Taliban show ‘no commitment to press freedom’
A year after the Taliban took power, Afghan media faces censorship, violence and economic hardship, with women’s voices largely silenced.
As the anniversary of the takeover approaches, journalists and media freedom groups, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have assessed the situation the country’s once vibrant media.
Separately, journalists who spoke to VOA described restrictive guidelines, and those in remote provinces said conditions were harsher, including that media outlets must seek permission before publishing.
Women journalists are banned from public media and those in the private sector can only appear on television if their faces are covered. Others say they are intimidated to stop working.
With the media no longer able to carry popular music or soap operas and entertainment programs, and sources of advertising revenue cut off, many outlets ceased to operate.
Taliban rules restricted press freedom and paved the way for “repression and persecution”, media watchdog RSF found in a new report.
The Taliban show “no commitment to press freedom,” Paris-based RSF spokeswoman Pauline Ades-Mevel told VOA. “They took very tough action against journalists.”
New York-based CPJ separately found that Afghan journalists are “struggling to survive” under censorship, arrests, attacks and restrictions on women.
The result is fear and self-censorship, local watchdogs say.
Journalists “are afraid of the consequences of covering a news item,” a member of an Afghan media watchdog told VOA.
He added that journalists “do not feel safe” working under the Taliban. “The media cannot operate freely if there is no freedom of expression.”
The Kabul-based lawyer asked that neither he nor his organization be named for fear of reprisals.
Since August 2021, the Afghan watchdog he works for has documented at least 183 instances of violence and more than 90 arrests. “The perpetrators of around 95% of these cases are the Taliban,” the watchdog representative said.
The lawyer believes that the real figure is higher but that journalists do not report the incidents because the Taliban “make them promise not to share their cases”.
The Taliban, however, deny that journalists are in danger.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA: “In the past many journalists were killed and many others were imprisoned or faced problems, but it was not like that. Last year.
For journalists from the Afghan provinces, the restrictions are more severe. Journalists must seek permission to cover certain issues such as protests or security, and women are prohibited from working in the media.
“Before covering a story, we must inform the Taliban provincial authorities about the subject and obtain their permission,” said a journalist from the southern province of Helmand, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
“Due to censorship, we are not allowed to cover security issues,” he told VOA. Such measures, he said, “have forced [journalists] to self-censor. »
Spokesman Mujahid told VOA the directive was to help, not censor, the media.
“It was said that the subject and the report will be decided by the journalists, and we will help them find their way [to report] and not face violence.
The Taliban ordered local media not to air any music or entertainment programs, including foreign soap operas.
But a more worrying aspect, according to rights advocates, is the banning of women’s voices on the radio.
“We are told that there should be no female voices in our programs,” said the Helmand reporter.
In its assessment of the Taliban’s impact on the Afghan media, RSF found only 328 media outlets out of 543 still active. In addition, 7,098 journalists, 76% of them women working in the media, lost their jobs.
Taliban pressure on the media, combined with the country’s deteriorating economic situation, has led to media outlets being shut down, RSF’s Ades-Mevel said.
She told VOA that the situation in Afghanistan is “extremely concerning as we see more and more pressure and censorship in the country.”
Another problem is the uncertainty regarding media laws.
In February, the Taliban said they had no problem with the media law under the former government and promised to revive the media violations commission to serve as a platform for journalists to report attacks and imprisonments.
“But the Taliban didn’t keep their promises,” said Gul Mohammad Gran of the Federation of Journalists and Media of Afghanistan.
“The Taliban promised that the security forces would not interfere in media affairs, and all cases will be handled by the commissions,” Gran said. “Unfortunately, that was not the case.”
Gran said the Taliban places limits on anything that does not conform to their views and “imposes rules on the media based on their personal desires and preferences.”
Spokesman Mujahid told VOA that the Taliban have since reviewed and made changes to the media law, which awaits final approval.
“We want them [the media] to act in accordance with Islamic principles, values and the national interest of Afghanistan,” he said.
Mujahid said the media violations commission would resume its work after the new law is enforced.
Support and training
Prior to the takeover, most newspaper companies relied on support from international organizations and advertising revenue from government or private companies.
The CPJ report indicates that foreign aid accounts for up to 45% of the Afghan economy. But with the takeover “which abruptly stopped”.
The international community must find “creative ways to support the continued functioning of the media inside Afghanistan,” said Steven Butler, senior program consultant at CPJ.
This, he added, could come in the form of financial aid or training.
Journalists on the ground spoke about the impact of economic hardship on their work.
“Unfortunately, our expenses are much higher than our income,” Zahid Shah Angar told VOA.
Radio station founder Suli Paigham in eastern Khost said most media outlets in his province had laid off staff.
“We can’t afford them. We lost our income,” he said.
Angar and other Afghan media called on international organizations to support the media.
“We have had meetings with national and international organizations, but no one is helping us.”
If the issues are not resolved, he said, more outlets will close in the coming months, with “serious consequences for journalism in Afghanistan”.
Zeba Khadem of VOA’s Afghan service contributed to this story.