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Taliban’s crackdown on the media: From banning female topics to putting its monitors into newsrooms

Afghanistan is now among the world’s 10 most dangerous countries for media personnel, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In its new World Press Freedom Index, RSF ranks Afghanistan 178 of 180 countries. That is the lowest ranking Afghanistan has ever had since RSF started its index in 2002. 

“Press freedom around the world is being threatened by the very people who should be its guarantors – political authorities,” RSF states in its report, released on May 3. This couldn’t be truer in Afghanistan, where media organizations and journalists face severe restrictions imposed by the Taliban since they came to power in August 2021. 

To date, they have issued close to 20 directives aimed at curtailing the public’s right to access information and journalists from doing their jobs. Some of these restrictions include banning the work of women in national radio and television; banning coverage of demonstrations and civil protests; and enforcing gender segregation in the media.

It is no surprise that women journalists are bearing the brunt of these bans and restrictions. More than four out of five women journalists have lost their jobs, according to RSF, with no women working in 15 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The restrictions on the media have expanded to include coverage of women’s issues. 

The Taliban have methodically made it all but impossible for women and their concerns to appear in the media. In May 2022, female anchors were forced to cover their faces across Afghanistan. Some local officials went further and banned the broadcast of women’s voices on television or radio stations and forbade women from taking part in call-in shows. 

To get a deeper understanding of press freedom under the Taliban rule, Zan Times interviewed 19 journalists and media employees in 10 provinces of the country – with nine journalists in six southern and eastern provinces saying that the Taliban have imposed severe censorship on any issues related to the female half of the population. That censorship includes not allowing the media to publish anything about women, even in entertainment and health programs, and they aren’t allowed to discuss women’s rights and issues.

Punishment can be swift and arbitrary, which is why all the people interviewed for this article asked Zan Times to use pseudonyms and exclude any information that may identify them. Just less than two weeks ago, three radio journalists were arrested for talking with female listeners and broadcasting music in the background of their programs, according to the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC). “Media were advised multiple times not to include background music in programs or to make phone calls in entertainment programs with women as it is forbidden,” the Taliban directorate of Virtue and Vice posted on their WhatsApp group, AFJC reported. The journalists were released after six days. AFJC reported that the Taliban director of Virtue and Vice warned that the media and journalists “would be prosecuted if they did not adhere to the media guidelines introduced by local authorities.” 

With the Taliban in charge, it is not clear who or what organization is in charge of imposing restrictions on the media. “The directives are being issued in violation of the existing media law and there is no clarity on the authority that is issuing the directives. Early on it was the Taliban leadership in Kabul or Kandahar that were issuing these media directives, but now the local officials in provinces issue their own versions,” Ahmad Quraishi, the executive director of AFJC, told Zan Times. “Powerful officials in certain provinces have begun imposing their own media regulations, leading to additional restrictions such as banning women’s voices in media in Helmand province, prohibiting photography and filming of Taliban officials in Kandahar province, and a ban on girl’s phone calls to media outlets in Khost province.” In its most recent press release, AFJC noted an increase in interference by the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence and the Ministry of Virtue and Vice, stating that “journalists are being summoned, interrogated, and even arrested for not following media directives.”

That is what most of the journalists interviewed for this report told Zan Times. Mirwais*, a journalist who works in one of the central provinces, tells Zan Times that he was interrogated for six hours by the Taliban Intelligence Directorate in November 2023. He says that the interrogation was because he had produced a report focused on the psychological problems of women caused by their unemployment. “I was warned that it will be costly if I deal with such issues again,” he explains. 

Several journalists in Kabul, Herat, and Balkh provinces confirm to Zan Times that the Taliban are directly and indirectly censoring reports and programs produced by media organizations in Afghanistan. In December 2023, senior executives of a media organization in the north of the country were summoned to the Taliban’s Intelligence and Information and Culture Department twice and were warned that they would be arrested and their work halted if they did not cooperate, Hamed*, one of the journalists working there told Zan Times. “Since late 2023, we have been forced to send our daily news to Taliban intelligence and only publish after their approval,” he said. 

Even those working in non-news divisions can feel the wrath of the Taliban. Mohammad Sohail*, an entertainment producer at a local TV station in the west of the country, tells Zan Times that he was accused of being a “spy and apostate” during a Taliban interrogation. “I am not working on a news desk and I have not made programs critical of the Taliban, but I was summoned to the intelligence department three times because I have talked about the state of urban cleanliness, traffic congestion, and price increases,” he explains. “They told me I should not depict the current situation in the bad light.” After his third interrogation by Taliban intelligence, which lasted six hours, he was told that he could only continue working if his programs were shared in advance with local Taliban authorities for their review and approval. 

In particular, journalists working in Kabul tell Zan Times that the Taliban are also placing monitors in their places of work so as to exert even more censorship over the media. Fraidun*, an employee of a local radio station in Kabul, says that his workplace had to hire a representative of the Taliban as an official employee, although he is being paid by the Taliban’s Ministry of Information and Culture. “Five months after the Taliban rule, the policy of our office has changed. We saw several new posts were created,” he tells Zan Times. “A monitor was introduced by the Taliban, whose duty is to check and review the news and programs that we produce. He mostly rejected the news that we write, sometimes because we talked about people’s problems and he wanted everything to show the Islamic Emirate in the good light. He is an employee of the Ministry of Information and Culture; after his arrival, things have been difficult. Most of the women left our office. Male journalists cannot freely write reports.”

Hoshmand*, a TV employee in Kabul, says that a representative of the Taliban in his station gives the final approval on whether or not to broadcast a news story or program. Supervision is so strict that his bosses won’t publish anything without the permission of the Taliban. That close monitoring by the Taliban isn’t restricted to Kabul. Abdul Karim*, a journalist in Balkh province, says that the representative of the Taliban intelligence issued a blunt warning to prominent journalists during a meeting in March. “One of the issues that was emphasized was the importance of cooperation with intelligence to identify journalists who work for exile media,” Karim explains to Zan Times. “The journalists were asked not to say anything against the Islamic Emirate, and, if such a thing happens, their work will be stopped.”

The rules can change quickly. In the early days of Taliban rule, before music was banned, a local radio station in Khost province used to play songs in its entertainment programs. Then, a high-ranking Taliban intelligence official issued a warning to the head of the station. “He told me very clearly: ‘You have two choices, to stop broadcasting music or death,’ and I chose to stop broadcasting music,” recounts the media executive. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and writers. Farshid Aram is the pseudonym of a Zan Times journalist in Afghanistan.