Abusing the Media in Afghanistan

Since the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, numerous journalists and media professionals have fled the country due to fear of the Taliban's retaliation and repression.

by Sanchita Bhattacharya

Since its ‘comeback’ in August 2021 the Taliban have detained journalists, shut down and controlled media organisations, and imposed harsher restrictions on female reporters. The once vibrant and active independent and free news media, and diverse voices, collapsed overnight. Taliban is doing its worst to stifle various media houses, and silence voice of reason coming out of Afghanistan. Domestic media face severe censorship, and are forced to mainly feature religious hymns and songs, and Taliban propaganda, while refraining from broadcasting content misaligned with the Taliban’s preferences.

An Afghan news reporter stands next to TV screens at Tolo television, owned by Saad Mohseni, the country's biggest media mogul, in Kabul July 6, 2010. [ Photo: REUTERS/Ahmad Masood]

On April 16, 2024, the Taliban suspended the activities of two Kabul-based TV stations, Noor and Barya, alleging that they failed to “consider national and Islamic values.” An official from Taliban’s Information Ministry’s Media Violations Commission, Hafizullah Barakzai, stated that a court would investigate files on the two stations. Noor TV and Barya TV cannot operate until the court gives its verdict. Barya TV reportedly began operations in 2019 and is owned by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former prime minister and leader of the Hizb-e-Islami party. Noor TV, which began broadcasting in 2007, is backed by Afghanistan’s former foreign affairs minister and leader of Jamiat-e-Islami party, Salahuddin Rabbani.

As reported on April 9, 2024, the Taliban has announced plans to restrict or completely block access to Facebook. Taliban’s acting Minister of Telecommunications and Information Technology, Najibullah Haqqani confirmed these plans.

On February 27, 2024, Mohammad Khalid Hanafi, Taliban Minister of the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, issued a warning to media representatives during a meeting in Kabul, that the leader of the Taliban could completely ban women from working in the media if women do not cover their faces when they appear on television or in video interviews.

On February 24, 2024, the head of the Taliban Police in Khost Province sent a letter to the province’s Directorate of Information and Culture as well as that of Vice and Virtue. The letter expanded the Taliban’s diktats on how women are seen and heard in the media:

In this province, some radio stations are promoting moral corruption; a good example of that is the broadcast of educational programs on radios, in which more girls participate; in these programs, in working and non-working time, the girls contact the officials of the radio stations and engage in illicit relations.

As reported on February 12, 2024, Taliban’s Media License Renewal Commission mandated allocating 50 per cent of total airtime to broadcast Taliban programs and propaganda in favour of the group.

On December 10, 2023, a Taliban court in the Daykundi Province sentenced Sultan-Ali Jawadi, the chief editor of Radio Nasim to one year in prison on charges of collaborating with foreign media, blasphemy, and espionage for foreigners.

According to partial data collated by Institute for Conflict Management, since August 15, 2021, when the Taliban seized power, at least 28 journalists have been arrested in 15 incidents (data till April 17, 2024). On March 11, 2023, Hosein Naderi, a journalist with the Afghan Voice Agency was killed in a bomb attack on a cultural center in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, while reporters had gathered to mark National Journalists Day. It is the lone incident in which a journalist lost his life.

The situation, however, is worse than these numbers alone suggest, since the Taliban’s pall of intimidation is enveloping, and a high measure of compliance has already been enforced. Nevertheless, Nai, a media-supporting organization in Afghanistan, disclosed on November 19, 2023, that 108 cases of violence against journalists had already been recorded in the country in 2023. The head of Nai, Zarif Karimi, added that the cases included arrests, beatings, harassment, insult, humiliation and other unlawful actions against the journalist by security forces.

In its annual report for 2023, released on December 29, 2023, the Afghanistan Journalist Center indicated that it had documented at least 168 instances of violation of journalists’ rights, including one death and 61 arrests. Although the numbers reflected a decrease compared to 2022, when the center recorded 260 such incidents, the center noted that eight media outlets had been banned in 2023, of which five were temporarily barred from operating, while the remaining three were banned outright.

In January, 2024, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), disclosed that, in the years since the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan had lost 40 per cent of its media outlets and 60 per cent of its journalists, including a steeper decline in the number of women journalists.

A February 2024 report also noted that, before the Taliban takeover, 197 television networks, 284 radio stations, hundreds of print magazines and active websites were operating in Afghanistan. Following the Taliban takeover, 70 per cent of media outlets in the country ceased operations.

Since August 15, 2021, the Taliban regime has issued around 17 directives to control the media and journalism in Afghanistan (data till February 24, 2024), including the prohibition of music on all media; a ban on women appearing in television dramas; a prohibition on publishing films and serials; a prohibition of interviews with opponents and critics of the Taliban; imposition of total gender segregation in the media and a prohibition of interviews between men and women; a prohibition on any criticism of the performance of Taliban officials by the media, among others.

Since the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, numerous journalists and media professionals have fled the country due to fear of the Taliban’s retaliation and repression. According to Taliban directives, spokespersons for the group are forbidden from engaging with exiled media, and they have revoked licenses and blocked the internet domains of some exiled media outlets. As reported in February 2024, Ahmad Qureshi, the Executive Director of the Afghanistan Journalists Center, stated that the Taliban had verbally issued orders prohibiting cooperation with exiled media outlets, further intensifying the restrictions on the access to information.

Women journalists and media officials, have been the primary targets of Taliban bigotry. An August 2023, Reporters Without Borders report, titled Two Years of Journalism under the Taliban Regime, observed that over 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s female journalists had been compelled to cease working since August 15, 2021. The report noted, further, that of the 12,000 journalists, including both males and females, that Afghanistan had in 2021, more than two-thirds had abandoned the profession.

According to the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, more than half of the 547 media outlets existing in 2021 have subsequently vanished, Reporters Without Borders added.

Even while the Taliban regime restricts and suppresses media, it also exploits the surviving media outlets to spread propaganda. The regime has appointed its ‘own people’ at different managerial and executive levels in these media, including national radio and television channels, over 30 provincial radio and TV stations, the Bakhtar News Agency, five government newspapers, and radio and television affiliated with the former House of Representatives. These media primarily function as propaganda machines, spreading the Taliban’s narrative and the state’s political and religious propaganda. Journalists and media organization are forced to publish and propagate messages aligned with the Taliban’s agenda.

A few social media channels and Influencers remain in the Taliban’s good books, and these are granted coveted broadcast licenses. Influencers whose work is seen as benefiting the regime have been allowed to showcase the achievements of various Taliban ministries. One of the top channels, “Our Afghanistan,” with over 350,000 YouTube subscribers, has focused on a widely known backer of the Taliban, ‘General’ Mobeen Khan, often shown distributing donated winter clothing, talking to soldiers or visiting hospital patients. Even such favourites are, however, not outside the spectrum of scrutiny. ‘General’ Khan was arrested, detained for at least 20 days, and then released, in June 2023. He attributed his incarceration to a ‘misunderstanding’.

Some channels, such as Dostdaran Kabul with over 40,000 subscribers, focus almost entirely on purported urban development under the Taliban. Others, for instance, Kabul Lovers, mix scripted entertainment videos with content featuring Taliban officials.

The decline in press freedom has been evident in international rankings, with Afghanistan’s position dropping from 122nd in 2021 to 156th in 2023 (out of 180 countries assessed) on the World Press Freedom Index.

The Taliban, this time around, is far more dangerous than its earlier avatar (1996-2001). Unlike the 1990s, when the Taliban militia used to break TVs, dish antennas and radio sets, Taliban 2.0 is more organized, shrewd and insidious, suppressing media freedoms even while it exploits the media to its own advantage.

Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India