Not only is war fought with weapons, it’s also a battle of information. Such was the sentiment behind one Taliban fighter’s comment to a journalist – that the Taliban had been more betrayed by journalists than by the Afghan soldiers who killed them.
“A Talib told me that ‘You betrayed us more than a soldier of the previous government. The soldiers of the previous government shot us dead, but you kill us every day, spreading propaganda against us and telling the world we are terrorists’,” Parwana, a journalist, tells Rukhshana Media.
On the National Day of Journalists in Afghanistan, two reporters Parwana and Soraya are sharing their lived experiences in the profession, especially since the Taliban’s return to rule. The 20-year run of press burgeoning press freedom has been abruptly cut short and more than half the industry destroyed since the Taliban takeover of the country.
The two reporters say that the Taliban treats them with the sentiment echoed in the words of the Talib fighter – as worse than an enemy on the battlefield. But for these reporters, they have the additional challenge of being women.
“The restrictions imposed on journalists and media were even more extreme if they were women. Female journalists cannot participate in press conferences or go to the field to cover news, simply because of their gender,” Parwana* says.
“Women journalists are expelled from conferences and press meetings for various reasons, including adhering to the clothing order or the Islamic hijab prescribed by the Taliban,” she adds.
Despite more than ten years of experience working in national and international media, Parwana says most of the Taliban officials do not agree to interview female journalists and in most cases, they are not even given permission to ask questions and access information. This makes them feel like giving up the profession completely.
The women also receive direct high-level threats for simply doing their job. And of course, there is always the risk of being targeted in an attack, as the bombing of a press awards event in northern Balkh province’s capital Mazar-i-Sharif on March 11 demonstrates.
“That attack is not a case that we should ignore. This explosion was planned in advance and it shows that journalists in Afghanistan do not have any security and immunity,” Parwana says.
The explosion during the award ceremony at the Tabian Farhang centre killed at least two people, including Husain Naderi, a reporter for the Afghan Voice news agency, and wounded 19 others.
Soraya* agrees that journalists in general are in an increasingly precarious position and seen as the enemy in the Taliban’s attempts to have more control.
“We can’t talk, we can’t write, and we can’t take pictures or videos inside the city,” she says. “We don’t even have the right to get a recorder to go to the alleys and be the voice of our people.”
Soraya says that journalists were the voice of the people before the Taliban. Now she says if journalists talk about the facts, they should expect to be arrested, tortured and imprisoned.
“Currently, we are in a situation where we are forced and condemned to remain silent just to save our lives and to save the very breath we have because the Taliban intelligence are very persistent,” she says.
Soraya says that the media is not publishing according to the perspective or goals the media sets for itself are they are instead forced to follow the media policy of the Taliban. If not, the consequences for media employees are very clear.
“The sad thing for me as a reporter is that the institutions and committees that support journalists and the media all have had their programs selected and the nature of their work is such that it now benefits the Taliban, not for journalists and their rights,” Soraya says. “Sadder still is that some journalists and employees of media institutions have sold their souls to the Taliban to ‘fish out of muddy water’.”
As Soraya explains, without naming names: “People who could not get anywhere during the time of the previous government and with freedom of expression are now trying to use this situation to get ahead or achieve something, whether it is legal or illegal,” she says.
Taliban took power by force and maintain it through threat, which is how they also control the media. “It is actually a scary sight. The Taliban view us as hostages and they can do whatever they want. They say that your life and death is in our hands,” Soraya says, adding that the Taliban are completely opposed to freedom of speech and journalistic independence.
Hujaullah Mujadadi, head of the Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC), says the situation of journalists and media in the country has dramatically deteriorated since the Taliban took power, with violence against journalists more than doubling year on year.
In the last 12 months for solar year 1401 (March 2022-March 2023) there were at least 237 incidents of media and journalists freedom violations, including threats, arrests, and violent encounters, recorded, compared to only 117 cases a year earlier.
One positive development is there were three less media workers killed in 1401 than in 1400 (March 2021-March 2022).
Mr Mujadadi says that in most of the incidents, the Taliban and its various agencies were involved as perpetrators, apart from the explosion at the press conference in Mazar-e-Sharif.
Out of the 237 total incidents recorded by the Afghanistan Journalists Center, at least 113 of them were threats or abusive behavior and insults towards journalists, and less than half of these cases (45 cases or 40 percent) were in Kabul.
During the last 12 months, there were at least eight incidents of physical violence or beating of journalists recorded. This included four cases in Kabul and four cases across Balkh, Samangan, Nangarhar and Badghis provinces.
The AJFC has recorded at least 94 cases of temporary detention of journalists in 1401, ranging from one to several hours to several months of prison, including two journalists who have been imprisoned since about two months ago.
Mr Mujadadi says the AJFC calls on the Taliban to implement and honor laws related to press freedom in order to protect the important role journalists and a free and independent media have in the development and future progress of Afghanistan.