By Freshta Ghani and Sana Atef*
Khatam Ali Salahshor Kamrak, an increasingly popular YouTuber known for his videos which present the daily life of Hazaras in Jaghori district, Ghazni province, has been released from prison by the Taliban after spending nearly five months behind bars. One of his family members confirmed to Zan Times that Kamrak, along with his wife and six colleagues, were released from detention on April 19.
Despite being detained by the Taliban since December 5, 2022, in Kabul, Kamrak, his wife and colleagues faced no formal charges. Their arrests are part of a wider Taliban crackdown on freedom of expression in Afghanistan which has targeted YouTubers, human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, journalists and other independent voices.
An organization working for freedom of speech and media in Afghanistan, which does not want to be named due to security threats, shared statistics with Zan Times that show from November 2021 to March 2023, at least 56 YouTubers, including 13 women, have been arrested, interrogated, beaten, insulted and humiliated by the Taliban.
In addition to these arbitrary arrests, the Taliban have issued a new code of conduct for YouTube content creators to ensure their activities are “conducted in accordance with the Laws of Islamic Sharia and the policy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, according to a copy seen by Zan Times.
Violent arrests and forced confessions
Kamrak was hosting a private gathering of nearly 50 guests to celebrate reaching 20,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, when the Taliban stormed his home and arrested him. Most guests, including several other YouTubers, were wearing local Hazaragi clothes and preparing to record a special program of poetry when the Taliban arrived. The Taliban arrested 16 YouTubers, including Kamrak, according to two guests who spoke to Zan Times.
Muzhda Nauandesh*, a woman YouTuber and one of the two guests Zan Times interviewed, said the Taliban broke cameras and recording devices, while beating and interrogating guests. She said: “They beat the videographers and came in the middle of the room and told guests not to move. The Taliban kicked, slapped and beat us with gun barrels and butts. Some women also came with them. The Taliban commander kicked a woman, who was also slapped several times by the women that came with the Taliban.”
“They told us, ‘you prostitutes are the shame of your families, you come here and some men use you, do you think this is Europe? You make society corrupt’.”
The second guest, one of Kamrak’s relatives and a former colleague, told Zan Times that eight people arrested on the same night were quickly released. However, Kamrak who launched his YouTube channel in May 2021, was kept in detention along with his wife and six others.
Since being released from prison, Kamrak has not published any new videos on his YouTube channel and Zan Times has not been able to talk to him despite repeated attempts.
Kamrak’s arrest came six months after the Taliban targeted prominent YouTuber and model Ajmal Haqiqi, who was detained with three colleagues in June 2022.
Shortly after his arrest, the Taliban published a video which appeared to be a forced confession from Haqiqi, who was seen with bruises visible on his face, apologizing to the “Islamic Emirate” of the Taliban for “promoting prostitution” on his YouTube channel. Despite the public apology, Haqiqi and his colleagues went on to spend six months in prison.
YouTube content creators face tough new rules
Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, the group has introduced a raft of edicts governing all aspects of life in Afghanistan.
In March 2023, the Department of Media Supervision of the Taliban Ministry of Information and Culture published a code of conduct for Afghan YouTubers, a copy of which was shared with Zan Times.
Abdul Mateen Qani, Taliban spokesman for the Ministry of Information and Culture told Zan Times that under the new rules, YouTube channels would be treated as media organizations.
As such, anyone with a YouTube channel must pay 4,000 afghani (US$46) for an operating licence, in addition to a one-off fee of 10,000 afghani (US$115). They must also provide information about their objectives, types of activities and source of funding, among other details, to the Taliban.
The new rules state that anyone with a YouTube channel must be at least 18 years old, they must have graduated in journalism or have two years of professional work experience in Afghan media, and be deemed to have a “good reputation”. The Taliban spokesman said the code of conduct was meant to ensure that YouTubers “consider Islamic values and the interests of the country”.
Press freedom is increasingly under pressure in Afghanistan, which is ranked 152nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index published today. The country has dropped about 50 places since the Taliban took power.
“The most worrying element is obviously the almost systematic elimination of women journalists in the media. For the handful of women who are still allowed to work in media outlets, the professional, verbal or dress restrictions to which they are subjected are a denial of their right to exercise their profession freely,” Daniel Bastard, Head of Asia-Pacific Desk, Reporters Without Borders, told Zan Times.
Risk of self-censorship
The Taliban’s restrictions are making it increasingly difficult – and dangerous – for Afghans who use YouTube to make a living.
Shabnam Mehr* works for a YouTube channel in Kabul and earns 7,000 afghanis a month (US$81) from it. She once saw a bright future for herself as a content creator but since the Taliban returned to power, her hopes are dimming. She and her three colleagues, who are all young women, are only allowed outside to produce a program if it serves the interests of the Taliban or casts them in a positive light.
“When people have complaints or problems, we can’t publish. We have to prepare a report presenting the Taliban positively, otherwise it will end badly for us,” Mehr said, adding that she and her colleagues have already experienced harsh treatment by the Taliban while out working.
“In Ramadan, we cooked bolani and we were supposed to go to the Pul-e-Sorkh to distribute it to poor children. Unfortunately, that’s where we were caught by the Taliban. They beat unconscious our cameraman. We four presenters tried to prevent him from being thrashed and were also beaten by gun butts,” Mehr said.
“They detained all of us and took us to the police station. They turned off our mobile phones and confiscated them. Later, in the evening, they turned on our mobile phones and went through our mobile phones, checking our photos, WhatsApp chats and social media.”
Mehr said the Taliban took her fingersprints and those of her colleagues, warning them: “We do not want to see you working on the YouTube again.” Despite promising not to, Mehr continues her work in secret, at great risk to herself.
Other YouTubers say they are able to work – as long as they follow the Taliban’s rules.
Sabawon Momand was a reporter for local media in Afghanistan before starting his YouTube channel about two years ago. He and his team have traveled to most provinces in the country, producing programs and interviewing Taliban officials.
“We don’t do anything that is against Afghanistan or the Emirate, that’s why we haven’t had any problems so far. We try to depict the positive face of Afghanistan and the authentic culture of the people, we have nothing to do with politics,” Momand said.