KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Press freedom needs to be a key part of the Taliban peace deal if Afghanistan wants to avoid losing nearly 20 years of improvements for the media, journalists say.

Local media groups and journalists said they were disappointed that a presidentially selected delegation, which was supposed to comprise government officials and representatives from a cross-section of Afghan society, did not include any media representatives.

They were especially concerned about implications for female reporters under any deal.

“We journalists want peace but not at the cost of being forced to wear a burqa, or not having the same freedom of speech we have now," Nargis Horukhsh, who has spent eight years working for Afghan news outlets, told VOA.

The national post-war reconciliation talks, which have no firm start date, are expected to build on a late-February U.S.-Taliban exit deal that was finalized in Doha, Qatar.

According to that agreement, the United States would fully withdraw American troops within 14 months in exchange for Taliban security guarantees.

Najib Sharifi, of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), said clear definitions of press freedom in a post-war Afghanistan were never discussed.

“In these (Doha) sessions, protection of press freedom and freedom of expression had not been discussed as a major redline by the government negotiation team,” he told VOA’s Pashto Service. “That’s why we are concerned.”

AJSC, which has published a "road map" to safeguard press freedoms throughout the reconciliation process, has also criticized government officials for neglecting to demand press freedom guarantees from the Taliban, and for failing to include journalists in negotiations.

'I don't know what the Taliban want'

Journalist Hamid Haidari, who reported from the sidelines of the Doha talks, told VOA that Taliban loyalists said they would approve only press freedoms that abide by sharia.

“I have concerns, and I don’t know what the Taliban want," said Haidari, director of Kabul's Channel 1 TV. "We want clarity from the Afghan government (and) the international community on the fact that freedom of speech and Afghan media gains must be one of the redlines in the peace process.”

Prior to the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, Taliban militants largely demonized traditional modes of mass communication and entertainment, banning television and movies. The country's sole national broadcaster, Voice of Sharia, aired only Islamist propaganda, and women were allowed neither careers nor schooling.

With the hard-line Islamists deposed, media outlets proliferated, and by 2018, nearly 18 percent of the population was online, according to a BBC country profile that cites Internet World Stats.

Having regained strength in recent years, however, Taliban militants have reasserted control over more territory than at any point since their rule ended, according to reports by the BBC, the Long War Journal, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

As Afghan officials push to restart the stalled reconciliation talks, they insist that press freedom will be "considered."

“Freedom of speech and freedom of expression, including the operation of Afghan free media, is one the of the biggest achievements of the Afghan government over the past 19 years," said government spokesperson Feroz Bashari. "We will consider this important achievement during talks with the Taliban.”

Implications for female journalists

Nearly all media professionals interviewed by VOA expressed concern about implications for female journalists.

"We should explain to (the Taliban) how important this is for our public and our people," said Danish Karokhil, of Pajhwok Afghan News, the country's largest independent news agency. "We should raise the voice of the Afghan women – they have a right like the rest (of us) to know what they want, what are their demands, (and) what they want for their future."

Horukhsh said current conditions for female journalists were favorable. But she also fears her right to work as a journalist could be negotiated away.

"The Taliban must understand that all Afghans, both men and women, have the right to be free in this country,” she said.

Despite achievements of the past 19 years, many journalists in Afghanistan continue to work under death threats, and many have lost their lives. AJSC says at least 60 media professionals have been killed since 2001. Afghanistan's deadliest single day for journalists came on April 30, 2018, when suicide attacks in Kabul and Khost killed nine media workers.

Earlier this week, U.S. special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad held fresh talks with the Afghan leadership in Kabul, amid an uptick in violence that threatens to unravel the February peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban.

After holding talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar, Khalilzad flew to Afghanistan on Wednesday, as the leader of the Taliban said the militants were committed to the deal with Washington, despite stepping up violence against government forces since it was signed.

In Kabul, Khalilzad met with President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, who is expected to help lead the intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban, according to the Afghan presidency.

On March 20, Ghani announced that the 21-member negotiating team would be led by Masoom Stanekzai, the former head of the National Directorate of Security, and will include politicians, former officials, and representatives of civil society, five of which are women.

Khalilzad at the time congratulated Ghani on the formation of what he called an "inclusive negotiating team."

Chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, however, dismissed the team, insisting it lacked representation of all Afghans.

According to the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Afghanistan, which ranks 122nd out of 180 countries, scores higher than bordering nations Pakistan (145), Uzbekistan (156), Tajikistan (161), Iran (173), China (177) and Turkmenistan (179).

This story originated in VOA's Pashto Service. Pete Cobus contributed reporting from Washington. Some information is from RFE.