Afghan journalism still resisting after two years of Taliban persecution
On the eve of the second anniversary of the Taliban arrival in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) met with journalists who, both within Afghanistan and abroad, are fighting to keep Afghan journalism alive despite the repression of the Taliban administration.
“It gets worse every day... I’ve repeatedly been denied the right to cover events simply because I am a woman.” This bitter observation came from a woman journalist who still works for a TV channel in Kabul and who, for good reason, prefers not to be identified.
“As a woman journalist, I must think twice about everything I do,” she said, pointing out that she has to wear a mask whenever she appears on camera. “Women journalists cannot participate in a talk show with men or ask them questions. Because of this, many women journalists were forced to abandon their careers. Many chose to leave the newsroom and to stay at home instead of feeling imprisoned at their desks.”
More than 80% of Afghanistan’s women journalists have had to stop working since 15 August 2021. And of the roughly 12,000 journalists – male and female – that Afghanistan had in 2021, more than two thirds have abandoned the profession. The media have been decimated in the past two years. Latest examples: at the beginning of August, the local authorities in Nangarhar province closed the premises of Hamisha Bahar television and radio under sharia law, thereby depriving the radio stations Nen – which was housed there and used the same technical means of broadcasting – and Jawanan – which had a transmitter there for local radio broadcasting –, of their ability to broadcast. More than half of the 547 media outlets that were registered in 2021 have since disappeared, according to the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA). Of the 150 TV channels, fewer than 70 remain. Of the 307 radio stations, only 170 are still broadcasting. The number of news agencies has gone from 31 to 18.
“Nationwide the most impacted media outlets are the local ones,” said Zarif Karimi, the director of NAI-Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan. “If things go on as they are, many more media organisations will soon be forced to close their doors. As a result, Afghanistan's journalists are currently experiencing an identity crisis.”
“On their own, these figures showing the extent of the Taliban destruction of the media would sicken anyone but that would be without taking account of the incredible resilience of Afghan journalists who, at home and abroad, battle daily to keep the flame of a free press alive. RSF stands at their side, providing them with emergency assistance and helping them to build a new free and independent journalism in Afghanistan.
“Journalists terrified, crushed, despondent”
On the ground, the challenges are huge. “Every journalist is now terrified, crushed and despondent as a result of all the arrests and the harassment to which we have been subjected and they therefore all self-censor their work,” said a Kabul-based TV journalist who also asked not to be identified.
“Those who reported fairly and accurately were imprisoned, forced to quit their employment, or had to leave the country,” this journalist added. “The chief task of the current authorities is censorship. The Taliban tolerate no opposition to their policies. We have no supporters here. We just know that we must deal with it.”
Media directors and editors who want to continue publishing or broadcasting in Afghanistan know this full well. If they want to survive they must, inter alia, comply with the “11 journalism rules” decreed in September 2021 – which, as RSF analysed at the time, opened the way to tyranny and persecution – and with the many other regulations restricting journalistic activity that followed. At the same time, journalists also suffer from an almost complete absence of laws providing them with protection.
“In the absence of these [protective] laws, the legal problems of the media have increased greatly, and if [the absence] continues, there will be more,” said Masroor Lutfi, a member of the leadership of the Afghan National Journalists Union (ANJU).
Exile, a new ordeal
Faced by the relentless harassment of media personnel within Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021, many journalists have had to resign themselves to fleeing abroad.
“We wanted to continue working but it soon proved far too dangerous and some colleagues were tortured by the Taliban,” said Zaki Daryabi, the founder of Etilaatroz (“The Day’s News”), an online investigative magazine that was created as print publication in 2012. Daryabi ended up fleeing Kabul in October 2021, two months after the Taliban takeover.
Before he left, his younger brother, Etilaatroz reporter Taqi Daryabi, and Etilaatroz cameraman Nematullah Naqdi were arrested and beaten by the Taliban police while covering a women’s protest. In the wake of their arrests, Zaki Daryabi himself received a summons to report to a police station but decided not to go for fear of being arrested. He and other members ofthe newspaper’s staff then quickly managed to get flights that were leaving the country.
But another ordeal began. Pakistan, Turkey, Albania, Spain… For Etilaatroz’s journalists, as for most Afghan journalists who have managed to leave, the road to exile is one strewn with pitfalls and detours.
420 support measures since the 15 August 2021
In 2022, the Assistance Desk at RSF’s international secretariat supported 86 visa applications by Afghan journalists seeking refuge in a third country. Since January 2023, the organisation has already supported 89 applications of this type. Support for political asylum applications is also continuing, with 36 media professionals assisted in 2022 and 15 since the beginning of 2023.
In order to support Afghan journalists in danger, RSF also provides financial assistance, in the form of grants, to help them meet urgent expenses, in particular those related to their recent resettlement in a third country. After more than a hundred grants disbursed in 2022, 79 new grants were disbursed during the first seven months of 2023.
It was in the United States that Zaki Daryabi was finally able to reassemble part of the Etilaatroz team that had been scattered across the globe, in order to relaunch his newspaper and the online newspaper KabulNow. These two media outlets now have ten employees based in the US state of Maryland and other 30 or so journalists who are correspondents within Afghanistan.
“The most amazing thing is that our online readership has increased significantly over the past two years, and the territory we cover is wider than before,” Daryabi said. “Our presence on social media has also ramped up a lot during this period.”
This is something the Taliban clearly had not foreseen, namely, the emergence of a new generation of connected Afghans, who had become used to consuming relatively free and pluralistic media for two decades and who did not intend to let the Taliban now dictate how they should perceive, think and communicate.
“Deliver our truth”
“The Taliban wanted to erase women from society, and from the media in particular,” said Zahra Nader, a journalist of Afghan origin based in Canada. “We said we could not let this happen. It was a decision that really came from our heart. We needed to keep the world informed about what is happening.”
This month marks the first anniversary of Zan Times, the media Nader launched. “Zan’ means woman in Dari,” she said. “When I saw the Taliban return to power, I said to myself, along with several other women journalists, that it was our responsibility to be there, whatever happened to us. That it was our duty to state loud and clear that we are still here to deliver our truth, to reveal what it really means to be a woman under the Taliban.”
A year after its launch, Zan Times has a total of around 15 employees, with an editorial headquarters based outside Afghanistan and five women reporters inside the country, in different provinces, who are working full time for the website.
“Of course, the most difficult thing is to keep them safe,” Nader said. “They don't know each other, which isn't easy when it comes to creating a sense of community. They write under pen names but I'm looking forward to the day when we can acknowledge their identities in broad daylight. Finally, we have set up intermediaries, in case we need to put questions to one or other Taliban leader, which would put them in great danger."
Nightmare for the Taliban
Three months ago, Zan Times launched a section on its Dari-language site in which it invited journalists and ordinary citizens to propose stories or subjects for investigative reporting in the areas where they are based. The editorial committee meets to analyse proposals, verify information, decide how to approach the subject, and evaluate potential risks.
“The idea came to us because we found ourselves connected to many women journalists who were locked away in their homes,” Nader said. “We also use it as an educational opportunity to sharpen the abilities of all these journalists, and promote public debate. One of our challenges at the moment is to empower community reporting. We're trying to create a new form of journalism.”
In so doing, Zan Times has evolved into the Taliban’s worst “nightmare.” A media born from almost nothing, from the refusal of a handful of Afghan women to let their thoughts be dictated, who wanted to tell the world what is really going on... And who have succeeded, despite two years of repression, in making journalism the most effective weapon against censorship and obscurantism.