In this picture taken on September 8, 2021, Afghan newspaper Etilaat Roz journalists Nematullah Naqdi (R) and Taqi Daryabi sit in their office after being released from Taliban custody in Kabul. - Two Afghan journalists have shown off ugly welts and bruises after being beaten and detained for hours by Taliban fighters for covering a protest in the Afghan capital.
In this picture taken on September 8, 2021, Afghan newspaper Etilaat Roz journalists Nematullah Naqdi (R) and Taqi Daryabi sit in their office after being released from Taliban custody in Kabul. - Two Afghan journalists have shown off ugly welts and bruises after being beaten and detained for hours by Taliban fighters for covering a protest in the Afghan capital. © WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Afghanistan: Journalism Amid the Darkness

Despite brutal repression, independent outlets continue to provide a rare and precious source of information.

Wednesday, 1 May, 2024

Long before the Taleban takeover on August 15, 2021, Afghanistan’s media faced harsh criticism from its citizens.  

Ordinary people complained that it was ineffective in holding the powerful to account, while officials in turn decried journalists for, as they saw it, failing to appreciate the government’s achievements. The then-president, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, once famously joked in a speech that the media was “as ineffective as the wind,” with no useful role or impact.  

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There was little appreciation from any quarter of the unprecedented flourishing of a sector unheard of before the fall of the first Taleban regime in 2001. 

But with the Taleban’s return and their severe suppression of the press, Afghan society has realised that when the media are silenced, darkness and fear rule.  

“The Taleban shut down domestic outlets or turned them into propaganda centres.”

The Taleban either shut down domestic outlets or turned them into propaganda centres. As expected, they targeted, arrested and detained journalists; they visited TV studios with their weapons on full display and stood next to reporters and presenters to demonstrate their authority. 

Nonetheless, Afghan journalists did not surrender to their intimidation campaign. Many lost their jobs or were forced to flee the country, but others continued their work in secret or joined the ranks of media-in-exile.  

Today, these independent outlets provide a rare and precious channel of information for the people of Afghanistan. A sector once deemed so ineffective is now the sole source of credible information on national and international affairs. 

Journalists from my newspaper, Etillat Roz, never stopped reporting and even briefly considered staying in Afghanistan after the Taleban takeover. However, it soon became clear that the regime would not allow any independent media to continue its activities. The detention and torture of two of our reporters as they attempted to cover a woman’s protest in September 2021 showed how brutal the Taleban’s policies would be.  

It was then that we decided to move operations abroad. Our new headquarters are in Maryland, near Washington DC, and we have contributors reporting from around the world, including several dozen in secret from within Afghanistan. Although the Taleban have severely hampered access to independent media outlets for those in-country, Etilaat Roz’s internal data shows that the majority of our audience are in Afghanistan. But outlets like ours face complex hurdles. 

Former female radio presenter Marya Sultani during an interview with AFP at radio station Urooj in Farah province on October 10, 2021. Radio station Urooj once teamed with journalists producing news bulletins, but since the Taliban came to town, Ebrahim Parhar sits alone, broadcasting hours of religious sermons. © AFP via Getty Images

Oppressive Policies

The main tool of journalists is information. A lack of sufficient and quick access to reliable information hampers verification and, in some cases, makes the media’s work impossible.   

Since coming to power, the Taleban have severely restricted this access to sources. Interviews with officials are either impossible or only allowed under strict supervision and surveillance, often accompanied by intimidation.  

Another challenge is the lack of resources. The Taleban, of course, neither have the financial capability to support the media nor believe in the operation of an independent press. They have also banned financial support for local media in Afghanistan.  

Most journalists remaining in the country are under extraordinary economic strain. Understandably, when they weigh the risks of harassment, detention and torture against the meagre financial rewards they receive, many prefer not to endanger their and their families’ safety.  

“Advocates of independent media are depicted as promoters of obscenity and blasphemy.”

Women journalists have suffered the most. They have been completely deprived of their rights to employment, civil liberties and to voice their concerns; they have even been banned from traveling without a male guardian.  

And although the Taleban try to portray a softer image of themselves to the people of Afghanistan and international observers, in practice they have not eased their oppressive policies at all.  

The Taleban see journalists as foreign spies and part of the “army of Satan”. Only those who serve as government propagandists are considered legitimate.  

During the 20 years following the fall of the first Taleban regime, the constitution and a set of laws governing the media guaranteed the rights of the citizens to freedom of expression and the independent journalism. Legal provisions forbade the government and power holders to arbitrarily restrict or punish journalists.  

The new rulers were quick to abolish all these protections. 

Other tactics to silence freedom of expression include systematically instilling fear into journalists, as well as stirring up religious sentiments and xenophobia to legitimise this suppression.  

Advocates of independent media are depicted as “promoters of obscenity and blasphemy” and “mercenaries of foreigners with a mission to undermine the religious and family values of the Afghan people”. The Taleban have repeatedly detained journalists and media activists on charges of “undermining the regime and spying for foreigners” and subjected them to harassment and torture; they are only released after providing written commitments to stop working in independent outlets. Their families are also subjected to harassment and intimidation to increase the cost of pursuing free journalism.  

The Taleban routinely sack those they deem suspicious or disloyal from jobs in television, radio and print media. The message is clear; if journalists show the slightest sign of independence, they have no place in the country’s media structure. 

Reporters for Tolo News cover their faces as they attend an editorial meeting at Tolo TV station in Kabul on May 22, 2022. © WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Vital Support 

The impact of this onslaught of oppression has forced so many journalists to either leave Afghanistan or change career to stay safe. As a result, the media sector has drastically shrunk, and lacks the resources to cover the entire country.  

The independent media outlets in Afghanistan are the sole source of information for people, striving, despite considerable pressure and constraint, to prevent the complete collapse of their country into darkness and oblivion by keeping civil and democratic discourses alive. 

The main challenge the diaspora media faces is financial – the sector lacks the necessary budget to improve their work, develop professional staff and hire experienced journalists.  

Amid the Taleban’s widespread control over information channels, one of the urgent needs of the Afghan media sector is to train a new cohort of journalists who know how to safely navigate the volatile and dangerous political landscape and to tell the truth to the Afghan public and the international community.  

As the global community and the Afghan opposition alike struggle with how to deal with the Taleban and their regressive policies, journalists play a vital role in keeping the space illuminated.  

It is these journalists who report on the significant risks posed by the Taliban’s actions, the precarious economic situation and the rapid decline of education, culture, and civil society in Afghanistan. They urgently need international support. 

Zaki Daryabi is the founding director of Etillat Roz.

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