Kabul, Afghanistan – Taliban fighters have been accused of beating and detaining journalists for covering protests in the Afghan capital Kabul, raising questions over the group’s promises on media freedom.
Two reporters for the Etilaatroz newspaper – Taqi Daryabi and Nematullah Naqdi – were detained by the Taliban while covering a women’s protest in the west of Kabul on Wednesday morning.
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Two other journalists from the newspaper – Aber Shaygan and Lutfali Sultani – rushed to the police station along with the newspaper editor, Kadhim Karimi, to inquire about the whereabouts of their colleagues.
But the moment they reached the police station, they say, Taliban fighters pushed and slapped them and confiscated all their belongings, including mobile phones.
“Karimi barely finished his sentence, when one of the Taliban slapped him and told him to get lost,” Shaygan told Al Jazeera, adding that as soon as they introduced themselves as journalists, the Taliban treated them with disdain.
Torture in holding cell
The three men were taken into a small holding cell with 15 people in it, two of whom were reporters with Reuters and Turkey’s Anadolu Agency, Shaygan said.
It was while they were in holding that the three heard reports of the disturbing abuse suffered by Daryabi, 22, and Naqdi, 28, who were being held in separate rooms.
“We could hear their screams and cries through the walls,” the cellmates said of the piercing cries. “The cellmates had even heard the sounds of women crying from pain.”
Pictures posted by the newspaper online filled in the rest of the story. They showed clear physical evidence of the floggings and beatings with cables both men were subject to. Daryabi’s lower back, upper legs, and face were covered with deep red lesions. Naqdi’s left arm, upper back, upper legs, and face were also covered in red welts.
“They were beaten so bad, they couldn’t walk. They were hit with guns, they were kicked, they were whipped with cables, they were slapped,” Shaygan said.
He said the violence was so brutal that Naqdi and Daryabi had lost consciousness from the pain.
But it was not just journalists who seemed to meet this fate. Shaygan said a male protester was escorted into their cell by Taliban guards, clearly looking as if he too had been abused.
“He could barely walk, one of the other cellmates had to get up and help him in,” said Shaygan.
Though all five men were released after several hours in detention, Shaygan said they were issued a stern warning from a Taliban official before leaving: “What these protesters were doing is illegal and by covering such things, you all broke the law. We will let you go this time, but next time you won’t be let out so easily.”
At the time, protests were not outlawed but, within hours, the Taliban issued a decree saying any protests, along with their slogans, must be approved 24 hours prior by the Ministry of Justice.
Those claims of illegality by the official struck Shaygan and his colleagues as going directly against statements the Taliban have made about freedom of the press in their “Islamic Emirate”.
At an August 17 press conference, the group’s then-spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: “Private media can continue to be free and independent; they can continue their activities … Impartiality of the media is very important. They can critique our work so that we can improve.”
Mujahid made similar claims at a private gathering of journalists working for foreign media late last month. At the time, Mujahid encouraged journalists to be transparent and report the realities of life in a Taliban-run Afghanistan.
But in the ensuing weeks, Afghan social media has been full of videos and pictures showing the group’s armed fighters trying to keep journalists from doing their job. During that time, the Taliban has repeatedly been accused of abuses against journalists.
Al Jazeera reached out to the Taliban for comment but it did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Amnesty decries reports of violence against the press
Amnesty International has decried the reports of violence and intimidation against the press.
“Journalists must also be permitted to report on the protests without fear of violence… The international community must use all leverage to demand that these basic rights are protected,” the rights group said in reaction to the Taliban’s alleged treatment of media workers during recent demonstrations.
Shaygan has been working with Etilaatroz, which is renowned for its investigative reporting, for four years. He says recent weeks have shown that the Taliban have “two faces,” one the leadership projects to the outside world and the one the Afghan people face on a daily basis on the streets.
I have no interest in working as a journalist in my country any more. My profession is dead there
“On TV and at press conferences, their leaders are very mannered and speak of freedoms, but their fighters on the street act however they want,” Shaygan says that contrast is what makes reporting in a Taliban-run Afghanistan so difficult, “You never know what mood they’ll be in.”
Shaygan and his colleagues were surprised to find that other journalists who had been detained that day were in possession of letters from Mujahid that granted them “the right to operate” at virtually any location as journalists. This, he said, was further proof of the disconnect between the leadership and the foot soldiers of the Taliban.
“They don’t want us to operate freely, they just want media to parrot their propaganda to the world.”
Adding to his frustration and confusion is the fact that he and his colleagues were merely inquiring about the detention of their co-workers at the time of their detention and abuse, “We just wanted to find out what happened to our friends.”
Even though the media has continued to operate since the Taliban took over the country, journalists say their jobs have become increasingly difficult over the last three weeks.
The Taliban has not yet placed any outright restrictions on the media, but journalists speaking to Al Jazeera all said they fear the days ahead, especially now that the Taliban have named their caretaker cabinet.
Sulan Faizy, a journalist who worked with international media and is currently in Turkey with his family, said he has little hope for the future of the press in Afghanistan.
“I have no interest in working as a journalist in my country any more. My profession is dead there,” said the 37-year-old said.
“I’ve lived under the Taliban twice. I know what’s to come next for Afghans living under them. I will find another way to support my family,” he said.