Uncertainty over restrictions for Afghanistan's provincial media is making it impossible for journalists to work under the Taliban, local journalists and station managers say.
Media need prior approval to cover news, in some provinces women are still not allowed to work, several stations have dropped entertainment segments, and others have stopped broadcasting altogether.
On Monday, representatives from 85 local radio stations met with members of the Talban to ask the group to clarify its position on the media laws under the previous government. They also asked that female journalists be allowed to work.
"We are facing financial and security problems," said Freshta Karimi, the director of Radio Sahar, who participated in the meeting.
"We have lost four to five of our employees because of lack of funding. As you know, it is not that secure (to work) in the provinces," she told VOA.
Noorullah Hashemi, deputy director of Salam Watandar radio network and one of the organizers of the meeting, told VOA the gathering allowed provincial media outlets and journalists to "discuss the challenges" after the Taliban takeover.
During the meeting, the communication director for the Taliban prime minister's office, Jamal Nasir Farahmand, acknowledged there were problems and said a "strong commitment (exists) to defend the rights of media, journalists and civil society activists."
Journalists, however, told VOA regulations imposed by Taliban provincial authorities make it hard to report.
"We can't do our job of informing people," a radio journalist who has worked in southern Helmand province for three years, told VOA. "We have to contact (the Taliban) and tell them about our coverage plan. Without their permission, we are not allowed to report on any issue.
The journalist, like several with whom VOA spoke for this article, asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
The provincial director for information and culture in Helmand has told media organizations that they need prior approval for coverage, the radio journalist said. "Radio channels will shut if media in the province are not supported and the restrictions are not lifted."
No clear policy
Southern Helmand province had 16 radio and TV stations before the Taliban's takeover, but only five have resumed broadcasts, journalists in the province said.
Some stations suspended broadcasting during heavy fighting in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, in July and August. But six months later they are still not back on air.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Border (RSF) said last month that at least 40 percent of news outlets in Afghanistan have disappeared since August and 80 percent of women have lost their jobs.
"TV stations need content, but the Taliban's broadcast policies are not clear," the radio journalist said, adding that stations no longer broadcast entertainment programs. "The only entertainment program that now we broadcast is Na'at (poetry praising Prophet Muhammad)."
On-air music has also been banned, similar to the restrictions when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s.
"They do not want any type of music to be aired," a manager of a Helmand radio station, who also asked not to be identified for security reasons, told VOA. "Even background music is not allowed to be aired."
The manager, who has worked in news for seven years, said that media have met with authorities to try to seek clarity.
"We told them to provide us something written on their broadcast policies, but they did not provide anything written. They verbally told us about the restrictions," he said.
The manager said most of his station's programs are preproduced "to avoid any conflict with Taliban's policies."
"We can't get women callers in our shows. They [the Taliban] say that they are na mahram (not close family member)."
"Not a single female journalist works in the province," the manager said.
About 20 hours away, in Kunduz province, women are barred from working outside, but their voices are still being broadcast, according to a journalist and TV presenter, who also asked to remain anonymous.
Both Kunduz and Helmand witnessed heavy fighting before the Taliban seized control.
"We broadcast commercials with women's voices and picture," the journalist, who has worked in media for 15 years, told VOA.
But under the Taliban, "journalists have the fear of being beaten or even killed, and that is the reason that journalists have left their jobs or started self-censorship."
Kunduz had 14 radio and six TV stations but currently only three radio and two TV channels are broadcasting, according to a local journalist.
Karimi, the director of Radio Sahar — a station run by women in the western province of Herat — said she was able to return to work about a month and a half after the Taliban's takeover of Herat. But she is worried about her employees' safety.
"If one of our reporters goes out for coverage, we are not sure if she will return safe to the office or not," said Karimi.
Hujatullah Mujadidi, vice president of the Afghanistan Independent Journalists Association, said that Taliban attitudes toward women appear to differ in each province.
"In some provinces, women are allowed (to work). Yet in others, they are not. It seems that the local Taliban make their own decision in this regard," said Mujadidi.
Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi pushed back against claims media were not free and that women are denied rights, in a January 3 interview with Deutsche Welle. "Afghanistan has a very free and vibrant press. There is no doubt about it," he said.
But, Mujadidi said, since August more than 20 journalists have been detained, some for up to six days.
The International Federation of Journalists described Afghanistan as one of the deadliest countries for journalists in 2021, with nine killed.
This story originated in VOA's Afghan service.