The Taliban escalated pressure on Afghanistan’s most popular private TV station this week, when gunmen raided its Kabul offices and briefly detained three employees after telling the station to stop broadcasting foreign television dramas.
Moby Group, which owns several media outlets in the country including Tolo TV and Tolonews, wrote on Thursday on its verified Twitter account that it had been instructed by Taliban authorities to stop showing drama series on television.
Hours later, the tweets were deleted and it was reported that Taliban authorities had detained three Tolo TV employees including a news presenter.
All three were released later, the channel has confirmed.
Taliban gunmen raided the channel’s office in Kabul on Thursday, arresting the employees and forcing the newsroom “at gunpoint” to remove Tolo’s tweets about the Taliban’s ban on foreign drama series, according to Lotfullah Najafizada, a former head of Tolonews who now lives in the United States.
The media group had said it was obeying the Taliban order and would “temporarily” cease broadcasting foreign drama series beginning late Thursday.
Many Afghan households watch the TV series, which are mostly Turkish and Indian. Their popularity has made them a financial lifeline for the troubled private media sector in the country.
Taliban officials have not publicly commented on the specific events so far.
However an unverified Twitter handle of Taliban’s intelligence agency wrote on Friday evening that some media outlets had refused to stop airing content “hurting our society’s religious sentiments and threatening our national security” and had been forced to do so.
“We’re committed to the freedom of expression within the confines of Islam and Sharia, but will not allow anyone to violate our Islamic values and threaten our people’s psychological security or our national security under different names,” the statement reads.
Taliban officials must “stop detaining and intimidating members of the Afghanistan press corps,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan also said it was deeply concerned about the arrests of Tolonews employees and called on the Taliban to release them immediately.
Since their return to power last year, the Taliban have been criticized for imposing widespread censorship on free media and harassing and illegally detaining journalists.
“Taliban authorities have carried out far-reaching censorship and violence against Afghan media in district and provincial centers, drastically limiting critical reporting in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch said in a report on March 7.
The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate has banned the appearance and voices of female journalists and presenters on state-run television and radio. Taliban authorities have also banned most entertainment programs on private TV channels, calling such content not Islamic and morally inappropriate.
More than 230 media outlets have been closed and thousands of journalists, most of them female, have lost their jobs, Reporters Without Borders said in a report last month. Hundreds of Afghan journalists have left the country over the past seven months.
The Moby Group, which received funding from the U.S. before the sudden collapse of the former Afghan government, also received assistance to evacuate most of its journalists and staff from Afghanistan last year.
Taliban spokesmen, however, have consistently denied media censorship and have rejected assertions that they are heavily restricting Afghan journalists.