After two years of legal ambiguity and stringent restrictions on free press, de facto Taliban authorities have submitted a draft of a new Afghanistan media law for approval by their supreme leader.
The draft, shrouded in secrecy until now, will regulate the Islamist leadership's fraught and sometimes combative relationship with journalists as well as state and private media bodies.
With no parliament or a constitution in the Taliban's self-declared Islamic Emirate, only the reclusive supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, holds unchecked power over the fate of the country's laws, including the new media law.
In an exclusive interview with VOA, the Taliban's chief spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, unveiled some details of the new law.
"About 70% of it [the draft] is taken from the old law," said Mujahid, adding that the changes that were made are aimed at aligning the law with Islamic Sharia law. The media law enacted under the previous Afghan government also required that all media activities be in accordance with Islamic law.
When asked about gender-based restrictions in the new law, the Taliban spokesperson said no such restrictions are stipulated in the new draft and that "all the citizens of Afghanistan" would be able to set up, manage and work for media entities.
Foreign media, including international broadcasters such as the BBC and Voice of America along with freelance journalists, will be allowed to operate in Afghanistan provided that they comply with domestic laws.
In the backdrop of Afghanistan's efforts to cultivate democratic institutions over the last two decades, media outlets and press advocacy groups thrived on funding and support from international donors.
However, the Taliban have shown deep suspicion about Western-funded programs in support of democracy and human rights, and Mujahid did not clarify if Afghan media outlets will be allowed to receive foreign funding.
"The law requires that funding sources must be transparent," he said emphatically.
VOA spoke to several media support organizations and journalists in Afghanistan who said they were not consulted by Taliban authorities when drafting the new media law.
"We were expecting that we could at least provide some inputs, but unfortunately no opportunity was provided," said Abdul Qadeem Wyar, president of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC).
"Not a single female journalist was consulted," said a female journalist who did not want to be named in this article, fearing Taliban persecution.
Another female journalist, who also did not want to be named, decried the Taliban's unilateral policymaking for the media as "despotic" saying "journalists are not criminals with no civil rights."
Since seizing power in 2021, the Taliban have imposed gender-based restrictions on journalists such as mandatory facemasks for women on television. As a result, more than 80% of the country's female journalists have been forced to quit their job, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Dozens of journalists detained
The Taliban have reportedly detained dozens of journalists and media personnel over the last two years, some were allegedly tortured, but most were released after spending days or weeks in detention.
Most journalists were arrested by the Taliban's General Directorate for Intelligence, the GDI, a feared agency that has also reportedly detained and at times tortured human rights activists.
The arrests of journalists are carried out in violation of the existing media law, which tasks a Media Complaints and Rights Violations Commission to determine violations and refer cases to judicial bodies without involving the intelligence agency.
In the new draft law, the MCRVC is preserved, although the GDI could intervene in matters of national security, according to Taliban officials.
While it is unclear if and when the Taliban supreme leader would bestow his approval on the new media law, the mere existence of the law is perceived as a positive step.
"Better have a law than no law," said Wyar from the AJSC, who cautiously expressed optimism that the law would legalize and protect journalism under a government that is only ruled by decrees from an unseen supreme leader thus far.