Despite the Taliban’s promises of a “free and independent” media, journalists and media workers have been subjected to detention, physical abuse and torture since the group occupied Afghanistan six weeks ago.
Now, a new set of media regulations issued earlier this week by the Taliban has prompted journalists and rights workers to worry that the group is moving against direct censorship of the media – reviving memories of its oppressive rule in the 1990s.
The 11 directives require that: “Media companies will prepare detailed reports in coordination with the Government Media and Information Center (GMIC),” which is currently headed by Mohammad Yusuf Ahmadi, a former spokesman for the group during their 20-year uprising. against the American occupation.
The media faced challenges under former Afghan administrations, including the government of former President Ashraf Ghani, who was often criticized for his lack of transparency and hostile attitudes towards the media.
Despite these difficulties, however, Afghanistan had the distinction of having a higher press freedom rating than Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
But since taking power, journalists have found it increasingly difficult to operate under the Taliban’s so-called “Islamic emirate”.
Sami Mahdi, a well-known TV journalist who recently published a report on the state of the media under Taliban rule, says the group has sent very clear signs of its stance to the media since taking power on 15 August.
“From the day the Taliban took over Kabul, the media has been under great pressure and violence from the Taliban … just to carry out their daily work,” Mahdi said, referring to recent reports of violence and intimidation against the coverage of demonstrations and interviews daily workers.
Mahdi said that this dependence on power and aggression “sends a clear message to the media that they should become the Taliban’s mouthpiece,” if they want to survive.
More than 150 media outlets have already been shut down over fears of increased Taliban intimidation and lack of funding since international governments cut off aid to Afghanistan in the wake of Kabul’s fall.
For Afghan journalists, the new guidelines are the first direct sign that the Taliban are trying to silence the nation’s once thriving media.
Sherin, a female journalist who fled to Europe after experiencing first-hand hostility from the Taliban, says the rules are yet another example of the group’s leadership saying one thing and their forces on the ground acting in a different way.
“They come up with these beautiful, flourishing statements, but then their men deal with physical violence and abuse,” said Sherin, who asked for a pseudonym for fear of retaliation against her family, who are still in Afghanistan.
On August 17, two days after taking power, the now Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, said, “Private media can continue to be free and independent, they can continue their activities.”
Eight days later, reports of a news team – a journalist and cameraman for TOLO TV, the country’s largest private television company – began to be beaten and had their phones and cameras confiscated by armed Taliban circulating.
Of particular concern to media workers is the vague, cryptic wording of the 11 points.
Sherin and Mahdi both pointed to the first rule, which states that “stories that are contrary to Islam” should not be published or broadcast. Although previous Afghan governments had similar rules in their media laws, the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam leaves both journalists with questions and concerns.
“What is contrary to Islam and what is not is a major topic of debate,” Mahdi says.
‘No respect for ordinary citizens’
He fears that the Taliban’s ambiguity in the 11 points will be used to throw a wide net when the group wants to get after the media. “This leaves a lot of room for personal interpretation. They want to use it to restrict freedom of expression, ”Mahdi said.
Sherin, who works primarily as a video and photojournalist, is concerned about how these parameters will affect her ability to choose her sources, especially women. Even under the previous government, women would often be criticized for something as simple as their attire, but now she wonders whether the Taliban’s constant references to women’s clothing will affect who is heard and who is seen.
“If I take a picture or a video of a woman not wearing what the Taliban considers proper and Islamic, her whole opinion is out of the question, then am I still allowed to publish her thoughts?”
Sherin was also disturbed by one of the rules, which states that journalists “should not insult national persons”.
As a person who has witnessed the Taliban abusing people on the streets of Kabul, Sherin says this directive shows the “clear separations” that the Taliban have created in Afghan society. “The people they do not respect themselves by beating and abusing on the street. What about them? Who are they?” she asked.
She said that this rule, coupled with their actions towards the common people, makes it clear that “they have no respect for ordinary citizens” and that they “can be abused and mocked” while high-profile individuals, including the Taliban management, should have an extra level of dignity and respect.
Sources speaking to Al Jazeera also pointed out that the Taliban itself has already engaged in what could be considered insulting behavior.
Last month, a Taliban commander received widespread online condemnation after he went on live television and called the people of Panjshir, the province home to the nation’s only armed opposition to the Taliban regime, “non-believers.”
Likewise, the group has been accused of disfiguring roundabouts dedicated to former Mujahideen leaders Ahmad Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq in Kabul. All of these cases have been seen as a sign of disrespect by many people in Afghanistan, which seems to go against the Taliban’s own rules.
Mahdi was also concerned about the two final regulations, which point out that the media “prepares detailed reports” in coordination with the government’s media and information center and that the body has “designed a specific form to make it easier for the media and journalists to prepare” their reports in accordance with the rules ”.
In the past, the GMIC was mainly used as a strategic center where government spokesmen could come to hold press conferences and much less as a clearing center for government interaction with the media.
“Why should the media prepare detailed reports in coordination with a government body?” said Mahdi, who hosted some of the country’s most watched chat and debate programs.
He fears that all this dependence on GMICs will be used as a “very obvious and very clear way of censoring and influencing media content.”
Another Afghan journalist, now in Turkey, agrees with Mahdi’s assessment, saying the new rules make it “quite obvious that the Taliban want the media to publish only their propaganda”.
He said the rules are likely to keep any remaining journalists in the country from reporting on political issues for fear of angering the Taliban. Already, journalists have lamented that their travels across the country now need the approval of the Taliban, who often accompany the journalists on their reporting trips under the guise of security.
A former official, now in Europe, said the new parameters reminded him of “the kind of restrictions they have in Iran. It is clear now that the Taliban want that kind of system in Afghanistan”.
Steven Butler, coordinator of the Asia program at the Committee to Protect Journalists, says he is also most concerned about the implications of journalists cooperating with the Taliban government as part of their work, and that while the other provisions are unwelcome, but possibly may be subject to milder interpretations, it seems “unlikely.”
The points of coordination with the Taliban-led government, including a form to ensure compliance, “suggest that the government expects journalists to produce news stories in consultation with the Taliban,” Butler said.
“These rules are so broad and pervasive that the media probably does not know what is allowed and will therefore say very little at all – which is the whole point,” said Patricia Gossman, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“These rules would effectively sound the death knell for the Afghan media.”
For Sherin, the new restrictions, along with stories from her colleagues still in the country, have strengthened her decision to stay in Europe.
“It has become clear that it is not realistic for me to return to work in such situations.”