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Sunday, September 26, 2021

‘Everything Changed Overnight’: Afghan Reporters Face an Intolerant Regime


Favorite shows have been pulled from the airwaves. A television station cut a storey about a pregnant police officer who was reportedly fatally shot by the Taliban from a news report. A radio editor instructs his colleagues to remove anti-Taliban cheers from coverage of capital demonstrations.

Afghanistan’s thriving free press and media industry, once heralded as a success storey and regarded as one of the country’s most significant achievements over the last two decades, was abruptly transformed following the Taliban’s takeover of the country. Less than a month after the Taliban seized control of Kabul and began enforcing their hard-line Islamist policies, its survival is threatened by physical assaults, self-censorship, and a dwindling journalist population.

The Taliban’s crackdown on the free press became clearer on Wednesday, when two Afghan journalists were detained and violently assaulted while covering a protest in Kabul. Photos of both reporters’ backsides covered in bruises and gashes from being whipped repeatedly with cables sparked an international outcry.

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

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

The Taliban has not yet issued specific instructions to the media, but they have stated that all Afghan outlets should refocus their coverage on Islamic laws and national interests, both of which are vaguely defined terms that could easily lead to the persecution of journalists critical of the new government.

According to The Times, after the previous government fell apart in mid-August, hundreds of media workers, including dozens of journalists, fled the country. According to Ahmad Quriashi, director of the Afghanistan Journalists Center, a media support organisation, more than half of Afghanistan’s media organisations have ceased operations due to safety concerns, an uncertain future, and financial difficulties.

Afghans working for US media organisations became eligible for resettlement in the US under a refugee programme expanded by the US State Department in early August, fueling the exodus even further.

As a result, the Afghan media may be unable to recover or reclaim the freedom it enjoyed over the previous two decades.

Mr. Quriashi described the press freedoms that followed the Taliban’s ouster in 2001 as “like a dream.” Afghan media outlets have unearthed corruption, exposed human rights violations, and received international recognition and awards over the last two decades.

Media and entertainment were more broadly transformed as the US funded television networks, newspapers, and radio stations, allowing them to reach millions of Afghans across the country.

At its peak, Afghan media had hundreds of outlets operating throughout the country. Qasim Wafayezada, the former government’s minister of information and culture, stated in July that Afghanistan had 248 television networks, 438 radio stations, 1,669 print outlets, and 119 news agencies.

However, once the Taliban regained power, “everything changed overnight for the media,” according to Mr. Quriashi, despite the group’s promises to maintain a free press.

Turkish and Indian soap operas that aired on most television networks for hours every day have vanished in recent weeks, as have reality and music shows.

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

Despite the fact that many female presenters appeared on local televisions a few days after the Taliban’s takeover, hosting shows and reporting on current events, the number of female presenters on air has since dropped to only four, according to Neda, a female television anchor.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the Taliban have not allowed female journalists to return to work at the state-owned radio and television stations, and have prohibited most from working with media in the provinces.

“Women journalists must be able to return to work without fear of harassment as soon as possible,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire in a statement last week.

According to several journalists who refused to comply, the Taliban has also pressured some outlets to share their news reports before publication. In addition, some people may be self-censoring negative news out of fear of retaliation.

“What we see on local media these days does not reflect the realities on the ground at all,” said Hayat, a television network reporter. “For the time being, we have no choice but to compromise and censor ourselves until we can find a way to leave.”

Etilaat e Roz newspaper is one of the few, if not the only, media outlets that has continued to cover the news without self-censorship, seemingly unafraid of the fearful environment in Kabul. While it has ceased investigative reporting due to a lack of information, the paper has continued to cover daily news, including reports critical of the new Taliban government.

This week, the newspaper was subjected to the Taliban’s harsh retaliation for critical reporting.

According to journalists who were present, the Taliban rounded up scores of demonstrators and journalists covering the protests in Kabul on Wednesday, subjecting them to abuse in overcrowded jails. The crackdown on the protests, as well as the subsequent coverage, came in response to a Taliban announcement on Tuesday that protests would not be permitted without government approval. According to the UN, at least 19 journalists were detained on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“You’re lucky you weren’t beheaded,” Taliban guards told one detained journalist as they kicked him in the head, according to Ravina Shamdasdani, a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office in Geneva.

Reporters from Etilaat e Roz said they were detained during the protests and then taken to a nearby police station, where they were tied up and beaten with cables.

One of the reporters, Taqi Daryabi, said a half-dozen Taliban members handcuffed him behind his back while he was lying on his stomach, then kicked and hit him until he lost consciousness.

“They beat me so hard that I couldn’t resist or move,” he explained. “They flogged me on my stomach, buttocks, and back, and the ones in front were kicking me in the face.”

According to local media reports, reporters for Tolo News, Ariana News, Pajhwok News Agency, and several freelance journalists have been detained and beaten by the Taliban in the last three weeks.

“The Taliban is quickly demonstrating that earlier promises to allow Afghanistan’s independent media to operate freely and safely are meaningless,” said Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement Wednesday. “We urge the Taliban to keep their earlier promises and stop beating and detaining journalists doing their jobs.”

In addition to the hazardous environment, the flow of information from the government has slowed and become extremely limited. There used to be dozens of government spokesmen; now, there are only a few, and they are less responsive than they were during the group’s insurgency.

The Taliban imposed strict media restrictions in the late 1990s, banning television and using state-owned radio and newspapers as propaganda platforms. However, after seizing power last month, the group promised greater openness to freedom of expression.

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

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

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

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