On June 7, Afghan vlogger Ajmal Haqiqi – well known for his YouTube channel and modeling shows – appeared in a very different kind of broadcast. Taliban officials arrested Haqiqi and his three colleagues and released a video showing the men, with bruised faces and clearly under duress, apologizing for encouraging “prostitution” and “insulting verses of the Quran.”
On May 28, the four had posted a YouTube video in which they recited Quranic verses in Arabic in a comical tone. Within a week, the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) had detained them.
“We have been promoting Western culture and values, and for this I apologize,” Haqiqi said in his evidently scripted “confession.”
As of mid-June, the men remained in custody. No charges have been filed against them, and no lawyers or family members have been able to see them.
These arrests are among the latest in the Taliban’s crackdown on free expression. On May 24, Taliban authorities detained Mirza Hassani, director of Radio Sedai Aftab, at a checkpoint in Herat city, accusing him of supporting opposition groups. On May 10, GDI officials detained Khan Mohamad Sayal, a TV journalist, in Urzugan, without explanation. By mid-June, neither man had been released.
A Kandahar journalist who had been detained for four days in April for broadcasting music told me he had been accused of working with foreigners. His “confession” was also forced: “They were beating and telling me that I had to admit it,” he said.
The Taliban have used various measures to silence media in Afghanistan, ranging from establishing restrictive guidelines to sending intelligence officials to meet with media staff. Forcing media workers to confess to dubious crimes sends a message to others to adhere to the Taliban’s rules – a tactic also used against women protesters who were detained and compelled to confess.
A media worker in Herat recently told me, “Freedom of speech has died in Afghanistan.” For journalists, social media activists, and others publicly resisting the Taliban’s onerous restrictions, his words seem all too true.