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Taliban eroding Afghanistan's press freedoms

Ole Tangen Jr
January 7, 2022

Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in Afghanistan over the past few months, with many media outlets ceasing operations due to increasing security and financial challenges.

An Afghan female journalist hosts a radio program at the radio-television channel Ghazal in Shiberghan city, in April 2021
While Taliban officials claim women can continue to work, this is not the case for journalistsImage: Mohammad Jan Aria/Imago Images

Selma (name changed) was a journalist and activist living and working in Panjshir province in northeastern Afghanistan. She, like many others, lost her job following the Taliban takeover of the war-ravaged country in August.

After being threatened, she left the region and is now in hiding, selling bolani, a local flat bread, on the streets to survive.

"I worked as a journalist and human rights activist," said Selma, who asked DW not to reveal her true identity for fear of reprisals. "As you know, women's rights are strongly related to religious ideologies, so we were always in dispute with extremists. This put us in danger."

Selma is one of the thousands of journalists and media workers who have lost their jobs in Afghanistan since August.

According to a report published in December by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 40% of media outlets have closed over the past five months with an estimated 6,400 journalists losing their jobs. Hundreds have fled the country. The report added that over 80% of female journalists are now out of work.

Some provinces in Afghanistan have been left with only a handful of media outlets, and those that remain have stopped broadcasting music, pulled foreign content and taken female hosts off the air.

Taliban threaten female journalists

Most have also softened their news coverage out of fear of closure or worse, and now broadcast strictly religious content.

Afghan citizens who enjoyed a variety of media choices over the past two decades now have little access to critical news and information.

"Without a free press capable of exposing bad governance's failings, no one will be able to claim that they are combating famine, poverty, corruption, drug trafficking and the other scourges that afflict Afghanistan and prevent a lasting peace," Reza Moini, the head of RSF's Iran-Afghanistan desk, said in the report.

Taliban: We have a 'free and vibrant press'

In the face of a crumbling media landscape, Taliban officials have been telling the international community that they stand for press freedom and that journalists are not under threat.

In a television interview with DW, the spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, said Afghanistan has a "very free and vibrant press."

"Unfortunately, I do have to say that some media houses have closed down, but that is not because of us," said Balkhi, adding that they were largely the result of a loss of donor funding.

This positive take on the media situation was echoed by Abdul Wahid Rayan, spokesman for the Information and Culture Ministry. "We have meetings and collaborations with journalists and media owners all the time, and anyone who has any problem can share it with us," Rayan told DW. "We believe in freedom of the press."

Since the Taliban took power in August, no Western country has recognized the new government. This has made it difficult for the Islamic fundamentalist group to access international capital and funding.

Even in the face of a looming humanitarian crisis and growing calls for support from the United Nations, foreign governments have so far not recognized the Taliban administration and provided support.

Some observers see the Taliban's stated support of a free press in the country as part of a larger strategy to attract international recognition.

One long-time media observer, who fled to Europe in August and asked not to be named as he fears retribution against his colleagues in Afghanistan, supported this argument.

He told DW if any journalist is arrested or tortured, and it is covered in the international press, it would hurt the Taliban's goal of international recognition.

"My organization has documented dozens of acts of violence against journalists and in not a single case has there been anyone brought to justice," he told DW. "We feel that any talks with the new government should include the situation on the ground with regard to press freedom as a basic human right."

Funding sources dry up

Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the relative peace that came with it, hundreds of media outlets sprung up in all corners of the country.

With funding sources ranging from international donors to local politicians, to indigenous advertising revenue, the country's media landscape expanded to become the most diverse in the region.

The largest commercial television station in the country is TOLO TV, which is owned and operated by MOBY Group. The station was launched in 2004 and it, along with its affiliates, continues to broadcast across Afghanistan.

Saad Mohseni, chairman and CEO of MOBY Group, told DW that there are a range of factors contributing to the shutdowns of media outlets, including the loss of grants from the international community, loss of advertising revenue, lack of staff and intimidation in the provinces.

Though he remains hopeful for the media sector, Mohseni said the daily directives coming from various Taliban ministries were making it difficult for broadcasters to know what can and cannot be aired.

"We have to take it one day at a time," he said.

Ezatullah Akbari, media director of Human Rights Watch and Media Organization, an Afghan media watchdog group, has worked with many of the media outlets outside of Kabul that have since closed.

He said the country could soon lose the majority of its journalists, many of whom he trained.

"A lot of journalists are just leaving Afghanistan as they are out of work and out of money," Akbari told DW.

Afghan journalist fights Taliban for women

Women erased from journalism

For most female journalists, leaving Afghanistan remains the only option.

One of the few remaining in the country is Meena Habib. She has been a reporter for eight years and publishes Roidadha News, a local news website. She also does investigative work for various other news outlets, often focusing on women's issues. She told DW that the situation is dire but that she is continuing to do journalism because she believes in her profession.

"Journalists, especially female journalists, have faced an unclear fate over the last five months since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban," she told DW. She, too, has faced threats by the Taliban and was beaten when covering a women's protest.

After two decades of being free to pursue an education and a career, women like Habib must now live in a new reality where they are no longer equal members of society. While Taliban officials claim women can continue to work, the reality is that in the field of journalism, this is not the case.

According to the Reporters Without Borders report, 15 out of Afghanistan's 36 provinces no longer have a single female reporter. In Kabul, only about a quarter of the women who were working at the start of August are still on the job.

"The progress seen in the past 20 years was swept away in a matter of days by the Taliban takeover," said the report. Habib acknowledged that press freedom does not currently exist under the Taliban but that external pressure could help the remaining journalists.

"The international community should work to ensure that the rights of female journalists who want to continue reporting in their own country are protected," she said.

Unfortunately for Selma, remaining in Afghanistan would mean continuing to live in fear of the Taliban.

Now living alone in a large, unfamiliar city, she is unable to see her family. This has taken a tremendous emotional toll and she is desperately looking for a way to flee.

"I need to find a way out of this darkness," she said.

Ahmad Hakimi and Sifatullah Zahidi contributed to this report.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru