Shabir Ahmadi started his job at TOLO TV, Afghanistan’s largest private broadcaster, during one of the darkest days for the media in the war-torn nation: January 21, 2016.
The evening before, a Taliban suicide bomber had killed a graphic designer, video editor, set decorator, three dubbing artists and a driver who worked for TOLO’s entertainment wing.
When he arrived at the TOLO office the next morning, the guards at the door were confused and still grief-stricken. They had no idea what to do with Ahmadi. They looked at the then 24-year-old, who had just ended his job with TOLO’s main rival, 1TV, and asked him if he was “crazy” to start work at a network that had come under direct attack only hours ago.
Because the news never stops, not even when your organisation becomes the news, Ahmadi started his job less than a week later.
Everything changed on August 15
After that, reporting on the deaths of their colleagues by suicide bombers, unidentified gunmen and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) became a routine as the Taliban, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) and unknown armed groups continued to target journalists over the next five years.
Still, Ahmadi and thousands of other media workers across Afghanistan, most of them in their 20s and 30s, continued their work undeterred. Newsrooms and production houses full of young men and women worked together to make the country’s media the freest in the region, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) watchdog.
But all that changed on August 15.
First came the news that former President Ashraf Ghani and top cabinet officials had fled the country. Then came reports that the Taliban, which had just entered the districts of Kabul province early that morning, was heading into the capital city.
Suddenly, the memories of the bombings and killings came flooding back. Ahmadi, who was then deputy head of news at TOLO, met the network’s top management and immediately came to two decisions.
“The first thing we did was send all the female staff home,” Ahmadi told Al Jazeera over the phone from Europe.
The other decision they made was controversial but necessary, he said. They immediately stopped broadcasting music and entertainment programmes. The Turkish serials, game shows, singing competitions, talk shows and sketch comedy shows that millions of people tuned into every evening came to a sudden end.
Though the Taliban had made no official declarations on programming at the time, Ahmadi said the decision was a preemptive one.
“If you understood the fear that night, you would see why we came to such a decision,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ahmadi said he now regrets that decision, but that at the time, it seemed like a necessary one. “We wanted to be the ones to cut them off, not the Taliban,” he said.
Ahmadi said he tried to work as a journalist in the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, but it quickly became clear that would be too difficult. There were reports of the Taliban torturing journalists, confiscating their equipment, beating them on the streets of main cities, jailing them for weeks at a time and instituting new restrictive media laws.
By September, Ahmadi was among hundreds of other Afghan journalists and media workers, including his TOLO colleagues, who had fled the country.
The exodus of journalists has led to serious questions about the future of the media in Afghanistan, where a free press was one of the few real gains to come out of 20 years of Western occupation.
Steven Butler, the Asia programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), says the current media situation in Afghanistan resembles that of Myanmar.
Like Afghanistan, Myanmar also experienced a recent political upheaval that saw the end of a controversial semi-democratic Western-supported government and led to an immediate flight of the country’s media workers.
Butler fears that, like Myanmar, the future of Afghanistan’s media is “bleak”, but he understands why so many journalists left both the countries, operating in exile.
“[It] is not ideal, but it is better than being in jail or killed,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone.
Though some Afghans have already resumed their work from abroad, Butler said Afghans will have a much more difficult time than the people of Myanmar when it comes to restarting their work in exile.
“In Myanmar, there was already much more of a precedent and infrastructure for journalists to operate in exile,” he said.
For Ahmadi, the flight of journalists is especially difficult to bear because the media was one industry where thousands of young people felt heard and challenged at the same time.
Ahmadi describes his years at TOLO and 1TV as a time when he “felt free and supported”.
“Whenever we would present an idea to them, they would say, ‘Great, go do it.’ There really wasn’t anything we were discouraged from trying,” he says, reminiscing about his days at two of the nation’s top-ranked TV stations.
Butler says CPJ is trying to establish contacts with the Taliban to advocate for the rights of the Afghan reporters, but that has proven difficult so far. He says the Islamic Emirate promises it will investigate matters, but has yet to present any actual findings.
Abdullah Khenjani, the former director of news at 1TV, the nation’s second-largest private broadcaster, says if the Taliban truly believes in the free media, as it said shortly after taking power, then they must prove it with their actions.
“So far, the Taliban has not been able to buy public confidence and secure a safe environment for critical journalism in particular,” he said.
Journalists beaten and tortured
That commitment to free media came under renewed scrutiny on Thursday, when CPJ reported the Taliban beat three journalists covering a small women’s protest in one of the busiest areas of Kabul.
Once again, the organisation said the Taliban did not respond to their requests for comment on the incident, which came just a month after the group detained, beat and flogged journalists covering a similar demonstration.
Other journalists Al Jazeera spoke to agreed with Khenjani’s assessment, saying they have faced pushback while trying to report on several issues over the last two months.
Journalists who were beaten and tortured for reporting on protests in Kabul last month told Al Jazeera they have been warned by Taliban officials not to cover such events.
Likewise, journalists also recalled being stopped by the Taliban from reporting from the northern province of Panjshir where an armed resistance against the group started after it took over Kabul.
Abdul Farid Ahmad, the former deputy director for operations at TOLO News, references all of these events when speaking about his efforts to continue working in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
“They have beaten journalists many times. They didn’t let journalists cover the women’s protests. They didn’t let journalists go to Panjshir when it was not under their control. We have so many examples that the Taliban didn’t and still don’t want journalists to work freely,” he told Al Jazeera.
In a recent report, the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) described the killing of a journalist by unknown gunmen and seizures of two media outlets in the east and the north as examples of the Islamic Emirate failing to ensure safety of the media.
Like CPJ, the AJSC also says the Taliban has failed to provide details of promised investigations into abuses against journalists.
“I don’t know any journalist who is willing to work with the Taliban, but I do know a lot of journalists who left the country and many others who want to leave the country. Journalists don’t feel safe in Afghanistan,” said Ahmad.
The exodus has greatly affected the quality of reporting in the country. In a recent statement, the AJSC said, “Media reporting quality has reached to its lowest level in the last 20 years.”
Journalists Al Jazeera spoke to over the last two months say they have faced great difficulty in getting sources ranging from hospital officials to other media workers and even average citizens in remote areas to go on the record for their reports.
Khenjani, the former news director at 1TV, says the fears are due to the Taliban’s “rudimentary government structure” which is sorely lacking in qualified professionals and “incoherent policies” which vary from province to province. This, he says, has affected the relationship between media and even their most stellar sources.
Lack of foreign aid
The AJSC went on to say that 70 percent of the media outlets across the country have closed in the two months since the Taliban came to power.
It is not just physical danger that is leading to these closures. Foreign governments and donor organisations have slashed funding to the nation since the Taliban’s takeover. The media was one of the industries most reliant on foreign aid.
Large outlets such as TOLO claim to be self-sufficient based on advertisement sales, a privilege Ahmadi acknowledges few others enjoy.
“For years, we charged some of the highest ad fees. At the time, we could do that.”
Ahmadi says those reserves may help TOLO outlast the current financial crisis, but smaller organisations are not so well-placed to deal with the situation.
Butler from CPJ agrees. “When an economy collapses, so too does the market for ads,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that it will be very difficult for many outlets to continue operations under the current financial constraints.
The overarching unease does not bode well for the Afghan media going forward, said the journalists Al Jazeera spoke to.
“I don’t know how much longer the private media can afford to go on,” said Ahmad.
Khenjani lamented the continued shrinking of the Afghan media. “In Afghanistan, the media works best when it can try to speak truth to power and hold the powerful to account,” he said.
Khenjani said while they “often faltered” with the former Islamic republic, they at least had the chance “to try and challenge the government narrative”.
Today, he says, that is no longer possible. “The Taliban will never accept the kinds of scrutiny and investigations that were conducted during the republic.”