TV anchor Khatereh Ahmadi breaks down and bows her head as she reads the news on Tolo News on 24 May 2022. Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Opinion: World Press Freedom Day and the tragic state of press freedom in Afghanistan

By Maisam Iltaf

May 3, World Press Freedom Day, is an opportunity for the world to celebrate freedom of the press and expression, but there are little to no reasons for journalists and media workers in Afghanistan to cherish.

Freedom of press and expression were among the many achievements of the last two decades when Afghanistan was exercising a fledgling democracy backed by the US and the international community. 

However, since the Taliban take over in mid-August 2021, these hard-won gains are slowly being washed away, leaving the future of the free press crumbling.

Ever since their return to power, the Taliban have clamped down and severely restricted media organizations, increased detaining and intimidating journalists, and imposed unrelenting restrictions on media workers, particularly on female journalists. Even women’s protests and expression of resilience in the face of the international community’s little action, if not complete silence, have borne little fruit. 

But despite everything, media organizations and workers, especially women, most in exile, are still trying sturdy and creative ways to fight back and get real stories on the ground out to the world. 

An Overview

The fall of republican Afghanistan to the Taliban has had precarious consequences that have fundamentally changed the media landscape and press freedoms across the country for the worse.

According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), during the first three months of Taliban rule, Afghanistan lost 43 percent of its vibrant media outlets, including 60 percent of its media workers, which hit hardest women journalists.  

“Of the 10,780 people working in Afghan newsrooms (8,290 men and 2,490 women) at the beginning of August, only 4,360 were still working in December (3,950 men and 410 women), or four out of ten journalists. Proportionally, women have been much more affected: more than four in five (84%) have lost their jobs since the arrival of the Taliban, whereas only one in two men have (52%).” RSF detailed further.

A year later, the repercussions for press freedom and the safety of journalists, particularly women, have turned more aloof.

In its 2023 World Press Freedom Index on Afghanistan, RSF indicates that “the environment for reporters continues to worsen and women journalists have been literally erased from public life, and are still at the tail end of the Index.”

Despite false assurances from the Taliban to respect press freedom, Taliban members are scrutinizing, intimidating, abusing, arresting, and torturing journalists across the country every day.

Another recent report by Afghanistan Journalist Center (AFJC) echoes RSF by revealing “a deterioration in press freedom over the past year, marked by censorship, detentions, assaults, and restrictions on media outlets, journalists, and in particular women journalists.”

Covering Afghanistan as of August 2022, this report has documented “a total of 245 cases of violations against media freedom in Afghanistan, including 130 cases of short-term detention of journalists, which lasted from one hour to several hours and even some months that often included physical violence, insults and even torture of journalists,” and has reported “at least 80 cases of threats, 28 cases of physical harassment mostly by the Taliban security forces, and five cases of injuries by the Taliban.”

The Taliban Claim

The Taliban authorities have constantly promised media workers in the country as well as the international community that they are “committed to the media” and to “protecting the rights of media workers, without any [gender] discrimination.” 

For example, the Taliban’s top spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has said, “We are committed to the media within our cultural frameworks. Private media can continue to be free and independent. They can continue their activities.” 

This view was echoed by the Taliban’s spokesperson for the Information and Culture Ministry who mentioned, “We believe in freedom of the press… We have meetings and collaborations with journalists and media owners all the time, and anyone who has any problem can share it with us.”

But in the face of a degenerating media landscape, the Taliban are not true to deliver on these promises. Some analysts see the Taliban’s trumped-up support for a free press “as part of a larger strategy to attract international recognition.”

Either way, the realities on the ground speak for itself. For example, UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett’s recent report on the situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan indicates that the Taliban authorities have “issued several decrees and regulations to restrict and suppress press freedom in the country, including diminishing the role of women in the media sector. These include the promulgation of “11 journalism rules”, comprising decrees that ban criticism of government officials without proof, spreading false news and rumors and dissuading the media to avoid interviewing individuals who are critical of the authorities.”

Taliban decrees and their “cultural framework” is deeply rooted in their religious ideology that is based on a harsh interpretation of Islam and in Afghan tribal codes of conduct. This is what makes the true identity of the Taliban and their undaunting willingness to respect freedom of the press and expression.

Women Journalists Erased

Female journalists and media workers in Afghanistan have been hit hardest as the Taliban continue to impose extreme restrictions to ban women from public life, leaving women with little hope to work in the media.

UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett’s recent report reveals that over 80 percent of women journalists have lost their jobs in the media, which has been largely vacant of women journalists.

survey by the Afghan National Journalists’ Union (ANJU) addresses women journalists’ dire psychological, physical, and employment situation in the country. The survey states that “60% of women journalists have lost their jobs and careers; 79% of women journalists said they have been insulted and threatened under the Taliban regime, including physical threats, abuse by Taliban officials, written and verbal threats; and 87% of women journalists are not motivated to work in the current situation due to fear and panic.”

Another survey by RSF sheds grim light on the dire situation of women in media stating that fewer than 100 women remain working in the media in Kabul. 

“Kabul had 108 media outlets with a total of 4,940 employees in 2020. They included 1,080 female employees, of whom 700 were journalists. Of the 510 women who used to work for eight of the biggest media outlets and press groups, only 76 (including 39 journalists) are still currently working. In other words, women journalists are in the process of disappearing from the capital.” RSF’s survey suggested.

Despite the paramount restrictions and ban on women journalists, a handful of them still continue to report from Afghanistan and those in exile continue to protest by urging the international community to put extreme pressure on the Taliban to respect women’s rights and freedom of the press.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said, “A fundamental red line [of the UN] will be the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, and respect for their rights to liberty, freedom of movement, education, self-expression and employment, guided by international human rights norms.” 

It is time that the UN and the international community show the people of Afghanistan, particularly women, how will they genuinely protect that “fundamental red line”.

Bleak Future Prospects

Freedom of the press in Afghanistan is crucial more than ever before to bring out true and accurate stories and information about the rapid developments on the ground and report on the violations of human rights and international aid management, amid the economic, humanitarian, and human rights crises.

With everything going on the ground and as the Taliban push to hold a grip on power, the future of freedom of press and expression look bleak as long as the Taliban remain in power.

This situation is further exacerbated in the face of the international community’s unconcreted and ineffective measures to put the right pressures on the Taliban that resonate with the plight and demands of the people of Afghanistan in a bid to deliver results that are acceptable to the people. 

The international community should understand that the Taliban is a totalitarian and gender apartheid regime who have become worst than ever. Therefore, the international community should, in no way, be hoaxed by the Taliban’s false image and promises in order not to legitimize them.

Any engagement with the Taliban would require a genuine and deep understanding of their ideological outlook and “cultural framework” as the first steps. It is only then that a careful, effective, and meaningful strategy might be put in force, under authoritarian contexts, to truly put pressure on the Taliban to preserve human rights, including freedom of press and expression, among many others.

And if the international community fails to deliver on these expectations, it will be the people in Afghanistan, especially women, who will suffer the implications.

Maisam Iltaf is a staff writer at KabulNow.

Opinions reflect the views of authors, not KabulNow.