‘Everything changed overnight’: Afghan reporters face an intolerant regime

Beloved shows removed from the airwaves. A television station cutting from a news report a story about a pregnant police officer who was reportedly fatally shot by the Taliban. A radio editor telling his colleagues to edit out anti-Taliban cheers from coverage of demonstrations in the capital.

>>Sharif HassanThe New York Times
Published : 11 Sept 2021, 08:45 PM
Updated : 11 Sept 2021, 08:49 PM

Afghanistan’s vibrant free press and media industry, once celebrated as a success story and labelled one of the country’s most important achievements of the past two decades, has abruptly been transformed after the Taliban takeover of the country. Now, its survival is threatened by physical assaults, self-censorship and a dwindling journalist population less than a month after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the capital, and began enforcing their hard-line Islamist policies.

The Taliban’s crackdown on the free press was even more evident Wednesday after two Afghan journalists were detained and violently assaulted for covering a protest in Kabul. Photos showed the backsides of both reporters covered with bruises and gashes from being whipped repeatedly with cables, sparking an international outcry.

“The situation of free media is very critical,” said Neda, an anchor for a local television station in Kabul, identified by her nickname to protect her identity. “No one dares to ask the Taliban about their past wrongdoings and the atrocities they have committed.”

More than a dozen Afghan journalists, media workers and advocates interviewed by The New York Times said local television networks, newspapers and news websites have continued their coverage under the shadow of fear, intimidation and self-censorship — all while struggling to deliver news despite the Taliban releasing very little information.

The Taliban haven’t yet issued any specific instructions for the media, but they have said all Afghan outlets should reset their coverage based on Islamic laws and national interests, both vaguely defined terms that could easily pave the way for the persecution of journalists critical of the new government.

After the previous government collapsed in mid-August, hundreds of media workers, including dozens of journalists, fled the country, according to The Times’ own count. More than half of Afghanistan’s media organisations have halted operations because of safety concerns, an uncertain future and financial problems, said Ahmad Quriashi, director of Afghanistan Journalists Center, a media support organisation.

Under a refugee program expanded by the US Department of State in early August, Afghans employed by US media organisations became eligible for resettlement in the United States, which further fuelled the exodus.

An injured journalist looks on after being beaten by the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan September 8, 2021 in this picture obtained from social media. Etilaatroz/via REUTERS

The result is an Afghan media that may not be able to recover or regain the freedom it enjoyed in the past two decades.

“It was like a dream,” Quriashi said, referring to the press freedoms that followed the Taliban’s ouster in 2001. Over two decades, Afghan media outlets uncovered corruption, exposed human rights abuses and won international recognition and awards.

Media and entertainment were more broadly transformed, as the United States financed television networks, newspapers and radio stations, helping them reach millions of Afghans throughout the country.

At its height, Afghan media boasted hundreds of outlets operating in the country. In July, the former government’s minister of information and culture, Qasim Wafayezada, said that 248 television networks, 438 radio stations, 1,669 print outlets and 119 news agencies were active across Afghanistan.

But “everything changed overnight for the media” once the Taliban returned to power, Quriashi said, despite the group’s promises to preserve a free press.

Turkish and Indian soap operas that ran on most television networks for hours everyday have vanished in recent weeks, and reality and music shows also have gone off air.

Tolo News, the country’s largest broadcaster, halted the production of Shabake Khanda or “Laughing Network,” a popular political comedy show watched by millions of Afghans on Friday nights.

Even though many female presenters appeared on local televisions a few days after the Taliban’s takeover, hosting shows and reporting on current events, the number appearing on air has since dropped to only four, said Neda, the female television anchor.

The Taliban haven’t allowed female journalists to return to work at the state-owned radio and television station, and have banned most from working with media in the provinces, according to Reporters Without Borders.

“Women journalists must be able to resume working without being harassed as soon as possible,” Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement last week.

The Taliban have also pressured some outlets to share their news reports before publication, according to several journalists who said they refused to comply. And some may be self-censoring negative news for fear of retaliation.

“What we see on local media these days doesn’t reflect the realities on the ground at all,” said Hayat, a reporter for a television network. “We have no other option for now, we have to compromise and censor ourselves until we find a way to leave.”

An armed Taliban member watches over a Taliban news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 24, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

Etilaat e Roz newspaper is among the few or, according to some, the only media outlet, that has continued covering the news without self-censorship, apparently undeterred by the fearful environment in Kabul. While it has halted its investigative reports due to inaccessibility of information, the paper has been covering the daily news — even reports critical of the new Taliban government.

This week, the newspaper experienced the Taliban’s heavy-handed response to critical reporting.

On Wednesday, the Taliban rounded up scores of demonstrators around Kabul and journalists covering the protests, subjecting them to abuse in overcrowded jails, according to journalists who were present. The crackdown on the demonstrations and the ensuing coverage followed a Taliban announcement Tuesday that protests would not be allowed without government approval. At least 19 journalists were detained Tuesday and Wednesday, the United Nations said.

“You’re lucky you have not been beheaded,” Taliban guards told one detained journalist as they kicked him in the head, Ravina Shamdasdani, a spokesperson for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, told reporters.

Reporters with Etilaat e Roz described being detained at the protests, then brought to a nearby police station where they were tied up and beaten with cables.

Taqi Daryabi, one of the reporters, said about a half-dozen Taliban members handcuffed him behind his back when he was on the ground on his stomach, then began kicking and hitting him until he lost consciousness.

“They beat so much that I couldn’t resist or move,” he said. “They forced me to the ground on my stomach, flogging me on my buttocks and back, and the ones who were in the front were kicking me in the face.”

Reporters working for Tolo News, Ariana News, Pajhwok News Agency and several freelance journalists have also been detained and beaten by the Taliban in the past three weeks, according to local media reports.

“The Taliban is quickly proving that earlier promises to allow Afghanistan’s independent media to continue operating freely and safely are worthless,” Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement Wednesday. “We urge the Taliban to live up to those earlier promises, to stop beating and detaining reporters doing their job.”

On top of the dangerous environment, the flow of information from the government has slowed and become limited. There used to be dozens of government spokesmen; now there are only a handful speaking for the new Taliban government, and they are less responsive than during the group’s insurgency.

In the late 1990s, the Taliban imposed strict restrictions on the media, banning television and using the state-owned radio and newspapers as propaganda platforms. But the group promised greater openness toward freedom of expression once it seized power last month.

“We will respect freedom of the press, because media reporting will be useful to society and will be able to help correct the leaders’ errors,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the acting deputy information and culture minister, told Reporters Without Borders last week. “We declare to the world that we recognise the importance of the role of the media.”

Many Afghan journalists said those promises are just “words” by Taliban’s leaders, citing recent assaults on reporters in Kabul and elsewhere.

“Press freedom is dead in Afghanistan,” said Quriashi, the media advocate. “And the society without a free press dies.”

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Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher