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Taliban Show 'No Commitment to Press Freedom'


FILE - Masheed Barzz, an Afghan presenter for 1TV channel, appears on camera with her face covered by a veil in Kabul on May 25, 2022. Female journalists are banned from state-run media outlets, and those in the private sector can appear on TV only if their faces are covered.

One year after the Taliban seized power, Afghanistan's media face censorship, violence and economic hardship, with women’s voices largely silenced.

As the anniversary of the takeover approaches, journalists and media freedom groups including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) assessed the situation for the country’s once-vibrant media.

Separately, journalists who spoke with VOA described restrictive directives and those in remote provinces said conditions are harsher, including media outlets having to seek permission before publishing.

Female journalists are banned from state-run media outlets, and those in the private sector can appear on TV only if their faces are covered. Others say they come under intimidation to stop work.

With media no longer able to broadcast music or popular soap operas and entertainment programs, and sources of advertising revenue cut off, many outlets ceased work.

The Taliban’s rules restricted the free press and paved the way for “repression and persecution,” the media watchdog RSF found in a new report.

The Taliban show “no commitment to press freedom at all,” Pauline Ades-Mevel, a spokesperson for Paris-based RSF, told VOA. “They have taken some very harsh measures against journalists.”

The New York-based CPJ separately found Afghan journalists are “struggling to survive” under censorship, arrests, attacks and restrictions on women.

The result is fear and self-censorship, local watchdogs say.
Journalists “are afraid of the consequences of covering a news story,” a member of an Afghan media watchdog told VOA.

He added that journalists “don’t feel safe” working under the Taliban. “The media cannot operate freely when there is no freedom of expression.”

The Kabul-based advocate asked that neither he nor his organization be named for fear of reprisal.

Since August 2021, the Afghan watchdog he works for documented at least 183 cases of violence and more than 90 arrests. “The perpetrators of around 95% of these cases are the Taliban,” the watchdog representative said.

The advocate believes the true figure is higher but that journalists do not report incidents because the Taliban “make them promise not to share their cases.”

FILE - In this picture taken on Sept. 8, 2021, Afghan newspaper journalist Nematullah Naqdi, left, reacts as his colleagues help him dress in their office in Kabul after being released from Taliban custody after covering a protest in the Afghan capital.
FILE - In this picture taken on Sept. 8, 2021, Afghan newspaper journalist Nematullah Naqdi, left, reacts as his colleagues help him dress in their office in Kabul after being released from Taliban custody after covering a protest in the Afghan capital.

The Taliban, however, deny that journalists are at risk.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA, “In the past, many journalists were killed and many others were imprisoned or faced issues, but it was not like that last year.”

Media repression

For journalists in Afghanistan’s provinces, the restrictions are harsher. Journalists must seek permission to cover certain issues such as protests or security, and women are banned from working in the media.

“Before we cover a story, we have to inform the Taliban’s provincial authorities of the topic and get their permission,” said a journalist in southern Helmand province, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

“Because of the censorship, we are not allowed to cover security issues,” he told VOA. Such measures, he said, “forced [journalists] to self-censor.”

Spokesperson Mujahid told VOA the directive was to help, not censor, media.

“It was said that the topic and report will be decided by the journalists, and we will help them to find their way [to report] and not face violence.”

The Taliban ordered local media not to broadcast any music or entertainment programs, including foreign soap operas.
But a more worrying aspect, rights advocates say, is the ban on women’s voices in radio.

“We are told that there should be no female voices in our programs,” the Helmand journalist said.

Media closures

In its assessment of the Taliban impact on Afghan media, RSF found only 328 out of 543 media outlets still active. Additionally, 7,098 journalists, including 76% of women working in media, have lost their jobs.

Taliban pressure on media coupled with the worsening economic situation in the country has brought about the closure of media outlets, said Ades-Mevel of RSF.

She told VOA that the situation in Afghanistan is “extremely worrying because we see more and more pressure and censorship taking place in the country.”

A further issue is uncertainty over media laws.

In February, the Taliban said they had no issues with the media law under the former government, and promised to revive the media violations commission to act as a platform for journalists to report attacks and jailings.

“But the Taliban have not fulfilled their promises,” said Gul Mohammad Gran, of the Federation of Journalists and Media Organizations of Afghanistan.

“The Taliban promised that security forces will not interfere in the affairs of media, and all the cases will be dealt with by the commissions,” said Gran. “Unfortunately, this was not the case.”

Gran said that the Taliban impose limitations on whatever is not in line with their views, and “imposes rules over media based on their personal desires and preferences.”

Spokesperson Mujahid told VOA that the Taliban have since reviewed and made amendments to the media law, which is waiting on final approval.

“We want them [the media] to operate in line with Afghanistan’s principles, Islamic values and national interest,” he said.

Mujahid said that the media violation commission would resume its work after the new law is enforced.

Support and training

Before the takeover, most news companies relied on support from international organizations and advertising revenue from the government or privately run companies.

The CPJ report said foreign assistance accounted for up to 45% of the Afghan economy. But with the takeover “that came to an abrupt halt.”

The international community needs to find “creative ways to support the continuing operation of media inside Afghanistan,” said Steven Butler, a senior program consultant at CPJ.

That, he added, could come in the form of financial assistance or training.

Journalists on the ground spoke of how economic hardship impacts their work.

“Unfortunately, our expenses are much greater than our income,” Zahid Shah Angar told VOA.

The founder of the Suli Paigham radio station in eastern Khost said most media outlets in his province have laid off staff.

“We cannot pay them. We lost our income,” he said.

Angar and other Afghan media organizations have been calling on international organizations to support media.

“We have had meetings with national and international organizations, but no one is helping us.”

If the problems are not solved, he said, more outlets will close in the coming months, bringing “grave consequences for journalism in Afghanistan.”

Zeba Khadem from VOA's Afghan Service contributed to this story.

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