Taliban tell RSF they will respect press freedom, but how can we believe them?
Clearly choosing his words carefully at a time of the utmost concern for media personnel in Afghanistan, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has told Reporters Without Borders (RSF) that “no threat or reprisal will be carried out against journalists” under the Taliban.
This undertaking to respect press freedom, which Mujahid gave to RSF on 15 August as the Taliban takeover was triggering a wave of panic in Kabul and the rest of the country, clearly suffers from a lack of credibility because the Taliban have an appalling record in this regard.
As RSF said in a report in 2009, “The reign of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 was a dark period in Afghanistan’s history.” All media were banned except one, Voice of Sharia, which broadcast nothing but propaganda and religious programmes.
RSF nonetheless thinks that some attention should be paid to the terms that the Taliban spokesman used in this unprecedented statement.
“We will respect freedom of the press, because media reporting will be useful to society and will be able to help correct the leaders’ errors,” Mujahid said. “Through this statement to RSF, we declare to the world that we recognise the importance of the role of the media.” How much credence should be given to these carefully chosen words? Has there being a change in Taliban policy? The future will tell.
When RSF asked Mujahid about the possibility of a written undertaking, he replied: “We are in a period of transition and it will be better to wait a few days, but I agree. Anyway, journalists working for state or privately-owned media are not criminals and none of them will be prosecuted. In our view, these journalists are civilians and moreover, are talented young people who constitute our richness. There will be no threat against them. If journalists have stayed at home in some places, it is because of the war situation. They will soon be able to work as before. We need them in order to ‘break’ the climate of fear currently reigning in the country.”
Asked about the fate of women journalists, Mujahid said: “Afghan society is Muslim, as you know. In order to establish religious rules and edicts, we have had many deaths. Women journalists are also Muslim. We will, of course, establish a legal framework for questions of clothing – the use of the Hijab – and so that women are not bothered in the street and at their place of work. But, until these written provisions are enacted, I ask them to stay at home, without stress and without fear. I assure them they will go back to their jobs.”
These statement were made in a context that lends itself to the most intense pessimism. "Right now, the Taliban are doing nothing against us but tomorrow?" a Kabul-based journalist asked. “What will happen when the foreigners are gone and their government is installed?”
The foreigners have already gone. Around 100 media outlets have stopped operating since the Taliban’s rapid advance began. And, aside from those in the capital whose staff are still turning up for work, the media outlets still operating are doing so in accordance with the conditions set by the country’s new masters. In Kandahar, a radio station has already been rebaptised “Voice of Sharia,” the name used by the emblematic Taliban radio station from 1996 to 2001.
Afghanistan has at least eight news agencies, 52 TV channels, 165 radio stations and 190 print publications (including dailies, weeklies and monthlies) and, according to the latest figures from the Afghan Federation of Media and Journalists, it has a total of 12,000 journalists. The Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ) reports that a total 1,741 women work for Afghan media outlets, of whom 764 are professional journalists working in the provinces of Kabul, Herat and Balkh.
Afghanistan is ranked 122nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.