The empty promises of the Taliban on press freedom in Afghanistan

The disturbing photographs that depict blue and red welts across the backs of journalists say all one needs to know about where the resurgent Taliban stands on freedom of expression.

There are mounting reports from at least a half dozen Afghan journalists who have been flogged by the Taliban for defying restrictions on covering an outbreak of women-led protests against Taliban rule in the last week. Some of the journalists were also detained and have since been released.

After the Taliban seized power in a stunning advance on Kabul in mid August, it seems to be wasting very little time in showing what the country and the international community that has supported it can expect in terms of human rights and freedom of expression. If you dare to challenge the Taliban’s understanding of how the right to girls’ education or a free press “fits within the framework of Islam,” as the Taliban leadership put it in vague terms in its extraordinary first press conference since taking power on August 24, you will be beaten and threatened.

Welcome to Afghanistan under the Taliban.

“There are journalists who are standing up,” said Samiullah Mahdi, a prominent Afghan journalist who has written an extraordinary research paper for Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy on how the landscape of media in Afghanistan has been transformed over the last 20 years.

Afghan journalists Neamatullah Naqdi, 28, and Taqi Daryabi, 22, show the wounds left by the beating they received from Taliban fighters during their imprisonment. The U.N. human rights office said incidents of Taliban violence against protesters and journalists is increasing. (Photo by Associated Press/Bernat Armangue)

“Look at those who were beaten, very severely beaten. They are operating in an atmosphere of fear and terror. That attack was intentional, an attempt to break their courage,” Mahdi said.

“I don’t think it will work,” Mahdi hastened to add.

The journalists are not only courageous but they know first-hand just how far a free press has come in Afghanistan and they will not be willing to give it up easily, he said, adding, “They are our last best hope. And the media should not start self censoring, but consider shutting down in protest. It is better to be silent, than to lie. If we can’t put out the truth, then it is better to shut down the news organization and open it again when we can state the truth.”

For now, the situation seems bleak for Afghanistan’s vibrant free press and media industry, which was one of the country’s proudest accomplishments in the 20 years since the last Taliban regime was toppled through the U.S.-led military invasion that came in response to the 9-11 attacks authored by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. Tolo News, one of Afghanistan’s leading national news organizations, is reporting that more than 150 local news organizations across more than 20 provinces have shut down since the Taliban took power in mid August. They are  print and digital outlets as well as radio and television stations and are citing their reason for shutting down as both economic factors with the pull out of international donors and severe restrictions due to the Taliban’s interpretation of the role of media within sharia, or Islamic law.

The lightning speed of events unfolding in Afghanistan make this impressive body of work by Mahdi, who has been named a Shorenstein fellow, all that much more urgent. His 50-page research paper on the landscape of a free press in Afghanistan was produced over the Summer, as the Taliban’s advance was taking shape and now it provides a critical, forensic picture of the landscape of Afghanistan’s free press just as the Taliban came to power. It will long stand as a baseline of just how much there is to lose for anyone who cares about freedom of expression and who regard trusted, fact-based journalism to be a cornerstone of any participatory form of government.

Working closely with Shorenstein Senior Fellow Richard Parker, Mahdi has produced a ground-breaking and prescient body of work on the state of a “media revolution” in Afghanistan that was achieved through the support of the international community with the United States alone contributing $150 million for media development since 2001, yielding an array of television, radio and newspapers across the country. Now, Mahdi believes Afghanistan’s nascent free press will face extreme peril with the sudden rise of the Taliban government already seeking to restrict freedom of expression and, if history is a judge, to continue to brutally repress a free press.

In his conclusion Mahdi, who says he plans to continue his research and update his findings, offers a worrisome forecast for the future as the Taliban was steadily advancing through the provinces this summer, forcing local newsrooms in these more remote corners to shut down in their wake so there were no eyes on their military push.

In his conclusion, he writes, “This is a glimpse of what may very well happen nationwide once the Taliban reach Kabul—but that depends on how they reach it. The first way is grim: it foresees a Taliban military takeover, in which case foreign influence will be limited to China, Pakistan, and some Gulf states which have provided military or political support to the Taliban for years. If that happens, Afghanistan will lose most of what it has gained in terms of rights – and many observers have prophesied a full-scale new civil war and re-collapse of state institutions.”

It is hard to say now how this will all play out.

Afghan journalist Neamatullah Naqdi, 28, was detained and beaten by Taliban forces after covering a women’s protest in Kabul. (Photo by Associated Press/Bernat Armangue)

But announcing an interim government on September 7th that is dominated by hardliners from the old guard, the Taliban made it clear from the start that protests would not be permitted and that only approved slogans would be allowed.

Despite the decree, protests have erupted across the country with demonstrators calling for freedom and opposing early signs that the government will curtail the rights of women and the rights of a free press. Journalists covering these protests were beaten and some were detained, including those from the fiercely independent news organization Etilaatroz.

An Afghan Journalist who preferred to not reveal his identity, shows the marks left by the Taliban’s beatings. (Photo by GroundTruth)

The United Nations has condemned the Taliban for its violent crackdown using live ammunition, whips and batons and killing at least four protesters. Proof of their abuses can be found in disturbing photographs of the released journalists, obtained by The GroundTruth Project and wire services, that show deep red welts across their backs and legs from flogging.

“We call on the Taliban to immediately cease the use of force towards, and the arbitrary detention of those exercising their right to peaceful assembly and the journalists covering the protests,” Ravina Shamdasani, UN rights spokeswoman, told a briefing in Geneva on September 10, adding that reports show house-to-house searches for those who participated in the protests. Shamdasani also said journalists have faced intimidation.

“One journalist was reported to have been told, as he was being kicked in the head, that you are lucky you have not been beheaded,” she said.

As the world watches the Taliban tighten its grip on power, it seems the investment in a free press is already starting to face Taliban attempts to beat the spirit out of it.

Mahdi warns the United States that it also stands to lose, writing, “If these achievements are lost, civil war in my country will follow—and in yours, global groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others will revive, inspired by the Taliban’s “success”. They will revive and expand in South Asia, in Central Asia, in the greater Middle East and North Africa. The West, by ignoring Afghanistan once its troops are gone, will rediscover them soon enough because they will, once again, come after your country as they have done to so many parts of mine.”

Journalist Samiullah Mahdi (left) during an interview. (Photo by Samiullah Mahdi)

Excerpts from “The Pen vs the AK-47: the Future of Afghan Media Under the Taliban”

Editor’s note: We reproduce here edited excerpts from Samiullah Mahdi’s paper titled “The Pen vs the AK-47: the Future of Afghan Media Under the Taliban,” published by The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. You can read the paper in its entirety here

“You are dangerous, that’s our definition of media.”

That’s how the Taliban’s negotiator last fall began an unprecedented meeting between Taliban leaders and Afghan media executives in Doha. Mullah Khairullah Khairkhah—a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner—then added, “You are like a pen which could turn into a shovel and destroy things.”

His sarcasm was unmistakable and listening to him, I felt I had to say something; silence wasn’t an option. “If you are so afraid of us because of our pens, you can only guess how much we fear you,” I shot back.

None of what we said was taken lightly by those listening. Too much was at stake. The Mullah’s fear of journalists’ pens speaks volumes about the relationship between the Taliban and the media in Afghanistan—a history scarred by the Taliban’s repeated bloody attacks and the deliberate targeting of journalists and their news organizations. Given that history, if a pen is something men like Mullah Khairullah fears, you can only imagine what hundreds of Afghan journalists like me feel about the Taliban.

Our exchange, during Doha’s “peace talks” last October, underscored a grim reality: the Taliban have good reasons to fear media. We’ve been one of the main, if not the main force for bringing what we truly believe is liberating social change to Afghanistan over the past two decades.

It’s also brought front and center the question of free expression’s future in my country, once the last American troops leave this fall. What most Americans don’t realize is that the U.S. and its NATO allies have pledged to continue financing and training Afghan media and other civil society organizations for several more years—and how that money is spent will be more important than bullets and bombs.

Creating a (mostly) free press in Afghanistan is something the international community has long taken deserved pride in supporting—and as the West withdraws its troops, its protection should be at the front and center in negotiations with the Taliban in Doha right now. Yet many Afghans are wondering what the fate of our nascent free press will be, once the Taliban are back in Kabul.

Amid our uncertainties about the Doha talks— including what the Biden administration’s policy will really be after the last troops leave—the prestigious inside-the-Beltway Afghanistan Study Group published a seminal report in February. It affirms respect for human rights and civil society—but is alarmingly vague about what that even means, let alone how to effectively preserve it.[iii] So while the report touts the “crucial role the civil society has played in securing critical development gains to date and can play during both the negotiating process and the implementation of an eventual peace agreement,”[iv] it offers neither vision nor road map for the role Afghan media will have to play in fostering a democratic future for my country— and says almost nothing about Western governments’ ongoing help in guaranteeing a vibrant and free press.

Most concerning to us journalists in Kabul is that the report offers no concrete action plan to safeguard a free press once the impending political settlement with the Taliban is in place.

This isn’t a problem in just one report, however. Major agreements and declarations already signed by the U.S as part of the “Afghanistan peace process” also make no mention of preserving free expression in post-settlement Afghanistan. There is no mention of it, for example, in the formal peace agreement the United States and the Taliban signed in February 2020—and nothing about it in the “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” announced the same day.

Instead, there is only this one anodyne phrase in the Joint Declaration: “The two countries are committed to their longstanding relationship and their investments in building the Afghan institutions necessary to establish democratic norms, protect and preserve the unity of the country, and promote social and economic advancements and the rights of citizens.”[v]

Afghan security police block a TV journalist from filming at the site of bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2021. (Photo by Associated Press/Rahmat Gul)

Like these key transition documents, U.S. officials have been silent whenever they’re asked how they are pressuring the Taliban to preserve what many of us count as our country’s most significant achievements. Asked about the future of human rights, freedom of expression, minorities’ rights, and women’s rights, all they will say is that all that “must be negotiated by Afghans.” For example, John Bass, the former U.S. ambassador, asked recently about how the U.S plans to support human rights and free expression, would say only that “I have heard from many ambassadors in Kabul that their respective governments’ support for any future government in Afghanistan will depend on whether these rights are respected or not.”[vi] For Afghan journalists attuned to diplomatic niceties, the fact is that U.S diplomats consistently refuse to say directly that the U.S will maintain pressure on the Taliban to preserve press freedom. The result so far is that the Taliban have made no direct mention or commitment about these rights in any of the official documents signed between them and the U.S.

America’s neglect is all the more alarming because U.S. officials know Taliban ideology has been incompatible for decades with the concept of freedom of expression. Meanwhile, however, a free Afghan media has flourished in the past 20 years to become a critical and visible ally of the international community and the central government in Kabul — something that has given the Taliban yet another reason to perceive a free press as its foe. Zabihullah Mujahed, the military spokesperson of the Taliban, was quite frank about this when we spoke earlier this year. “Media,” he told me, “has been a tool to propagandize against the mujahedin and call them Pakistanis and Punjabis[1] in order to serve the interests of occupiers.”[vii]

So with a political settlement now seemingly possible for the first time in decades, how will the nation’s media survive to help preserve human rights and freedom of expression? What lessons can be learned from the experiences of media in other “post-conflict” countries such as Egypt, Kosovo, and Macedonia? What role will international organizations and countries that promote a free press play in my country’s future?

This paper aims to provide an overview of the media in Afghanistan and explain the threats to and opportunities for it. It will also examine the role media can play after the political settlement. Besides utilizing existing research on media in other post-conflict societies, the paper will use a number of interviews I conducted with current stakeholders for the paper including Afghan journalists, media executives, government officials, and members of the peace negotiating team in Doha, as well as with U.S. and NATO officials—and leaders of the Taliban. It will suggest several potential policy actions at the end.

Today, two decades after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent ousting of the Taliban regime by the U.S and its allies, Afghanistan has one of most vibrant media industries in the region. In fact, it has seen a “media revolution” since the Taliban regime collapsed — though few Americans know anything about it.

That Afghan “media revolution” occurred thanks to the financial as well as political support from the U.S. and its allies. According to Ross Wilson, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Kabul, the United States alone has provided over $150 million for media development since 2001.[ix] Besides financial support, the U.S. has also played a crucial role in convincing a succession of post-Taliban governments not to crack down on the free press. While those post-Taliban governments consequently have generally been mostly supportive of free expression, it hasn’t been without resistance from cultural and religious conservatives as well as some technocrats inside government itself. The conservatives particularly opposed the presence of women in media and promotion of social change that favored more liberal values. As Kathy Gannon told me, she believes “those conservative elements allowed media freedom only because of the foreigners’ pressure. Otherwise they were as much against media and the appearance of women in public as the Taliban.”[x]

The second group, comprised mostly of technocrats who had returned from exile in the West, were first of all in favor of what they called “strong government,” and so were highly critical of a free press which too often exposed their misuses of power as well as their corruption. So besides security threats from the Taliban and other extremist groups, the country’s press since 2002 has always had to face challenging forces within the government.

 

Today, nonetheless, there are 33 TV stations operating from Kabul, 35 more local TV stations around the country—and more than 170 FM radio stations.  Hundreds of small newspapers and magazines are active as well. According to an Asia Foundation survey, the media are now one of the most trusted institutions in Afghanistan, with a 67% approval rating—second only to this traditional society’s respect for its religious leaders.[xv]

Most of these media outlets broadcast or publish in one or both of the country’s two main languages, Farsi and Pashto, but together they represent all the various cultural and political groups in the country. That said, there are important variations as well—and for the purposes of this paper, Afghan media outlets can be categorized into at least five main groups, which I want to quickly explain next.

Mohammad Naweed, a journalist from western Afghanistan, hides his identity for security reasons as he gives an interview to The Associated Press in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 3, 2021.(Photo by Associated Press/Rahmat Gul)

Independent Media

The most popular broadcasters are the privately-owned TV channels such as Tolo TV, Tolownews, Ariana TV, Ariana News, Shamshad TV, 1TV, Lemar TV, and Khurshid TV. They broadcast nationwide—and most have FM radio affiliates which are equally popular. Popular privately-owned national publications include 8am, Etilaate Roz, and Weesa, all of which are pro-democratic and therefore actively involved in supporting human rights, women’s rights, and representative democracy.

One reason for the success of stations such as Tolo TV/Tolonews, Ariana TV, and 1TV is their non-ethnic and non-sectarian approach to news and entertainment programing, especially when compared to the “strongmen” media (which I’ll discuss in a moment). These channels have consequently also become the most credible ones at the national level, an achievement that has attracted both local advertising and Western financial support.[xvi] They all broadcast a combination of news and entertainment that typically includes music shows, satires, comedies, and educational and family dramas. While these channels also often air dubbed Turkish and Indian (and in some cases Latin American and Western) soap operas, they are very careful not to broadcast programming from either Iran or Pakistan, the country’s two most controversial neighbors.

Radio Azadi (the Afghan service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), Radio BBC Dari and Pashto, and the Voice of America are the most listened-to international radio stations in Afghanistan. Aljazeera in English is also available to Kabul’s English-speaking elite, who carefully follow the news on this channel—but because it doesn’t broadcast in any local languages, it doesn’t have a broad-based audience.

Foreign media have long played a key role in Afghanistan, especially when domestic circulation of news was dominated by governments in Kabul or different factions of forces fighting against it. For example, the BBC, VOA and Deutsche Welle often provided the population with much more reliable and objective reporting from around the country compared to the state-owned or factional media.

International media are still today more trusted by much of the public, compared to the Afghan government’s broadcasters and even many private media.[xxii]

State-Owned Media

Although Radio Television of Afghanistan (RTA) is the most important state-owned broadcaster, several studies suggest that it also is among the least popular, with a nationwide audience share of about 2%. That said, RTA has gone through several reforms in the past few years and has become more effective at broadcasting live government news events such as high-profile conferences and events. The government also owns 34 low-power TV stations around the country, basically local versions of RTA–and also owns several newspapers such as Anis and Hewad, which are the oldest newspapers in the country. However, the papers’ history and experience have also not translated into wider audiences for their government owners.

Since 2002 when America and NATO forces overthrew the Taliban regime, RTA has gone through a modernizing transformation technologically, with Japan and the United States as its major financial supporters. But the government in Kabul has repeatedly refused attempts to transform RTA into a network similar to the BBC by declining to grant it editorial independence and instead strictly controlling it.[xxxi] Thus, RTA, which was established on an authoritarian-regime media model, has remained so even in this age of “media revolution.” Broadcasting songs endlessly sung in praise of the President—as just one example among many—means RTA, for most of us, most resembles state-run channels in post-Soviet Central Asia.  As a consequence, despite vast technical assets and a large number of employees across, RTA has only a 2-3% audience share among broadcasters.[xxxii]

Today, online has become—more than any other medium—the battleground of Afghanistan’s ideological differences because there are now 8.64 million internet users in Afghanistan (that’s 22% of the population) and 4.4 million Afghans are regular social-media users.[xxxiii] They’re a powerful modernizing network: as I noted earlier, these millions online strongly support democracy as well as equal opportunities in education and work outside the home for women.[xxxiv]

Private citizens with social media handles also play a reporting role: they usually are the first to break news of security-related incidents, well before TV and radio. Besides breaking news, social media activists also regularly launch advocacy campaigns to oppose or support certain government policies.  For example, a major social media campaign (popularly known as “ATRA Kojast?”, “Where’s ATRA?”) was launched in 2019 by activists who were angrily demanding transparency about public spending financed by a new 10% tax on individuals’ mobile networks.  Mirwais Arya, who spearheaded the popular campaign, targeted the poor services, high tariffs and non-transparency of both ATRA (Afghanistan Telecommunication Regulatory Authority) and the private telecom companies.[xxxv] 

Afghan journalists work behind a barrier at the site of an attack on the Telecommunication Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan on April 20, 2019. (Photo by Associated Press/Rahmat Gul)

Taliban Media

I want to note that the Taliban are also quite adept at media usage, with several websites such as alemara.com and nun.asia as well as numerous YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, as well as the “bike radio” broadcasts of Radio Shariat.[7] The Taliban also publish an endless stream of anti-government and anti-“occupation” articles, and produce video and audio updates of battlefield news as well as the latest developments in the Doha “peace talks.” Recently, they’ve also been actively showing up on non-Taliban TV and radio shows to provide their points of views on the peace process as well as the ongoing conflict.

The Taliban have also become notably more proactive in sharing information about the peace process, including about their meetings with high-level American officials. Besides their chief military spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, they now have in their Doha political office Mohamad Naim as their principal spokesperson and Sohail Shaheen as English Media spokesman. During the direct negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. last year, they routinely shared more information with the media than the Americans (or the Afghan government, which didn’t have much information anyway).

The Taliban’s strategic focus is of course always meant to justify their jihad by showing how Afghans’ religion and values have come under constant attack from “infidels” led by the U.S. and those who work for the Afghan government, who are cast as “slaves of the occupiers.” The Taliban consider themselves the only mujaheds (holy fighters) who will stand up against these “apostate invaders,” and supporting them means helping to evict the invaders and their slaves and re-establishing the Sharia law they enforced when they ran the country.[xxxvi]

Their media materials include Shabnamah, “night letters”[8] and other print publications as well as videos and audio files of inspirational music and poetry that are posted to their websites and social media platforms.[xxxvii] They use these tools to legitimize their war, garner logistical and financial support, recruit youngsters to fight against the government and its international allies—and of course glorify those insurgents who’ve participated in suicide attacks as “martyrs” for the cause.

Their media campaigns are not just aimed against the infidel U.S. and NATO forces or their slaves in the Afghan government. They also consider the media, civil society and NGOs part of the hated “cultural invasion” by foreigners, and have filled their supporters with a steadily-growing animosity toward all non-Taliban journalists and media workers—with predictable consequences.   The poetry they broadcast in Pashto, for example, openly derides journalists as “spies of infidel occupiers” while senior members of the Taliban Political Office in Doha—including Anas Haqqani, brother of Serajuddin Haqqani, the head of notorious Haqqani Network—regularly portray the press as part of the hated “cultural invasion.”[xxxviii]  

Challenges Ahead

Three female employees of Enikas TV were killed in Jalalabad and a fourth injured as I was drafting this paper, in two separate but coordinated attacks in early March.[xxxix] Two days later, a group of senior editors traveled to Jalalabad to pay their respects and offer condolences to the families of the women. On their return to Kabul they posted this on Twitter: “In Jalalabad to express our condolences to grieving relatives of Mursal, Shahnaz and Saadia — the three female media colleagues killed on Tuesday. Explored ways with the management of Enikas TV to help them continue their important job. We are together in this.”

Within days, four of the editors had received this message on their cellphones: “You …[9] and other friends of you went to Jalalabad to express condolences with that TV’s three prostitutes. You are the promoters of prostitution and supporters of the U.S. propaganda game. You and your closed ones are now military targets for the Mujahedin.”

The editors never made this message public— the only reason I know about it is because I was meant to go with them but didn’t because I’d been locked down in Kabul due to earlier direct threats on my own life.

Officially, the source of the message still remains unknown, but one of the threatened editors told me that they decided not to make the threat public because, while they don’t know precisely who was behind this threat, they are afraid that “certain circles” will use this kind of threats for their own interests. (Meanwhile senior U.S. officials will say, off-the-record, that they’re sure the Taliban are behind most of the killings—even though there are other groups out there too who are just as murderous).

Security consequently remains the number one challenge for journalists in Afghanistan today. Since last November alone, as I’ve explained, nearly a dozen journalists and media workers have been murdered by terrorist groups[10] and more than 65 have been killed since 2001.[xl]

Of the dozen-plus journalists I interviewed for this paper, most said they firmly believe that the Taliban were behind these recent killings and threats. Abdul Mujib Khalwatgar, head of Nai Media Support, noted that “simultaneous with the beginning of the peace negotiations in Doha, we witnessed a surge in targeted killings and decrease in the number of media outlets” and says that he is sure that “the Taliban are behind the killings.  It is visible from their tactics. They want to revive their old image and benefit from it.”[xli]

But many of my interviewees expressed concern about other groups such as ISIS-Khorasan, the local branch of ISIS I mentioned earlier for attacking Hazari Shia, also wanting to benefit from the current situation. Many are also concerned about threats from more than insurgent groups.  Zaki Daryabi, the founder and editor of the daily Etelaate Roz, told me that he thinks “some elements inside the government would be just as happy as the Taliban if I were killed.”[xlii] Lotfullah Najafizada, head of Tolonews, is more cautious than Daryabi about naming names in the government but obliquely told me in frustration, knowing that I knew what he meant, that “we hear that the Taliban are behind this wave of killings, but we do not have evidence.”[xliii]

A journalist reports from the site of a deadly suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 4, 2018. (Photo by Associated Press/Massoud Hossaini)

Whatever the source or sources of the killings and threats, Afghanistan’s media community has been affected as never before.  Given the uncertainties ahead, Najiba Ayubi, head of Killid Group, the umbrella organization for Radio Killid, openly fears that the recent surge of targeted killings is creating “a wave of self-censorship” and believes that despite what they say in negotiations at Doha, “the Taliban want to impose certain limitations on the media even before they arrive in Kabul…they want to set the tone for news reporting, and by these threats, they want to limit the space for free expression.”[xliv]

Reflecting this growing insecurity, news outlets such as Tolonews have reduced both their coverage and their staff, and routinely now focus first on personnel safety rather than on-scene news coverage itself. Some of their reporters and technical staff now live in their well-guarded offices or in safe houses day and night—and understandably a number of them have chosen to resign. Parwiz Kawa, co-founder of the daily 8am told me that now the “safety of our colleagues is our main concern. It has replaced the news as the number one priority.”[xlv]

Meanwhile, Tolonews’ Najafizada is absolutely clear that “these killings are related to the peace process. They want to terrify us.” But he then adds defiantly, “numbers killed will not kill the cause.”[xlvi] Parwiz Kawa of 8am agrees about the killers’ motives: “the Taliban had targeted a number of journalists” he says, “as a strategy to pressure the government at the negotiations table.”[xlvii]

Journalists have good reasons to think the Taliban are most likely behind most of these killings. Thanks to the Taliban’s deep-rooted suspicions of the media, they have repeatedly and openly been willing to shed journalists’ blood. In one notorious instance in 2015, they struck back when Wali Arian of Tolonews reported that “military officials in northern Kunduz province have accused Taliban militants of raping girls at a hostel after attacking the Kunduz city …but the Taliban has rejected these rape claims.” (Tolonews, 19 October 2015). Arian’s report came just weeks after the Taliban had captured Kunduz and Amnesty International was already documenting their atrocities:

According to local activists, Taliban fighters also raped female relatives and killed family members, including children, of police commanders and soldiers, especially those working for Afghan Local Police (ALP). The Taliban also burnt down the families’ houses and looted their belongings. The relative of a woman who worked as a midwife in Kunduz’s maternity hospital told Amnesty International how Taliban fighters gang-raped and then killed her and another midwife because they accused them of providing reproductive health services to women in the city.[xlviii]

Back in the 1990s, when the Taliban were first capturing city after city, there had been no independent media to report on their atrocities or their victims. But by 2015, when the Taliban re-captured Kunduz, dozens of local and international reporters, including Arian, had been there. Saad Mohseni, chairman of Moby Group (which owns Tolonews), told NPR, “We had three correspondents going live every single hour. And when they entered the city, they obviously reported on atrocities committed by the Taliban. So the Taliban saw that whatever they had committed was getting reported live. And from a PR perspective, they probably felt that this was unacceptable.”[xlix]

In response to these reports, the Taliban declared journalists of Tolonews and 1TV “enemy personnel” and the channels as “military targets.”[l] Soon afterward they attacked a minibus carrying Tolo TV employees home at the end of a normal work day.  Seven were killed and over a dozen critically injured. Most were studio technicians; none were from the news division.[li] The Taliban accepted responsibility for the attack.

When early this year I asked Zabihullah Mujahid about that attack, he said that “after they didn’t listen to our complaints and warnings, we had told Tolo TV that they are military target for us…so we carried that attack against them, and we took the responsibility for it.”  I then asked him if they will repeat similar attacks in the future if the media don’t “listen” to them. His response was, “in the future, when the new government is established, such kind of incidents won’t happen, because laws will control media.”[lii]

Some observers have told me that one reason why violence against journalists has increased in the wake of the Americans’ withdrawal is that the Taliban want journalists to evacuate the cities so that when they capture these areas, no independent eyes are there to report about their atrocities. Wali Arian, who had to leave the country in 2016 after constant threats against his life, told me that “at least 12 reporters left Helmand province after Elyas Dayee, Radio Azadi’s reporter, was killed in November 2020.”  He then added, “Helmand is now a dark area for reporters. We really don’t know what is happening there—and this is exactly what the Taliban wants.”[liii] 

Representing the Youth

Afghanistan is one of the world’s youngest nations with nearly 2/3 of its population—27 million people–under 25 and half its population under 15 (UNFPA, 2018). Most of these youngsters were less than five years old when the twin towers fell in New York on 9/11 and America then invaded the country and overthrew the Taliban. They’ve known no other life.

The majority of this new generation of Afghans, however, have grown up living in our new wave of press freedom–and the values of the young are being defined by this era. As I mentioned above, more access and exposure to media have created a more liberal and pro-democracy mindset among millions, especially women and the young. Therefore, this paper will close by arguing that only a free press in Afghanistan can ensure its people’s continued involvement in the peace process, give voice to victims of war, represent the values of the new generation, and ensure sustainability of a peace settlement.

Afghanistan’s experience with freedom of expression in the past two decades is unparalleled in the region. It has given the most vulnerable and overlooked members of the society a voice in the national arena. It has kept a close watch on government and officials by exposing their misuses of power and corruption. Because the country lacks a meaningful, legitimate and institutionalized political opposition, however, the oversight role played by media has proved vitally important time and again. Although “advocacy media” is often an unpopular term in the West, soon after 9/11 and the military intervention of the U.S. and NATO, Afghan journalists found themselves in a position where they could advocate for certain values such as the rule of law, human rights, women’s rights, a free press and so on. Kathy Gannon once told me that “journalists shouldn’t be advocating for anything,” and referring to my colleagues, continued, “if today they are advocating for something, tomorrow they will be doing so for something else. Our job is to report about the news. That’s it.”[lxxvii] Contrary to Gannon’s views, Afghan journalists and media became prominent forces for social and political change in the country—and in the absence of strong democratic institutions, they have played the double role of watchdogs as well as opposition against those in power since 2002.  I still don’t think we had a choice—journalists who want a free press must advocate for a free press, and for the institutions that will protect that freedom and the freedom of its citizen audience.  

Afghan journalists take photographs at the site of a deadly attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on January 2018. (Photo by Associated Press/Rahmat Gul)

Conclusion

As I finalize this paper, the Taliban have taken control of almost half of Afghanistan’s 400 districts. In addition to imposing restrictions on all sorts of daily activities, especially of women, the Taliban have forced local radio stations in many of these districts to broadcast “Radio Sharia”[lxxxi] and to stop broadcasting any kind of music or even women’s voices. Several media support organizations, including Afghanistan Free Speech Hub, NAI, and many others have raised concerns about the Taliban’s attitude towards independent press across recently fallen districts. In reaction to these reports, Ross Wilson, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Kabul, posted this to his official Twitter account: “I am disturbed by reports that the Taliban is shutting down media organizations in the districts they assault, attempting to conceal their violence in a press blackout. It seems they seek to silence media to hide their destruction of public infrastructure, looting, and killings of Afghan civilians and soldiers. -IM #ProtectJournalists #DefendMediaFreedom.”[lxxxii]

The Taliban quickly issued a statement denying Wilson’s allegations, claiming that the “press can continue broadcasting independently and unbiasedly based on the Sharia.” The statement called Wilson’s allegations part of the “enemies’” propaganda. But several independent observers, including local reporters, have already told me that at least two dozen radio stations have in fact been silenced or, in order to survive, have begun broadcasting what the local Taliban authorities dictate.

This is a glimpse of what may very well happen nationwide once the Taliban reach Kabul—but that depends on how they reach it.

The first way is grim: it foresees a Taliban military takeover, in which case foreign influence will be limited to China, Pakistan, and some Gulf states which have provided military or political support to the Taliban for years. If that happens, Afghanistan will lose most of what it has gained in terms of rights—and many observers have prophesied a full-scale new civil war and re-collapse of state institutions.

The second way is through a peace settlement that still can in fact be reached between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—which is something the Taliban still insist they want. That peace agreement would give the international community the room to force Kabul to prove it’s protecting not just the country’s free press but other basic rights.

As far as I’m concerned, the remarkable achievements of Afghanistan’s “media revolution”– and the fact that so many of my journalists and media workers have refused to leave our country in the face of all these threats, show how deeply rooted this achievement now is.  I absolutely believe there is enough interest, passion and talent to keep the light of our free press alive in what I know personally is one of most difficult places in the world to be a journalist. Contrary to what the Taliban and other conservative groups believe about a free press and free expression as prongs of the West’s “cultural invasion,” there is an original and homegrown Afghan interest in those things.  It will be a disastrous setback if Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq or some other autocratic press prototypes are imposed in the name of Allah after a century-long struggle for a free press in my country—and the “media revolution” it has engendered.

If these achievements are lost, civil war in my country will follow—and in yours, global groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others will revive, inspired by the Taliban’s “success.” They will revive and expand in South Asia, in Central Asia, in the greater Middle East and North Africa. The West, by ignoring Afghanistan once its troops are gone, will rediscover them soon enough because they will, once again, come after your country as they have done to so many parts of mine.