Two days after taking Kabul, the Taliban promised the media would be "free and independent," but now the group has laid out the limits of that freedom.
In a September meeting with representatives from several Afghan media outlets, Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi, acting head of the Taliban's Government Media and Information Center (GMIC), announced a publishing/broadcasting guide containing 11 directives.
Several of the rules are similar to laws and editorial policies under Afghanistan's elected government. The main way they deviate is by eliminating references to international norms.
Other rules give the Taliban wide control over content. These include directives saying that media should coordinate with the GMIC when preparing content and report "carefully" on events not confirmed by an official.
Under the government ousted in August, Afghan media could publish or broadcast without submitting content to officials in advance.
Watchdogs and local journalists view the directives as a sign that the Taliban plan to censor content inside the country.
"The new rules plainly mean censorship," Sadaqat Ghorzang, a TOLOnews reporter for the eastern provinces, told VOA. "It does not only create problems for journalists to do their job, which is providing information to the people, but also violates freedom of expression."
Shinkai Karokhail, a former Afghan parliamentarian, described the directives as "a clear warning to the journalists" against criticizing the Taliban leaders and their actions.
Not only does the Taliban's new guide "impose limitations on journalists," but it is against freedom of the press, she told VOA.
A copy of the guide, which was circulated online and discussed by media watchdogs, contained 11 rules.
Under rules 1-3, media and journalists are forbidden from publishing or broadcasting anything against Islam, insulting national figures, or violating privacy.
Rules 4-6 instruct journalists to follow the principles of journalism and balance news reports and to not distort content.
Rules 7-8 say that matters that have not been confirmed by officials or could have a negative impact on the public's attitude should be treated with care.
Rule 9 demands that media outlets be impartial and truthful in their coverage.
And 10 and 11 advise journalists to coordinate with the GMIC when working on "detailed report(s) on an issue."
Rules 1-6 and 9 are based on media laws and a code of ethics that lay out professional standards established under the elected Afghan government.
However, international watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted that unlike those laws, the new directives do not reference international norms.
This could allow the guides to be "misused or interpreted arbitrarily," RSF said.
At least four of the directives could also give the Taliban wider powers to control and censor media content, RSF said.
It said the rules requiring that journalists coordinate with the Taliban's GMIC and not report matters until they are confirmed officially suggest a return to prior censorship: The government has the power to review and potentially block content before it is broadcast.
RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire described the guidelines as "spine chilling." They can be used coercively and "bode ill for the future of journalistic independence and pluralism in Afghanistan," he said in a September 22 statement.
Afghan journalists say the guidelines show the Taliban plan to control and censor news and information in the country and silence any criticism of their rule.
TOLOnews reporter Ghorzang said the directives contain several ambiguities.
"The new rules say that journalists have to respect national and religious values. Well, journalists have been doing so," he said. "It is not clear what they want to communicate. Are the national and religious values different for them? They should provide details on what Islamic and national values are."
The requirement that journalists consult with the Taliban before broadcasting reports "raises questions about the independence of media and freedom of speech in the country," he said.
Rules open to interpretation
Qayum Safi, a journalism lecturer at Afghanistan's Khurasan University who has worked for different media outlets, said that without a framework, such rules could be open to interpretation.
"Under the previous government, we had a constitution and other laws that provided a framework for media to operate," he said. Since the Taliban took over, "there is no clear framework for journalists in the country; therefore, the directives are open to multiple interpretations and can be misused."
The Talban should have consulted with all the stakeholders before drafting the rules, Safi said. "They should have involved all sides, groups and organizations who are involved with journalists."
Ali Haqmal, a reporter with the daily 8 Sobh newspaper, said the guide imposes restrictions on press freedom. "For example, it says national personalities can't be insulted. This can mean no criticism of any kind, as any criticism can be interpreted as an insult."
The rule about coverage of events not officially confirmed "could also impede the speed and free flow of news," he said.
Sifatullah Zahidi, a reporter based in Helmand province, said the Taliban's rules give the group control over what can be published. "A journalist has to inform what issue he wants to cover to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," he said, using the Taliban's official name for the country. "If they (the Taliban) like it, the journalist will cover it. Otherwise, he will not be allowed to cover the issue."
So far, the Taliban have not indicated what the penalties for noncompliance will be, and it is unclear how the guide, which has not been passed into law, will work with existing legislation.
In the past six weeks, however, media watchdogs have reported that the Taliban have used violence, arrests and threats against journalists.
In a statement released Friday, Human Rights Watch said the Taliban had detained at least 32 journalists, several of whom were beaten in custody, and that some had been warned about their reporting before being released.
Most were news crews covering women's protests against Taliban's rule early this month.
Amid the violence and uncertainty, more than 150 media outlets have closed, according to the International Federation of Journalists.
Additionally, the IFJ says, around 90% of media workers are "currently without access to employment or wages due to media shutdowns."