featured image

The last gasps of free media in Afghanistan

March 18 is celebrated in Afghanistan as National Journalists Day. Except this year, anything resembling a “celebration” would be an oxymoron, given the grim reports about the situation of journalists, especially women reporters, coming from media watchdogs and other independent organizations. Repression and intimidation of journalists have led to self-censorship by the media, which, combined with the intensification and expansion of censorship, has stifled free journalism and access to information throughout Afghanistan.  

The security-ideological approach of the Taliban towards mass media, lack of institutions that support journalism and journalists, the collapse of civil and human rights organizations that monitor the situation of journalists and support free media, have caused Afghanistan to increasingly become a hazardous zone for journalism. All this had a devastating impact on the craft, and many journalists have fled the country and are suffering the prospects of a bleak future.   

In their propaganda, the Taliban depict journalists as their cultural and ideological enemies, often labelling them foreign agents. That security-ideological approach by the Taliban will inevitably result in the destruction of all the achievements in this sector in the past two decades. They violate human rights daily, often arbitrarily detaining journalists and YouTubers and using physical and psychological torture to get forced confessions, apologies and repentance, sometimes airing videos of those false statements on their own broadcasts. In particular, they have ruthlessly gone after women in the media industry, using propaganda and pressure to press their demands that all females be completely removed and erased from society.  

In 2022, incidents of violence and threats against journalists increased dramatically as the working space open for journalists and media has been severely curtailed. The Afghanistan Journalists’ Centre looked at the situation in all 34 provinces and determined that “at least 237 cases of violation of the freedom of the media and journalists, including threats, arrests, and violent treatment, have been recorded, which shows a more than double increase compared to 117 similar cases in 2021.” These cases include “at least 113 cases of threats or maltreatment of journalists and insults to them, at least eight incidents of physical violence or beatings, and at least 94 cases of temporary detention [of journalists] from one to several hours, several days, and even several months.”  

In January 2023, Mortaza Behboudi, an Afghan-French journalist, and Khairullah Parhar, a sports reporter working in Afghanistan were detained. In addition, several YouTubers, including Ajmal Haqiqi, Salahshor Kamrak, and several colleagues were manhandled and arbitrarily detained. As the suffocating work environment and Taliban violence has made media work extremely risky, many journalists and YouTubers have decided to either abandon their profession or flee Afghanistan 

Nowhere seems safe in Afghanistan. On March 11, an explosion at an awards ceremony for journalists in Mazar-e-Sharif killed three and wounded at least 37, including at least 15 journalists. ISIS claimed responsibility for the blast.   

In addition to these threats aimed at journalists, women in the media sector are enduring either the loss of their careers or severe restrictions imposed by media owners. According to a Reporters Without Borders report published last year, only 656 women journalists and media workers were still doing their jobs a year after the Taliban took over. That’s a sharp drop from the 2,756 women who worked in the sector prior to August 2021.  

In February, Zan Times reported on the current situation of women in the media. Out of the 32 female journalists that it interviewed, 17 had lost their jobs after the Taliban took over: 6 were fired from the media where they worked because of being women, 6 of them lost their job because the media organization they worked for closed down, and 5 others have left their duties due to repression and security threats. Though another 15 journalists told Zan times that continue to work despite facing gender discrimination, sexual harassment, security threats, pressure to quit their jobs, unpaid work, lack of access to information, Taliban censorship, and strict mandatory hijab laws.  

That lack of freedom as well as ongoing violence and repression by the Taliban are reflected in the press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders. In 2022, its worldwide ranking was 156, between Russia (No. 155) and Pakistan (No. 157). That’s a sharp drop from its 2021 ranking of No. 122.