Afghanistan’s journalists and press freedom have been gravely affected by the Taliban takeover in August 2021. In the first three months of the Taliban rule, Afghanistan saw the closure of 43 percent of media outlets. Out of 10,870 media professionals working in Afghan newsrooms at the beginning of August 2021, only 4,360 remained by December 2021. Eighty-four percent of women journalists lost their job in the same time period, bearing the largest brunt of the Taliban restrictions.
Here is a YouTube video about the Taliban requirement for women journalists to cover their faces on TV.
Press freedom has been significantly compromised. Journalists are subject to physical violence and arbitrary detention by the Taliban, forcing themselves to self-censor and remain silent on critical issues. Many have fled the country, having no career prospects and fearing for their safety in Afghanistan. Despite the security and financial challenges, however, Afghan journalists continue to provide coverage of the unfolding events and situation in the country, adapting to the new circumstances.
Global Voices spoke to a representative of the Afghanistan Journalists’ Center (AFJC) to explore how the Taliban control and restrictions have affected media professionals and press freedom in the country. AFJC’s primary goal is to uphold the rights of journalists and safeguard freedom of expression in Afghanistan. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Nurbek Bekmurzaev (NB): What was the situation like with regards to press freedom in Afghanistan before the Taliban rule? How did it change after the Taliban took over the country in August 2021?
AFJC: Before the Taliban rule, Afghanistan had a relatively open media environment compared to their previous rule in the 1990s. However, press freedom was still limited due to security challenges, political instability, and intermittent threats. After August 2021, press freedom immediately deteriorated. Journalists began receiving threats from the Taliban, leading to an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.
Women journalists were particularly affected by the fall of the previous Afghan government, forcing them to lose jobs and stay home due to the new restrictions. The Taliban also implemented measures to restrict engagement with exile media outlets.
AFJC has documented 366 incidents of violations against media freedom during the Taliban's two-year rule. They include three cases of journalists losing their lives, 23 cases of sustaining injuries, 176 detentions involving physical violence and torture, 139 cases of threats, and 25 cases of physical harassment.
Over half of 600 media outlets have ceased operations. A significant number of journalists and media personnel, particularly women, have either lost their jobs or been coerced into leaving the country.
Regrettably, this distressing trend continues unabated. Many media outlets are on the verge of collapse due to a lack of funds and media professionals as well as restrictions imposed on the media.
NB: How has AFJC's work changed since the Taliban takeover? What adjustments have you made to continue upholding press freedom and helping to protect journalists?
AFJC: We have had to prioritize the safety and security of our staff and the journalists we aim to assist. We now operate with increased caution and take measures to protect our team members. This covert mode of operation has enabled us to continue our work more discreetly but effectively.
Another adjustment we made is diversifying our services and support mechanisms. We provide regular training on digital security and encryption techniques to help journalists protect their online communications. Additionally, we provide consultation support for journalists who are arbitrarily detained or face charges and to their family on how to deal with such a situation.
Furthermore, we have intensified our advocacy efforts on both national and international levels, to raise awareness about press freedom violations in Afghanistan. AFJC continued the operation of its Afghanistan Press Freedom Tracker as the only platform documenting press freedom violations in the country. We collaborate with international media and press freedom partners to ensure Afghan journalists’ voices are heard worldwide and to exert pressure on the Taliban to respect freedom of the press.
It is crucial to maintain and support the remaining media outlets in Afghanistan. This can be achieved through training programs that enhance journalism skills, or supporting AFJC’s Afghanistan Press Freedom Tracker to help the organization to raise awareness about attacks on journalists, censorship, and other threats.
NB: How does the Taliban attempt to control the media? What are the main challenges to press freedom and media outlets nowadays?
AFJC: The Taliban exerts control over the media through various tactics to mold the narrative according to their ideology and agenda. Under direct control, the Taliban intimidates the media community by threatening and detaining journalists, creating an atmosphere of fear that discourages reporting on their activities. They also monitor media publications, using the General Directorate of Intelligence and the Ministry of Vice and Virtue to punish those who break their media policy.
The Taliban has a presence in journalists’ WhatsApp groups to monitor discussions and provide instructions on adhering to their media policies. Moreover, they impose restrictions on media outlets, limiting their coverage of certain topics.
The Taliban also actively disseminates propaganda through their own radio stations, social media platforms, and websites, aiming to control the narrative, promote their ideology, and discredit dissenting voices.
Press freedom and media outlets face further challenges beyond the Taliban control. Disinformation and fake news are used to undermine the credibility of legitimate media. Furthermore, journalists and media professionals face online harassment, threats, and cyberattacks, which can lead to self-censorship or withdrawal from reporting on certain issues.
NB: What difficulties do Afghan journalists, especially women, face in their work? What methods, if any, are they using to circumvent the restrictions?
AFJC: Afghan journalists confront significant obstacles in their work. Women journalists face even more challenges, stemming from gender discrimination and societal norms. State-run media outlets ban women from participating, with the exception of appearances on private television channels where their faces must remain covered.
Additionally, they are prohibited from interviewing Taliban officials or any other men, while also enduring workplace segregation and restrictions. A complete ban on their work is feared, exacerbating their plight.
To tackle these limitations, Afghan journalists employ various strategies. They often resort to self-censorship to navigate sensitive topics while still providing crucial news coverage.
Many journalists take to digital platforms, anonymously utilizing social media, independent blogs, messaging apps like Whatsapp, and other internet platforms that offer a safer space compared to traditional media outlets. This enables them to reach broader audiences and share perspectives with reduced risk.
Alternatively, some journalists seek refuge abroad or contribute anonymously to international reporting or exiled media outlets.
NB: What kind of training opportunities exist for the current and future journalists in Afghanistan?
AFJC: Unfortunately, the Taliban takeover has resulted in a decrease in training opportunities for journalists and media workers and advocacy activities. To ensure the survival and strengthening of Afghan media outlets, it is imperative to support and provide training opportunities for the local media community.
Moreover, universities and journalism schools in Afghanistan should be supported to offer updated theoretical and practical training through internships and hands-on projects. Some international organizations occasionally fund training initiatives to strengthen journalism in Afghanistan.
Providing training programs and support to the journalists inside the country and for those who are in exile instills hope that journalism in Afghanistan can continue to thrive and flourish with continued support and investment.