In spite of Taliban promises of a “free and independent” media, journalists and media workers have faced detention, physical abuse and torture since the group took over Afghanistan six weeks ago.
Now a new set of media regulations issued earlier this week by the Taliban has journalists and rights workers worrying that the group is moving towards outright censorship of the media – reviving memories of its repressive rule in the 1990s.
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The 11 directives include a requirement that: “Media outlets will prepare detailed reports in coordination with the Government Media and Information Center (GMIC),” which is currently headed by Mohammad Yusuf Ahmadi, a former spokesman for the group during their 20-year rebellion against the US occupation.
The media did face challenges under previous Afghan administrations, including the government of former President Ashraf Ghani, which often came under criticism for its lack of transparency and hostile attitudes towards the media.
Despite these difficulties, though, Afghanistan had the distinction of having a higher press freedom rating than Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
But since the takeover, journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to operate under the Taliban’s so-called “Islamic Emirate”.
Sami Mahdi, a well-known television journalist who recently published a report on the state of the media under Taliban rule, says the group has been sending very clear signs about its attitude towards the media since their August 15 takeover.
“From the day the Taliban took over Kabul, the media has been facing a lot of pressure and violence from the Taliban side … Just for doing their daily job,” Mahdi said, referring to recent reports of violence and intimidation against covering demonstrations and interviewing daily labourers.
Mahdi said this reliance on force and aggression, “sends a clear message to the media, that they should become the Taliban’s mouthpieces,” if they want to survive.
More than 150 media outlets have already closed due to fear of increased intimidation from the Taliban and a lack of funding since international governments cut off assistance to Afghanistan in the wake of the fall of Kabul.
To Afghan journalists, the new guidelines are the first direct sign of the Taliban trying to muzzle the nation’s once-thriving media.
Sherin, a female journalist who fled to Europe after experiencing firsthand hostility from the Taliban, says, the rules are another example of the group’s leadership saying one thing and their forces on the ground acting another way.
“They make these beautiful, flowery pronouncements, but then their men act with physical violence and abuse,” said Sherin, who asked to be given a pseudonym for fear of retribution against her family still in Afghanistan.
On August 17, two days after taking power, the now-Deputy minister of information and culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, said, “Private media can continue to be free and independent, they can continue their activities.”
Eight days later, reports of a news team – a journalist and cameraman for TOLO TV, the nation’s largest private broadcaster – being beaten and had their phones and cameras confiscated by armed Taliban began to circulate.
Particularly concerning for media workers are the vague, cryptic wording of the 11 points.
Sherin and Mahdi both pointed to the first rule, which states, “stories contradictory to Islam” should not be published or broadcast. Though former Afghan governments had similar regulations in their media laws, the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam leaves both journalists with questions and concerns.
“What is contrary to Islam and what is not is a big topic of debate,” says Mahdi.
‘No respect for ordinary citizens’
He fears that the Taliban’s lack of clarity in the 11 points will be used to cast a wide net when the group wants to come after the media. “This leaves a lot of space for personal interpretation. They will use it to limit freedom of expression,” Mahdi said.
Sherin, who works mainly as a video and photojournalist, is concerned about how these parameters will affect her ability to choose her sources, especially women. Even under the former government, women would often be criticised for something as simple as their attire, but now she wonders if the Taliban’s constant references to women’s clothing will affect who is heard and who is seen.
“If I take a photo or video of a woman who is not wearing what the Taliban considers to be proper and Islamic, is her entire opinion discounted, am I still allowed to publish her thoughts?”
Sherin was also disturbed by one of the regulations, which says journalists “should not insult national figures”.
As someone who has witnessed firsthand the Taliban’s abuse of people on the streets of Kabul, Sherin says this directive shows the “clear separations” the Taliban has created in Afghan society. “The people that they disrespect themselves by beating and abusing on the streets. What about them? Who are they?” she asked.
She said this rule, when paired with their actions towards the general populace, makes it clear that “they have no respect for ordinary citizens” and that they “can be abused and mocked” while high-profile figures, including the Taliban leadership, should be afforded an extra level of dignity and respect.
Sources speaking to Al Jazeera also pointed out the fact that the Taliban themselves have already engaged in what could be considered insulting behaviour.
Last month, a Taliban commander received widespread online condemnation after he went on live television and called the people of Panjshir, the province home to the nation’s sole armed resistance against Taliban rule, “nonbelievers.”
Likewise, the group has been accused of defacing roundabouts dedicated to former Mujahideen leaders Ahmad Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq in Kabul. All of these instances have been seen as signs of disrespect by many people in Afghanistan, which seems to go against the Taliban’s own regulations.
Mahdi was also disturbed by the two final regulations, which refer to media outlets “preparing detailed reports” in coordination with the Government Media and Information Center and that the body has “designed a specific form to make it easier for media outlets and journalists to prepare their reports in accordance with the regulations”.
In the past, the GMIC was mainly used as a strategic centre where government spokespeople could come to hold press conferences and much less of a clearinghouse for the government’s interaction with the media.
“Why should the media prepare detailed reports in coordination with a government body?” said Mahdi, who was the host of some of the nation’s most-watched chat and debate shows.
He fears that all of this reliance on the GMIC will be used as a “very obvious and very clear way of censorship and influencing media content.”
Another Afghan journalist, now in Turkey, agrees with Mahdi’s assessment, saying the new rules make it “quite obvious that Taliban want the media to only publish their propaganda”.
He said the regulations will likely keep any remaining journalists in the country from reporting on political issues in fear of angering the Taliban. Already, journalists have lamented that their travels across the country now have to receive approval from the Taliban, who often accompany the reporters in their reporting trips under the guise of security.
One former government official, now in Europe, said the new parameters reminded him of, “the kinds of restrictions they have in Iran. It’s clear now, that the Taliban want that kind of system in Afghanistan”.
Steven Butler, the Asia programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, says he too is most worried about the implications of journalists having to cooperate with the Taliban government as part of their work and that while the other provisions are unwelcome but could possibly be subject to more lenient interpretations, that seems “unlikely.”
The points about coordination with the Taliban-run government, including a form to assure compliance, “suggest that the government expects journalists to be producing news stories in concert with the Taliban”, Butler said.
“These regulations are so broad and sweeping that the media are unlikely to know what is allowed and will therefore say very little at all – which is the entire point,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“These rules would effectively sound the death knell for Afghan media.”
For Sherin, the new constraints, along with stories from her colleagues still in the country, have solidified her decision to stay in Europe.
“It’s become clear that it is not realistic for me to return to work in that kind of situation.”