(New York) – Taliban authorities have carried out far-reaching censorship and violence against Afghan media in district and provincial centers, drastically limiting critical reporting in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today. The situation facing journalists outside Kabul appears much worse than inside the capital, particularly for women.
Journalists in the provinces have described Taliban members threatening, detaining, and beating them and their colleagues who were trying to report the news. Many journalists have felt compelled to self-censor and report only Taliban statements and official events. Women journalists have faced the most intense repression.
“Taliban harassment and attacks on journalists outside major urban areas have largely gone unreported, causing media outlets in outlying provinces to self-censor or close altogether,” said Fereshta Abbasi, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In many provinces, the Taliban have virtually eliminated reporting on a wide range of issues and have driven women journalists out of the profession.”
On February 2, 2022, the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, told a meeting of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, a media advocacy group, that journalists should consider “national interests, Islamic values, and national unity” before publishing. He said that a new media commission would be established to address any problems, and that the authorities would enforce the former government’s media law. He also said without elaborating that “women can work freely in the media by observing Islamic and national principles.”
But journalists throughout Afghanistan have said that the Taliban severely restrict their work in violation of the Afghan media law and international human rights standards on freedom of expression and the media. An estimated 80 percent of women journalists across Afghanistan have lost their jobs or left the profession since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, and hundreds of media outlets have closed.
Human Rights Watch spoke with 24 journalists and other media workers in 17 of the country’s 34 provinces to learn about conditions outside of Kabul. Journalists in each of these provinces said the Taliban actively monitor their publications and compel them to share the content of their reports with the provincial Directorate of Information and Culture before publication. Many of the journalists said that Taliban intelligence officials regularly meet with media organizations to tell them what to publish and to warn them not to contradict Taliban policies or to report on acts of violence by Taliban officials.
“We all fear for our safety,” a reporter in Baghlan said. “If something happens to a journalist, there is no institution or system to support them, or to seek justice. There is no support for the media workers in Afghanistan right now.”
Many journalists said they or their colleagues had been beaten for trying to report on anti-Taliban protests, arbitrary detention, rising food prices, and other subjects that cast Taliban officials in a bad light. In some provinces, Taliban officials told all women journalists to stop working. The few who are allowed to work can no longer have roles in which they come face-to-face with the public.
“Getting the news from Afghanistan’s rural areas has never been easy, but the Taliban’s repression of the media in the provinces is dangerous both for the journalists and the people whose lives are harmed by unreported abuses,” Abbasi said. “Governments should press the Taliban to end to all attacks on the media, whether in Kabul or the countryside.”
For detailed findings, please see below.
Repression of Provincial Media Under the Taliban
Since November 2021, Human Rights Watch has conducted interviews remotely, using secure communications, with 24 journalists and other media professionals currently working in Badakhshan, Badghis, Baghlan, Balkh, Daikundi, Ghor, Helmand, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Kapisa, Kunduz, Nangarhar, Paktia, Parwan, Takhar, and Uruzgan provinces. Interviews were conducted in Dari and Pashto with the informed consent of the interviewee. The names of the interviewees and specific location information has been withheld to protect their safety.
Detentions and Beatings
Many of the journalists interviewed said that Taliban officials had harassed, beaten, and arbitrarily detained them or their colleagues, in some cases holding them for hours or days. Some had been beaten for reporting on unauthorized anti-Taliban protests, which the Taliban have banned, as well as any news coverage of unauthorized protests. A female journalist in Balkh said that, in September, Taliban soldiers had beaten her on the street while she was trying to cover women’s protests. She said: “Journalists can easily get beaten by Taliban soldiers in the streets and no one will be held responsible. In the past few months, the journalist from Arezo TV has been beaten and a Pajhwak journalist in Balkh has been arrested.”
A journalist in Kandahar said that, in December, Taliban members beat him while he was on the street preparing a report on the rise in food prices. That month, the Taliban detained two journalists and badly beat them in custody. One was released after a few hours, the other after six days. Their colleague said that both have remained under surveillance.
An editor working outside of Kabul said that, in December, one of his journalists went to the passport office to report on the difficulties Afghans were having obtaining passports. A member of the Taliban police badly beat him and confiscated his camera. The editor said the reporter was beaten even though he had permission from officials in Kabul to cover the issue.
Reporting Taliban abuses or intervening on behalf of journalists also carries risks, and journalists said that Taliban officials have warned them against critical reporting. A journalist in Badakhshan said that, after he wrote a report about a commander who had beaten a resident, a Taliban official ordered him not to publish it and said that “this should be the last time that [he] even dares to think of reporting on such issues.” A journalist in Kandahar said that he witnessed Taliban members beating another journalist but that, “when we went to the police station, they told us to never come there for these issues.”
Taliban officials do not provide information on detentions, and journalists fear the consequences if they report on such Taliban abuses. On November 25, a Taliban unit detained Nawid Azami, a resident of Lashkar Gah, Helmand, after he posted a comment on Facebook calling for teachers to be paid their salaries. On November 28, his body was found with marks of torture. While a report of the incident was published outside Afghanistan, no local media covered the story. A Helmand journalist said, “No one dared to report it.” Journalists in other provinces expressed the same apprehension. “The atmosphere is full of fear,” one said. “No one reports Taliban violations.”
In Herat, a journalist who works for a radio program that invites the audience to call in and talk about their everyday lives or problems, such as food prices, said: “We make sure that they do not complain about the Taliban. Otherwise, we will be questioned.”
Women in the Provincial Media
The Taliban’s media restrictions have been particularly devastating for women journalists outside the capital, who typically have had to fight even harder than their urban counterparts to establish their careers in media in the face of sexism and security risks. Since the Taliban takeover, most women working in media have lost their jobs. and in some provinces, there are no longer any women journalists.
In Ghor province, the Taliban’s Cultural Affairs Department, which regulates the media, has turned away former women journalists when they came to their jobs, saying they have no orders confirming that female journalists can work. As of February, there were no female journalists in Ghor. In Kapisa, a journalist said that in the first days of the Taliban takeover, officials said that women journalists should stay home, and there has been no change since then.
A former journalist in Helmand said that she had six female colleagues, but as of February there were no female journalists working in the province. She said that Taliban officials have instructed the media not to involve any women as program hosts or guests. Cultural programs in which women had been involved have also been terminated.
In Nangarhar, women’s media programs have also been closed down, and no women are allowed in newsrooms. One journalist who was still employed said she was only allowed to work from home. “I cannot appear in any audio or video program, and I can only publish my reports on the online website,” she said.
A female journalist in Herat said: “I work in a radio station, and since the Taliban have come to power, I have not been allowed to be present [in the newsroom] – I only work in the background. I have been told that my voice can't be broadcast.”
A journalist who worked in Kandahar and Zabul provinces said that the Taliban prohibit the media from reporting on the ban on secondary schools for girls. “I have been threatened and warned not to report on any issues of concern to women,” she said. “Previously there were female journalists in Kandahar and Zabul, but now there are none.” According to a journalist in Kandahar, when the Taliban closed the Mirman (woman) radio station in Kandahar, 50 employees – most of them women – lost their jobs.
A journalist in Balkh said, “Women even cannot even attend seminars and events held by the journalists themselves.”
Censoring Reports; Limiting Access to Information
Since the Taliban takeover, ministry officials have prohibited the media from broadcasting many programs, including almost all entertainment programs. The media are also unable to report on a range of subjects, including anything to do with opium production, military and police actions, protests, and anything else the Taliban authorities deem too critical. Even reports that had been published before the Taliban takeover are subject to scrutiny. Media officials in Kandahar said they had to remove a report on opium from their website.
Before producing any news article or report, journalists are required to seek permission from the provincial Cultural Affairs Department. After drafting the document, they must submit it for review. Nothing can be published without the department’s approval. Journalists in several provinces said that this process can substantially delay publication. In Takhar province, journalists said that cultural affairs officials often pass their proposals to the Intelligence Department, which then must grant permission before they can proceed.
A journalist in Parwan said: “We coordinate all our activities with the authorities. They edit and filter our reports, and then we publish them.” A former investigative reporter in Paktia said, “I haven’t been able to make a proper report since their takeover. Now I cover only very basic issues. They told us that we should stop thinking that the previous government is still in power and that we can report as before.”
Taliban officials have said the media must follow “Islamic and national principles,” but journalists said that the guidelines are vague. “There isn’t a clear understanding of what ‘Islamic values’ mean, and we don’t know how to interpret it, which leads to self-censorship,” a journalist in Baghlan said.
Some Taliban officials have required the media to report on corruption in the previous government. “They have also told us that if we want to work on these issues, they will help us,” a journalist from Ghor said. “The information they give to us is not completely accurate as they edit it according to their wishes.” Journalists from several provinces said that Taliban officials call and tell them to report on official events, and they feel they must for their own safety. The Taliban have also created online chat groups with the journalists, and issue instructions for them there.
One of the most sensitive issues for the Taliban is their ongoing conflict with the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). A reporter from Kandahar said that, after his outlet filed a report on an ISKP attack, they “received phone calls from the Taliban spokesperson telling us to stop working on these reports – we are not allowed to broadcast such news.” The media in several provinces have been prohibited from reporting on aid distributions and the humanitarian crisis. “These are very sensitive issues, and no one can touch them,” a journalist said.
The Taliban have banned entertainment programs, social programs, and political programs. The media in Badghis province reported that, after the Taliban takeover, music on radio and TV disappeared, even advertisements were not allowed to play background music. There are also limits on the programs the media can broadcast. A journalist in Kapisa said, “there are no longer any political shows or live programs; these have been replaced with more Islamic programs.” He also said that entertainment programs had completely stopped broadcasting. “Two days ago, one of our technical colleagues mistakenly broadcast two songs, and Taliban contacted us to say this must be the last time [that happens].”
Access to information is very limited in Afghanistan, and journalists have also been detained and punished when they have tried to obtain information for their reports. Reporters in some provinces say they need written permission from officials to travel to other districts. “When an incident happens, it is our responsibility to go to the scene, take pictures, record videos, and talk to witnesses, but we are no longer allowed to,” a Badakhshan journalist said. A journalist from Helmand said, “You cannot ask relevant departments to give you more information, only the Directorate of Cultural Affairs can be contacted.” As a result, “only 10 percent of incidents are being reported, the rest remains untouched.”