of such incidents continued to rise. Journalists are only allowed to cover events if accompanied by Taliban officials, and reporting on such incidents requires Taliban approval, they added. Earlier, on February 20, 2023, a decree issued by Mufti Muhammad Edris Anwari, the Taliban’s deputy-governor in Parwan, stated that all media outlets must publish content approved by the Bakhtar News Agency. Also, on December 8, 2022, following a gathering organised between the government and media in Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province, the officials imposed further restrictions on media outlets, instead of introducing a comprehensive roadmap.

“We have experienced limitations on media after the takeover of the current regime. Unfortunately, these restrictions will further push the media to the margin,” said Khawja Abdul Baseer Abid, head of a private media outlet in Balkh Province.

Women have suffered most in the carnage inflicted on Afghan journalism and have disappeared completely from the media landscape in 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – Badghis, Daikundi, Ghazni, Nimroz, Zabul, Nuristan, Paktika, Wardak, Paktia, Samangan and Helmand. Allegations of “immorality or conduct contrary to society’s values” are widely used as excuses for harassing women journalists and sending them home. This fundamentalist worldview in the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s official discourse resulted in women TV presenters being made to cover their faces while on camera. A December 2021 report, In Their Own Words: Afghan Women Journalist Speaks, from the IFJ, found that 95 per cent of Afghan women journalists had become unemployed.

As expected, the overall crackdown on the media means that some of Afghanistan’s most important stories are going unreported and its citizens are left uninformed. For example, issues like women’s rights, brutal use of force against people not obeying strict Sharia rules, food shortages, and school curriculums being overhauled by the Taliban, are either not reported or reported in a muted manner under Taliban dictates.

Social media is also not safe from Taliban control. As the Taliban has grown more tech-savvy, social media accounts are also regularly monitored. The Taliban’s GDI has monitored influential social media accounts and has detained individuals for posting criticism online. For instance, on February 12, 2023, Taliban arrested social media influencer Imran Ahmadzai from Kabul. Earlier on June 5, 2022, Taliban arrested an Afghan model and social media influencer, Ajmal Haqiqi, for allegedly “insulting Islamic sacred value” as the model, along with three others, had reportedly used the verses of Quran in a “humorous manner” in a video.

The Taliban is not only stifling media houses, but every independent voice coming out of Afghanistan. The voices of resistance, reason, protest and independence are violently crushed and silenced by the regime, especially by GDI. The courage of the common man is being challenged daily in a long drawn battle between the Taliban’s Islamist repression and the freedom of the Afghan citizen.

Sanchita Bhattacharya

Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India

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