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Taliban Claim Media Reform as Journalists Decry Censorship

FILE - Afghan journalists Banafsha Binesh, right, speaks with her colleague Wheeda Hassan, at TOLO TV's newsroom in Kabul, Feb. 8, 2022.
FILE - Afghan journalists Banafsha Binesh, right, speaks with her colleague Wheeda Hassan, at TOLO TV's newsroom in Kabul, Feb. 8, 2022.

Taliban leaders are touting the success of so-called media reforms which bar state and private TV channels in Afghanistan from showing programs considered indecent — such as foreign movies or songs by female singers — or any content that is critical of Islam or the Taliban themselves.

“Ninety-five percent of the visual and audio media outlets in the country have been reformed,” Hayatullah Mohajir Farahi, deputy information and culture minister in the Taliban’s caretaker Cabinet, told a press conference in Kabul Tuesday.

To implement its regulations, the Taliban leadership has set up a media monitoring office that screens every broadcast program for full compliance with strict Islamic and political preferences.

In practice, experts say, the so-called reforms amount to extensive censorship of a seriously weakened Afghan media. Among other restrictions, the Taliban have ordered female anchors to wear facemasks and headscarves when presenting TV programs.

Over the past year, at least 245 cases of censorship, detention and violence against media personnel have been reported, according to the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFCJ), one of the few media support groups still left.

The Taliban say no journalist has died in the country since the group returned to power in August 2021. At least 10 journalists were killed in Afghanistan in 2020 and 2021, figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists show, and the Taliban were blamed for some of the deaths.

“It's good news that no journalist has been murdered in the past one year, but we should also know that more than 130 journalists and media personnel were detained and some were tortured by the Taliban in the same period,” said a representative from AFCJ who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

At least three journalists, several video bloggers and a U.S. filmmaker and her producer are in Taliban detention right now.

Media law

The Taliban have annulled Afghanistan’s constitution, which modeled the country into an Islamic republic and offered protections for free media and equal rights for women. Instead, the group has declared the country an Islamic emirate with their unseen leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, as an undisputed supreme ruler.

The dilution of the country’s media law, last amended in 2019 and which offered extensive press liberties, is all but certain.

“The media law was recently reviewed by the Ministry of Information and Culture … and some amendments were made in regard to religious and cultural issues and [the draft] has been sent to the leadership for approval,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman.

It is not clear if or when the Taliban leadership will approve the amended media law and then how the leadership will implement it.

Thus far, the Taliban’s feared intelligence agency has directly dealt with alleged cases of media violations mostly by detaining, threatening and even torturing journalists, media advocacy groups have reported.

On Tuesday, Taliban officials also announced the establishment of a media violations commission that will handle media complaints.

Unlike the media commission under the former Afghan government, the Taliban’s media commission has no female members or journalists, and no representative from the Afghan human rights commission. The Taliban dissolved the country’s only human rights commission earlier this year without explanation.

The new media commission has several officials from the Ministry of Information and Culture, media support groups and an Islamic scholar, the AFJC said.

No protests, no coverage

Among other restrictions, the Taliban have instructed media outlets to stay away from peaceful protests.

Since taking power, the Taliban have faced sporadic protests, primarily by women’s rights activists, who call for the reopening of secondary schools for girls, work opportunities and political rights for women.

“Recent protests have been illegal and therefore filming and reporting on them is also illegal,” said Mujahid, adding that protesters must seek permits from Taliban authorities before marching in the streets.

The U.N. and human rights organizations have repeatedly condemned the Taliban’s policies toward women and the press.

“The de facto authorities have increasingly limited the freedom of peaceful assembly. To disperse protests, they often use excessive force, including live ammunition, batons, whips, pepper spray and tear gas, and house raids to target protesters, thereby heightening people’s fear of reprisals for publicly expressing dissent,” a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan reported on Sept. 6.

Hundreds of journalists and media personnel have left Afghanistan over the past year and more than 80 percent of female journalists have lost their jobs, according to media advocacy groups.

“I think the media makers and TV producers are driven by a desire to serve the public with news, entertainment, and other programs that people crave and need, especially in their current extra-difficult circumstances,” said Wazhmah Osman, author of a book on Afghan television culture and associate professor at Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University in Pennsylvania. She spoke to VOA.

Despite prevalent risks and challenges, some 210 TV and radio stations and more than 100 publications are active in Afghanistan.