CENSORSHIP IN AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan’s media faces crisis—and opportunity

By Steven Butler

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPI)

Twelve months after the Taliban takeover, many Afghan journalists are out of work or on the run. Others try, very carefully, to challenge the powerful.

The extreme distress that has gripped Afghanistan’s independent media since the Taliban seized power in Kabul on August 15 last year lands in my inbox—and the inboxes of many of my colleagues at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)—almost every day. 

The messages come from journalists who just a year ago worked for Afghanistan’s then-thriving, free-wheeling newspaper or broadcast outlets. Some journalists write with stories of detention and beatings by the Taliban. Some detail their own destitution. Many, desperate to leave Afghanistan, appeal for help. Still other journalists write to say they made it out of the country, but are stuck on temporary visas in places like Pakistan or Turkey. Running short of money and often unable to get onward visas—the U.S. government is rejecting more than 90% of Afghans seeking to enter the country on humanitarian grounds—they’re fearful of being sent home to an uncertain fate. 

Such pleas are just one measure of the crisis that has hit Afghanistan’s diverse independent media since the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan amid the withdrawal of U.S. forces last year. They also document, however, the perseverance and determination of journalists who understand the importance of reporting fact-based stories. Many of the country’s journalists remain determined to carry on—from both inside and outside of the country—in the hope that Afghanistan’s independent media will continue to play a vital role.

Taliban members (right) attack journalists covering a women’s rights protest in Kabul on October 21, 2021. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

As detailed in this series of articles CPJ is publishing on the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover, the challenges Afghan journalists face are severe, ranging from physical abuse and censorship to particular constraints placed on women. But some journalists also see glints of opportunity. The war that for so long devastated the country—and made so many regions no-go zones—is over, at least for now. There are fresh stories to tell, and a new regime that needs to be held accountable.

Perilous work

Afghanistan’s free media was a rare success story of the former regime, but even then, journalism was perilous work. Rival parties—including government intelligence agents, the Taliban, and the Islamic State—often targeted reporters. “In the year or year-and-a-half before the Taliban takeover, it was especially dangerous for journalists,” says Kathy Gannon, who reported on Afghanistan for more than three decades for The Associated Press.“You didn’t know who was targeting who, and they would blame each other.”

It remains a mystery, for example, which group was behind the 2020 murder of Rahmatullah Nikzad, a freelance journalist who contributed to international outlets, or who planted the car bomb that killed 23-year-old, female news presenter Mina Khairi of Ariana News in June 2021.

One year later

CPJ/Esha Sarai

From 2001 until today, some 53 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan in connection with their work; of those, 27 were murdered, meaning intentionally targeted, according to CPJ data. And of the 27 murdered, prosecutors obtained convictions in the cases of just four journalists killed in 2001. 

Because of that dismal record, Afghanistan ranked 5th in CPJ’s most recent impunity index, which gauges the worst countries for seeking justice when journalists are murdered. Since the Taliban mid-August takeover, CPJ, thankfully, has not documented any further assassinations of journalists by Taliban, at least so far. But dangers still abound. A recent UN report found that six journalists had died between August 15, 2021, and June 15, 2022. According to the report, five were killed by self-identified members of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province; one by unknown perpetrators. (CPJ has not found evidence that their deaths were related to their work as journalists.)

Disturbing trends

Surveys conducted under difficult circumstances and published during the past year differ in specifics, but show very disturbing trends: Huge declines in the numbers of newspapers, radio stations, and other news sources, as well as a collapse in the number of women journalists.

Fear has spurred some of this downturn. The Taliban has imposed pressure, sometimes violently, on news outlets to conform to its fundamentalist ideology. Taliban fighters, for instance, detained and severely beat reporters from Etilaatroz newspaper who were covering a street protest in September 2021, as CPJ has reported. The Taliban also visited the newspaper’s office and warned them against using critical language or unacceptable terms—for example, saying “Taliban group” instead of their preferred name, “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” 

“You have to be on the Taliban side or they will close your office,” Etilaatroz online editor Elyas Nawandish told an international journalism festival in April. Some Etilaatroz staff quit, and much of the remaining staff is now spread among Albania, Spain, and the United States. Those still in Afghanistan are working underground, Nawandish says, but Etilaatroz is trying to help them leave. 

The Taliban’s arrival led Etilaatroz, which specializes in investigative reporting, to stop printing and move exclusively online. The company had lost the advertising and subscription fees needed to sustain its print operations.

Indeed, the extreme downturn in Afghanistan’s economy has robbed all media properties of advertising and other sources of income. “It’s beyond catastrophic,” Saad Mohseni, CEO of the Moby Group, which owns and operates Afghanistan’s largest news and entertainment network, TOLONews and TOLO TV, said of the decline in Afghanistan’s economy.

More on Afghanistan’s media crisis

Prior to the Taliban takeover, foreign assistance amounted to about 45% of the economy, according to the World Bank, and roughly 75% of government expenditures. Those foreign inflows came to an abrupt halt last August. At the same time, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order to take $7 billion of frozen Afghan funds from the country’s central bank and designate half for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, while airlifting some 130,000 often well-educated Afghans out of the country in just two weeks. 

While the outright killing of journalists by the Taliban may have stopped, CPJ has documented a steady stream of Taliban-perpetrated incidents aimed at intimidating and punishing reporters and editors, including arbitrary detention and beatings, sometimes severe. Although the Taliban’s Ministry of Information and Culture initially seemed to take the lead in managing the media, CPJ has documented that the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) has increasingly come to play a leading role.

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