The changing landscape of Afghanistan’s media
On World Press Freedom Day, Afghan Witness looks at how Afghanistan’s media has changed since last August.
3 May 2022
Today, on World Press Freedom Day, Afghanistan dropped from 122nd place on the Press Freedom Index to 156th out of 180 countries.
While the country’s media faced issues prior to the Taliban's return, since August of last year, journalists and experts report of increasing regulations, economic hardship, and in some cases, violence.
Many media organisations have shut down
According to the United Nations (UN) millions in the country face acute food insecurity. Media outlets – particularly smaller ones – have not been untouched by the economic impacts of the U.S. withdrawal.
Faced with strict regulations and economic hardship, many media organisations have simply shut down. Others have been forced to make severe cuts to make ends meet.
A survey conducted by Afghanistan National Journalists Union (ANJU) in February shows just 305 of the 623 media which were active in Afghanistan before the Taliban took control are still operating. According to the same survey, in February, just 2,334 journalists were still working from a pre-Taliban high of 5,069.
One manager of a radio station Afghan Witness (AW) spoke to previously said he has had to reduce payment of each staff member from $150 to $70, as there are fewer commercial advertisements and the radio’s income has fallen.
Women disproportionately impacted
Research also shows that the closure of media outlets has had a disproportionate impact on female journalists: 72% of those who have lost their jobs in the media are women, and ANJU says just 243 women were employed by media in Afghanistan at the time of their research.
More specifically, female journalists outside of the capital have been particularly impacted by media restrictions, and these women report greater obstacles to establish their careers in the first place. In some provinces, Human Rights Watch (HRW) say there are no longer any women journalists. Others who are still working describe how their daily work routine has changed, they work “in the background” and avoid appearing in video or audio recordings.
In November, female TV journalists and reporters were also instructed to cover their hair when broadcasting, and more recently, were ordered to cover their faces while on air - following a move which saw all women ordered to wear a face veil in public.
Last October, HRW reported on a copy of regulations shown to the organisation which instructed media organisations to refrain from printing or broadcasting reports that “are contrary to Islam,” “insult national figures,” or “distort news content.”
According to HRW, journalists were told reporting should be “balanced” and that they should not report on “matters that have not been confirmed by officials” or issues that “could have a negative impact on the public’s attitude.” According to the regulations seen by HRW, media outlets are required to “prepare detailed reports” with the new governmental regulatory body prior to publication.
Reports of violence
In the months that have followed the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, human rights groups have persistently flagged mounting reports of violence against journalists attempting to report in the country.
HRW has published reports detailing cases whereby journalists claim to have been harassed, beaten, and arbitrarily detained by the Taliban. By October, the ANJU said there had been more than 30 instances of violence and threats of violence against Afghan journalists in just two months.
In September, images of two Afghan journalists - reportedly beaten in Taliban detention - were widely shared across social media and covered by the international media.
Those attempting to report on human rights and women’s rights in the country - particularly anti-Taliban protests - have reportedly faced disruption from Taliban members attempting to disperse crowds. AW has geolocated several protests where such cases have been reported.
One journalist and photographer covering women’s rights protests previously told AW:
“It is not the first time I’ve seen them [the Taliban] beating journalists… I went to cover the Dehmazang explosion [20th October], and they beat journalists there. They don’t allow journalists to cover the issues that aren’t in their own interests.”
Reports of arbitrary detentions
In February, Reporters without Borders reported that since the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021, at least 50 journalists and media workers have been detained or arrested by the police or Istikhbarat.
While the Taliban have previously denied reprisals, the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in January that authorities had the right "to arrest and detain dissidents or those who break the law" – raising further questions over the future of journalists, former government and security personnel, and activists in the country.
Broadcast ban on some international outlets
In late March, it was reported that the Taliban had banned BBC television news from broadcasting bulletins in Pashto, Persian and Uzbek in Afghanistan.
German broadcaster DW (Deutsche Welle) also saw some of its programmes taken off air in Afghanistan, including DW's political talk show "Aashti", which was broadcast in Dari and Pashto on local partner ToloNews, with science programmes broadcast on Ariana TV and Shamshad also affected.
Forced to flee
In the aftermath of the takeover last August, many journalists attempted to leave the country, or some were evacuated by international organisations such as the International Federation of Journalists.
Those who were not evacuated had to find their own way out, and many report of equally poor conditions in neighbouring countries. This is the case with one journalist AW spoke to recently, who claimed he had been detained and beaten by the Taliban after his phone was searched while reporting at a human rights protest.
He told AW that “no reporter is safe” in Afghanistan, and that he had fled to a neighbouring country but that he “[does] not feel safe here, neither physically nor mentally.” He hoped to return to his journalism work in the future but is unsure whether this will be possible unless he can find refuge in a safe country.
An uncertain future
On World Press Freedom Day, the Friends of Afghan Women Ambassadors’ Group stated that they “deplore the erosion of rights for journalists and media institutions under the Taliban” and particularly note the “obstacles faced by female journalists working in Afghanistan.”
When the Taliban swept back to power last August, Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman, claimed the Taliban are “committed to the media within our cultural frameworks” and that “private media can continue to be free and independent”, adding that media workers’ rights – along with women’s rights – would be protected.
However, claims from journalists on the ground – and research carried out by human rights groups – suggests a very different picture.