Afghanistan. How press freedom has collapsed since the Taliban took over

Selma (name changed) was a journalist and activist who lived and worked in Panjshir province in eastern Afghanistan. She lost her job after the Taliban took control of the war-ravaged country in August.

After being threatened, she has since left the area and is now in hiding, selling bolani, a local flatbread, on the streets to survive.

“I worked as a journalist and a human rights activist,” Selma told DW, who asked not to reveal her true identity for fear of reprisals. “As you know, women’s rights are strongly linked to religious ideologies, so we have always been in conflict with extremists. It put us in danger.

Selma is one of thousands of journalists and media professionals who have lost their jobs in Afghanistan since August.

According to a December report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 40% of media outlets have closed in the past five months and some 6,400 journalists have lost their jobs. Hundreds have fled the country. The report adds that more than 80% of female journalists are now unemployed.

Some provinces in Afghanistan have been left with only a handful of outlets, and those that remain have stopped playing music, removed foreign content, and removed female hosts.

Most have also relaxed their media coverage for fear of closure or worse and now broadcast strictly religious content.

Afghan citizens who have enjoyed a variety of media choices over the past two decades now have little access to critical news and information.

“Without a free press capable of exposing the dysfunctions of bad governance, no one will be able to claim to fight against famine, poverty, corruption, drug trafficking and other scourges that afflict Afghanistan and prevent lasting peace”, said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran-Afghanistan desk, the report said.

Taliban: We have a ‘free and vibrant press’

Faced with a crumbling media landscape, Taliban officials told the international community that they stood up for press freedom and that journalists were not under threat.

In a TV interview with DW, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi said Afghanistan had a “very free and vibrant press”.

“Unfortunately, I must say that some media houses have closed, but it’s not because of us,” Balkhi said, adding that they were largely the result of a loss of donor funding.

This positive view of the media situation was echoed by Abdul Wahid Rayan, spokesperson for the Ministry of Information and Culture, who told DW: “We have meetings and collaborations with journalists all the time. and media owners and anyone who has a problem can share it. with us. We believe in freedom of the press.

Since the Taliban took power in August, no Western country has recognized the new government. This has made it difficult for the Islamic fundamentalist group to access international capital and funding.

Even in the face of a looming humanitarian crisis and growing calls for UN support, foreign governments have so far failed to recognize the Taliban administration and provided no support.

Some observers see the Taliban’s stated support for a free press in the country as part of a broader strategy to attract international recognition.

A longtime media watcher who fled to Europe in August and asked not to be named for fear of reprisals against his colleagues in Afghanistan supported that argument.

He told DW that if a journalist was arrested or tortured, and this was covered by the international press, it would undermine the Taliban’s goal of international recognition.

“My organization has documented dozens of acts of violence against journalists and in no case has anyone been brought to justice,” he told DW. “We believe that any discussion with the new government should include the situation on the ground with regard to freedom of the press as a basic human right.”

Funding sources are drying up

After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the relative peace that accompanied it, hundreds of media outlets sprung up across the country.

With funding sources ranging from international donors to local politicians to local advertising revenue, the country’s media landscape has grown to become the most diverse in the region.

The country’s largest commercial television channel is TOLO TV, owned and operated by the MOBY Group. The station was launched in 2004 and, together with its affiliates, continues to broadcast throughout Afghanistan.

Afghan journalists attend a meeting at the Tolo newsroom in Kabul, Afghanistan September 7, 2018. Picture taken September 7, 2018. (REUTERS)

Saad Mohseni, director of MOBY Group, told DW that there are a range of factors contributing to media closures, including loss of grants from the international community, loss of advertising revenue, lack of staff and intimidation. in the provinces.

Although he remains hopeful for the media sector, Mohseni said daily directives coming from various Taliban ministries made it difficult for broadcasters to know what can and cannot be broadcast.

“We have to take it one day at a time,” he said.

Ezatullah Akbari, a member of the media watchdog NAI – Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, has worked with many outlets outside Kabul that have since closed.

Akbari repeated many of Mohseni’s reasons for the shutdowns, adding that the country could soon lose the majority of its journalists, many of whom he trained.

“A lot of journalists are leaving Afghanistan because they are out of work and out of money,” Akbari told DW.

Women erased from journalism

For most female journalists, leaving Afghanistan remains the only option.

One of the country’s few survivors is Meena Habib. She has been a reporter for eight years and publishes Roidadha News, a local news site. She also does investigative work for various other media, often focusing on women’s issues. She told DW the situation was dire but she continued to do journalism because she believed in her profession.

Afghan women’s rights defenders and civil activists demonstrate to call on the Taliban to preserve their achievements and education, outside the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Reuters)

“Journalists, especially female journalists, have faced an uncertain fate over the past five months since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban,” she told DW. She too was threatened by the Taliban and beaten while covering a women’s protest.

After two decades of freedom to pursue an education and a career, women like Habib must now live in a new reality where they are no longer equal members of society. While Taliban officials claim that women can continue to work, the reality is that in journalism, this is not the case.

According to the Reporters Without Borders report, 15 of the 36 Afghan provinces no longer have a single female journalist. In Kabul, only about a quarter of the women who were working at the beginning of August are still working.

“The progress seen over the past 20 years was swept away in days by the Taliban’s takeover,” the report said. Habib acknowledges that press freedom does not currently exist under the Taliban but that outside pressure could help the remaining journalists.

“The international community should work to ensure that the rights of women journalists who wish to continue reporting in their own countries are protected,” she said.

Unfortunately for Selma, staying in Afghanistan would mean continuing to live in fear of the Taliban.

Now living alone in a large, unfamiliar city, she cannot see her family. This had a huge emotional impact and she desperately searches for a way to escape.

“I have to find a way out of this darkness,” she said.

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