The Taleban takeover of Afghanistan delivered a devastating blow to one of the Republic’s few achievements – freedom of expression and a vibrant media sector. Since the fall of the Republic, nearly half of Afghanistan’s media outlets have closed and thousands of Afghan journalists and media workers have either left the country, lost their jobs, or are in hiding, with local media outlets and female journalists bearing the brunt of this downturn. AAN’s Ehsan Qaane reports on the damage and argues there are three principle reasons contributing the media sector’s decline: the sudden shortage of financial resources, severe Taleban restrictions on press freedoms, and a fear of violence. Afghan journalists attend the World Press Freedom Day celebration hosted by the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC). Photo: Fardin Waezi/UNAMA, 3 May 2019.
- Hundreds of media outlets ceased operations when the Republic fell to the Taleban on 15 August 2021. Those who survived the first days of the takeover, with a few exceptions, are still operating but the quality and volume of their content have been hugely affected, with many struggling to see a future for themselves in the new Afghanistan. Chief among their concerns are the security threats to their well-known reporters and the collateral risks these threats would pose for their other staff and, indeed, their organisation, which they view as barriers to independent journalism.
- Media workers continue to leave Afghanistan, but many of those who remain are starting to go back to work. Only about 17 per cent of female journalists or media workers returned to work by early December 2021. The situation for female journalists remains precarious, because the Taleban’s policy on this matter is still unclear. In 17 of the country’s 34 provinces there are no women working in the media.
- Violence against journalists is becoming systematic. The intelligence agency and the police are exerting increased control over the media and journalists. Arbitrary detentions of journalists are a warning to the media to stay inside the lines.
- The lack of financial resources and violence against journalists are not new, but they have been amplified by the regime change and the collapse of the country’s economy. The imposition of severe restrictions and censorship, in addition to the removal of legal protection for journalists, are new constraints that have been introduced by the Taleban.
- A soft competition appears to be emerging between the Ministry of Information and Culture (MoIC) and other government entities, particularly the Istekhbarat (the Taleban intelligence agency), over control of the media.
- MoIC has stated that the Taleban would enforce the Republic’s media law and announced plans to re-establish the Commission to Review Media Violence and Complaints (the media commission). Journalist unions have welcomed both decisions. However, establishing any kind of media oversight structure could bring with it a new means of control over the media.
This report does not examine the quality or content of media outlets.
The extent of the damage: What was lost and what remains?
Nearly seven months after the fall of the Republic on 15 August 2021, it is still difficult to provide clear statistics on the number of media platforms that have ceased operations, and even harder to put an exact number on media outlets operating during the last days of the Republic, which could be used as a baseline to tally the scale of the damage caused by the Taleban takeover of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, reports published by several media watchdog organisations, whose own day-to-day activities have been severely curtailed, provide a broader picture.
The Afghanistan’s National Journalists Union (ANJU) was among the first organisations to raise the alarm on the closure of nearly two-thirds of Afghan media outlets, which, it said, was based on an online survey conducted in late September. This was mirrored by the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) in its first weekly report since the fall of the Republic on 10 October, which also said 70 per cent of media outlets had closed without providing any details. A month later, in a gathering in Kabul to review the state of the media in the first 100 days of Taleban rule, Nai, an Afghan non-governmental organisation (NGO) that supports open media, reported 257 media outlets had closed since 15 August (see Tolonews’ 23 November 2021 report). However, neither of these organisations provided statistics on how many media outlets had been operating before the fall of Kabul, which could be used as a baseline for their findings.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its Afghan partner, the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA), published the most comprehensive report on the state of the media in Afghanistan since the Taleban takeover on 20 December 2021, providing a baseline. According to their findings, 543 media platforms were operating “at the start of the  summer,” of which 231, or 43 per cent, had ceased operations since 15 August.
The RSF report also reveals the scale of the damage in the provinces – from zero to 80 per cent – depending on the province. Nuristan was hardest hit, with 80 per cent of its media outlets closing (four out of five) and Kabul had the highest number of media platforms that had ceased operations, 76 out of 148, or 51 per cent of news sources in the capital.
Comparing the media watchdog organisations’ reports to one another, there appear to be fewer media workers leaving their jobs or the country, but only slightly fewer than the initial surge in departures in the days following the fall of the Republic. According to Nai and ANJU, around 70 per cent of Afghan media workers either lost their jobs or fled the country from 15 August to the end of November (see Nai here and the ANJU here). Neither provided a breakdown or baseline for their statistics, making it difficult to estimate the actual number of media workers and journalists affected. A month later, in December, RSF reported that 60 per cent of journalists and media workers had lost their jobs (6430 out of 10790). It explained: “Of the 10,790 people working in the Afghan media (8,290 men and 2,490 women) at the start of August, only 4,360 (3,950 men and 410 women) … were still working when this survey was carried out.” The data collection took place between 15 November and 8 December 2021. RSF added that a small number of female journalists returned to work. Though not mentioned by RSF, some new faces have emerged on TV screens, such as Tolonews, since 15 August. The 10 per cent drop in the number of those who have lost their jobs, as reported by RSF, compared to earlier reports, could come from this small development. Additionally, RSF’s findings did not include those who had left Afghanistan, while the ANJU’s did.
The exact number of media workers who have fled the country fearing persecution by the Taleban is not known, but they appear to be mainly well-known television anchors, investigative journalists, editors and executives working for large Afghan or international media outlets. For example, most journalists and other staff who worked for the leading newspapers, Hasht-e Sobh and Etilaat-e Roz, as well as broadcasters and anchors at Tolonews, the leading TV channel in Afghanistan, have left the country since 15 August (AAN interviewed people in these institutions). The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said that it had received evacuation applications from over 2,000 Afghan journalists (see Pajhwok News’ 29 August report). While efforts by the IFJ and other organisations and individuals have seen hundreds of Afghan journalists evacuated to safety, many well-known journalists, mainly women, remain in the country, some in hiding. IFJ representatives told the London-based daily The Guardian on 14 September that they believed about 1,300 journalists (presumably from their list) remained in the country; about 220 were women, most of them in Kabul.
Journalists continue to flee Afghanistan, with many media outlets, including leading dailies Etilaat-e Roz and Hasht-e Sobh, working to evacuate their remaining staff. Their editors-in-chief told AAN that they believed their staff were at risk of harassment by the Taleban, adding that they could not freely hold Afghanistan’s new de facto leaders to account when they still had colleagues at risk inside the country. Mujib Mehrdad, Hasht-e Sobh’s editor-in-chief, told AAN on 1 February 2022 that he had decided to reduce “even his personal social media critiques” of the Taleban after his colleagues were threatened in Kabul and were told that the daily’s editorial leadership was acting against “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA).” “My colleagues in Kabul have been summoned by Taleban intelligence and the Ministry of Information and Culture nine times,” he told AAN. “The last time [they were summoned], they told my colleague who is in charge of the newspaper in Kabul that the Taleban would soon decide how to deal with our newspaper,” Mehrdad added. According to him, Taleban intelligence actors were the main source of threats against his colleagues. “Once the intelligence agency sent a 30-page file of a few of our reports and highlighted words and sentences which the Taleban believed were published wrongfully against them,” he told AAN. A report on the Taleban’s acting Interior Minister, Serajuddin Haqqani, praising “suicide attackers” was among the stories sent to the newspaper as a warning. After these threats, Hasht-e Sobh closed its office and suspended its employees in Kabul. Etilaat-e Roz has also faced similar threats from the Taleban. Armed Taleban broke into its office in August. Since then, they have repeatedly called the newspaper asking for those in charge. “After a while, we decided not to answer the calls,” Elyas Nawandish, the daily’s editor-in-chief, told AAN on 2 February 2022. Despite the threats, both newspapers have resisted the Taleban’s guidelines, including provisions that force media outlets to call the Taleban by their official name – Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – in their publications and programmes (more on the guidelines later).
But fleeing Afghanistan does not mean leaving journalism, at least for some. Like many of their compatriots, many Afghan journalists that have left their homes live in difficult circumstances and face uncertain futures as they continue their journeys to their final destinations. Nevertheless, many continue to work as journalists either with the same organisations they worked for before their departure or with new media outlets. For instance, five Etilaat-e Roz newspaper journalists who are currently waiting in Albania to reach their final destinations still write for the newspaper. “Since the host [government] covers our living costs, we agreed to continue our work voluntarily [without pay] with Etilaat-e Roz,” Nawandish told AAN. This is also the case for Hasht-e Sobh. Mehrdad, who continues to work for the daily while he is waiting in Albania for resettlement, told AAN that Hasht-e Sobh had not lost any of its journalists. “Everyone, including those who left the country, is still our employees,” he added. The leaderships of both newspapers are having internal discussions to decide how to continue their work on Afghanistan from abroad. Hasht-e Sobh has already submitted a proposal to its donors that would see the daily cover Afghanistan from abroad. According to Mehrdad, the donors have accepted the proposal in principle. Etilaat-e Roz is working on a similar proposal. In addition, AAN has observed a small number of Afghan anchors and journalists, who have left the country, having joined media outlets like the London-based Afghanistan international TV channel, which also has a bureau in Washington and reporters in many countries. Their continued engagement with Afghanistan, either as organisations like Etilaat-e Roz and Hasht-e Sobh or as freelancers like those who have joined other media outlets such as Afghanistan International TV, could keep the flame of a free media alive from abroad; even if the space for freedom of expression continues to close within the country itself.
A closer look at the situation of female journalists
The fall of the Republic has hit female journalists the hardest, especially those working for smaller media organisations or in the provinces. While it has not been well documented, the Afghan media sector was suddenly devoid of female journalists in the first days after the Taleban took over Kabul, with media managers fearing Taleban reprisals asking their female staff to stay home. “On the evening of 15 August, the office posted a message on a WhatsApp group with all employees in it, asking female employees to stay home until further notice,” Zahra Rahimi, a former female journalist working with Tolonews, told AAN. “Everyone was scared.” However, by 8 December 2021, 410 out of 2490 female journalists and media workers (one in six people) had returned to their jobs, according to RSF’s December report: “Fewer than 100 women journalists dared to return to work in the weeks after the Taliban arrived in Kabul and told women to stay home. Others have returned to their media outlets in the past two months.” In an earlier report, published on 31 August 2021, RSF highlighted that, following the Taleban takeover, only 76 of the 510 (or 15 per cent) women working for the eight biggest media outlets had remained in their jobs, meaning that “women journalists are in the process of disappearing from the capital.”
Zahra Rahimi was one of the women who returned to work after a one-day break. “Four of my female colleagues and I decided not to surrender so easily,” she told AAN. Their return to work, however, was short-lived. After only five days, they left their jobs and then fled the country. Speaking to AAN on 6 February 2022 from Canada, where she had just arrived after a five-month journey from Kabul, Rahimi described those five days back at work as bristling with experiences she had never known in her entire career. Her account could shed light on the hardship women journalists have faced since 15 August. The pressure on her was considerable. When she went out to interview people, men on the street taunted her: “with the Taleban in power, your time is over” or “why you are still out, go home.” There was always a risk of being beaten on the streets by armed Taleban. Taleban officials did not grant interviews to female journalists. One day, Rahimi went to the Ministry of Higher Education to prepare a report on what was left of the ministry, but the Taleban commander in charge of security at the ministry strongly rejected her request for an interview. “He didn’t even give an interview to my cameraman because I, as a woman, had asked him in the first place,” Rahimi told AAN. When they did grant interviews or answer questions, they spoke only to her cameraman without looking at her during the interview. Rahimi found the Taleban’s behaviour humiliating and prejudicial. “It cannot be worse than when you get a message that you are nothing because of your gender,” she added.
“If this was all, I could have continued my fight,” she said, but sadly there was more. The censorship imposed by her editors dispirited her. It was difficult for her to accept the changes made to her reports so as to not “provoke” the Taleban to act against her colleagues and office, especially after she had endured so much to get the stories. The reporters were asked to choose their words with caution during live reporting and avoid using provocative words. For example, in those days, there were many reports on social media implicating Taleban fighters in car robberies and “the list of provocative words included any word that might identify Taleban fighters as being involved in car robberies,” she said. She could understand the difficult position her managers were in. Everyone’s safety was their prime concern. The Taleban had disarmed the guards at her office and instead put their own armed men in charge. Even her male colleagues did not return home for fear of being followed by the Taleban and putting their families at risk. “Despite all these preventive measures, there were reports of break-ins at the homes of my colleagues,” Rahimi said. On 25 August, one day after Rahimi left Kabul, armed Taleban from Kabul’s police district 18 went to her home and took her father and 28-year old brother. Her father had a history of working for the military under the Republic, but she believes that her former job at Tolonews was the main reason for his detention. Finally, her family members were released after putting up their house as collateral and promising to always be accessible.
AAN has not been able to verify when exactly the Taleban ordered female journalists to stay home. It could have been on 23 or 24 August 2021. Zahra Rahimi and her female colleagues last worked on 22 August. Tolonews’ Executive Director, Lutfullah Najafizada, and the head of One TV’s news programmes, Hamid Haidari, told AAN on 23 August that female staff, including journalists, were no longer coming to work. On 24 August, Mujahid announced that female journalists would be allowed to return to work ‘in a few days’. This has not been the case for women working for state-owned media outlets, including Radio wa Telvisyun-e Afghanistan, RTA (Afghanistan National Radio and Television), where female journalists have not been allowed to return to work since 15 August, though a few tried unsuccessfully. For instance, on 20 August, Shabnam Dawran, a female anchor at the national broadcaster, reported that the Taleban had barred her from entering her office on the RTA compound until further notice.
Female journalists working in the provinces or with smaller organisations have been affected to a greater degree, with no female journalists returning to work in 15 provinces between 15 August to 8 December 2021, according to RSF. In the provinces, 431 female journalists lost their jobs. While Badghis, Ghazni and Zabul are three of the four provinces where no media outlets closed, 100 per cent of their female journalists lost their jobs. Kunar and Uruzgan never had any female journalists. Laghman and Sar-e Pul lost the fewest female journalists, with 52 and 53 per cent, respectively. In Badakhshan, despite conditional permission by local Taleban officials allowing female journalists to work, none had returned to their jobs in journalism. A female journalist from Badakhshan told Pajhwok news on 3 December 2021 that her reasons for not returning to work included feeling unsafe and not being paid. The restrictions imposed on female journalists include wearing the hijab, working in a separate room from their male colleagues, and having no contribution to field reporting. Zahra Rahimi, however, points out that the Taleban’s definition of the hijab remains unclear and stresses that even before the Taleban takeover, it was customary for all Afghan women, including female journalists, to wear the hijab.
AAN has been unable to ascertain when female journalists resumed their work. However, since mid-September, female journalists have increasingly appeared on television programmes, especially at the larger stations such as Tolonews and Ariana. Zahra Rahimi described the situation of female journalists that she keeps in touch with as being the same as what she experienced back in August. “Those who are still working have no other options,” Rahimi said. It takes courage for the 410 female journalists who have returned to work; apart from taking steps to make sure they do not run foul of Taleban restrictions, they are under immense pressure from various sources, including their families, but for many of them, this is no longer a fight for freedom of speech or free media; they simply need an income.
Violence against journalists
Fear of being persecuted by the Taleban was one of the main reasons for the mass exodus of many well-known journalists and media managers in the days after the fall of Kabul. This fear was partly driven by abuses perpetrated against journalists and media workers before 15 August and perceptions concerning their negative views on press freedoms.
Since 2005, around the time the Taleban re-emerged as an insurgent group, Afghanistan has ranked among the most dangerous countries for journalists on the RSF’s violations of press freedom barometer, with 50 journalists killed during that period, except in 2012 and 2015 when no journalists were killed in the country. 2018 was the deadliest year for media workers in Afghanistan, with 14 journalists killed.
A special report published by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) in February 2021 documented incidents of violence against journalists and media workers from January 2018 to January 2021. 33 journalists and media workers, including two women, were killed in this period. Both Nangrahar and Kabul were the worst provinces, with 14 murders respectively, according to the report.
Since the fall of the Republic, the experience of foreign journalists who, for the most part, have been able to report freely from Afghanistan, even from places that had been previously inaccessible, stands in stark contrast to that of Afghan journalists who continue to be at risk of violence exacted by the Taleban. There are increasing reports of torture, arbitrary arrests and beatings of journalists attributed to the Taleban.
The ANJU’s Masroor Lutfi told AAN on 25 November that the Taleban had perpetrated 90 per cent of the 39 cases of violence against journalists and media workers it had registered since 15 August. The cases include verbal and physical abuse as well as detention. In his 28 January 2022 briefing to the UN Security Council on Afghanistan, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reported two murders, two cases causing injury and 44 cases of temporary arrest, beatings and threats to journalists documented by UNAMA since 15 August. He attributed 42 out of 44 cases of harassment to the Taleban, but neither the murders nor the two cases that caused injury were attributable to the Taleban.
Two journalists have also been killed in separate incidents, with no indication that either was specifically targeted. In October, Sayed Maruf Azad was killed in Jalalabad, Nangrahar province, when unknown armed men fired on alleged members of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) (see Deutsche Welle Dari report here) and in November, Ariana News TV’s Hamid Saighani was killed in an IED attack against a public transport vehicle. ISKP claimed responsibility for the blast (see Deutsche Welle Dari report here).
In a February 2022 statement, the RSF said that it had recorded 50 cases of journalists and media workers arrested by the Taleban police and intelligence actors since 15 August 2021.
[A]t least 50 journalists and media workers have been detained briefly or arrested by the police or Istekhbarat. These arrests, which are often accompanied by violence, have lasted several hours to nearly a week. They usually occur when journalists are covering street demonstrations by women in the capital, Kabul, and show the important role that Istekhbarat is increasingly playing in the harassment of the media.
Other sources have also reported the growing role of the Istekhbarat. Mujib Mehrdad, the editor-in-chief of Hasht-e Sobh newspaper, cited it as the main source of threats against his colleagues. On 1 February 2022, Radio Nasim, a local radio station in Daikundi, said they had been summoned to a meeting with the province’s intelligence officials where they were given an order issued by the Istekhbarat headquarters in Kabul obliging media outlets to refrain from – among other things – broadcasting people’s complaints, airing negative content, reporting news that had not been confirmed [by the Taleban] and speaking against the Taleban administration. The order also required media outlets to obtain approval from provincial authorities in advance of publication or broadcast. The report included a video of the meeting during which Mawlawi Shamshad reads out the order in Pashto and the province’s Istekhbarat chief, Obaidullah Faizani, elaborates on the new rules.
It is often difficult to ascribe responsibility to perpetrators. The Taleban’s replies to questions about the recent arbitrary arrest of women protestors and journalists, which were attributed to the Taleban intelligence agency, points to a possible lack of coordination between various Taleban entities, such as the MoIC and the Istekhbarat. When they were asked about the women’s fate or reasons for the arrests, Taleban authorities first rebuffed the reports and later said that they were unaware of the arrests and would make inquiries to ascertain the details (for instance, see this Tolonews news service about the arrest of two Ariana news TV journalists).
The involvement of the Istekhbarat could also create a conflict of interest with the MoIC. For the most part, Taleban spokespersons are employees of the MoIC (or the Information Commission during their insurgency), and since their return to power, the ministry has been the only authorised source of communication and information with the media and the state institution that controls their activities (more on this later). Concerns over losing control of the media could be a reason for Taleban spokesperson and Deputy Minister of Culture and Information, Zabiullah Mujahid’s announcement that the IEA would enforce the Republic’s media law and re-establish the Commission to Review Media Violence and Complaints (media commission), enshrined in article 32 of the media law (see Pajhwok news report here). The media law designates the commission as the only institution with the power to deal with complaints, including criminal allegations, against journalists and media outlets. If a complaint has a criminal element, the commission is empowered to refer the case to relevant judicial institutions. The commission could prevent direct interventions by the Istekhbarat or the police into media affairs. According to Pajhwok, Mujahid’s intention was also to bar other government agencies from interfering in media affairs and give the MoIC absolute control over the media. Perhaps that building relationships with the media in line with the Taleban’s various guidelines is the most important and main activity the MoIC has at present.
The financial crisis as a more widespread challenge
Like other sectors, the Afghan media sector, including the state broadcaster RTA, has been heavily dependent on foreign funding (see this AAN report on RTA). The lack of adequate funding was challenging Afghanistan’s media sector well before the Republic’s collapse. The majority of Afghan media outlets were heavily reliant on foreign aid and never achieved long-term financial stability. This is one of the three main reasons the media sector has been hard hit by the country’s political change and the ensuing end to foreign aid, including sanctions and the freezing of the country’s foreign reserves (see this AAN report that looks at the economic situation in the Taleban-run Afghanistan).
The 2009 Mass Media Law allowed media outlets to generate income from advertisement, national and international organisations’ donations and professional services provided to legal and real persons (article 26). But only a few, mainly commercial TV channels, were able to attract some advertisements, though the income was never enough to keep them afloat without foreign financial support and most survived on funding provided for specific programmes or by selling airtime.
A lack of funds is the most common reason for the closure or downsizing of media platforms in Afghanistan, according to the AJSC’s weekly reports and AAN’s research. Sultan Ali Jawadi, a programme manager for the privately-owned Radio Nasim, which broadcasts in Daikundi and Bamyan, told AAN on 25 October that all media outlets in the two provinces (five radio stations, including the state-owned broadcaster, as well as four print publications in Daikundi) were facing financial difficulties, even before the Taleban takeover. In Daikundi, Radio Nasim mainly relied on advertising and awareness-raising programmes for polio vaccination and elections paid for by the government or NGOs. The station’s financial statement shows a monthly income of around 50,000 Afs (around USD 800) until the end of July. “In the last two months [September and October], we have had zero income,” Jawadi told AAN.
While all media outlets in Daikundi and Bamyan ceased their operations after the collapse of Nili city, Radio Nasim resumed its activities the day after the collapse. However, it has since downsized in Daikundi from five to two staff members, and in Bamyan from three to one, who are unpaid and even cover the station’s operational costs from their own pockets.
Fuel shortages have also been a contributing factor; for example, the equipment, including the three privately-owned radio stations’ solar power supply systems, were stolen by unknown people after the fall of Nili city. Around the same time, the state-owned radio also went off-air due to fuel shortages; it resumed broadcasting only in early November. The others, however, could not reopen due to a lack of funding.
The guidelines: Many restrictions and no protection
In their first press conference after the fall of the Republic, Taleban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid said: “I would like to assure the media, we are committed to the media within our cultural frameworks. Private media can continue to be free and independent, they can continue their activities,” but with some caveats:
One, is that Islam is a very important value in our country and nothing should be against Islamic values. When it comes to the activities of the media therefore, Islamic values should be taken into account when it comes to the activities of the media, when it comes to developing your programmes. Therefore, the media should be impartial. Impartiality of the media is very important. They can critique our work, so that we can improve (see the full transcript of the 17 August press conference here).
This was a cause for concern among journalists, as both terms – cultural frameworks and Islamic values – are expansive and nebulous. The three subsequent guidelines issued by the Taleban have only intensified these concerns.
The Taleban have not publicly shared these guidelines on their websites or social media accounts (AAN has obtained copies of the guideline through its own sources). Instead, the guidelines were issued in Pashto and shared with a few media outlets (Please see the footnotes for the full translated version of guidelines).
The first guideline, the most general and the longest, with 11 rules, was issued on 20 September.
The rules can be categorised in three sets. The first prohibits the media from broadcasting programmes and publications deemed to be against Islam, insulting national personalities, and violating national and individual privacy (four rules). The second set requires journalists and media outlets to respect the principles of journalism, including impartiality, balance in reports, and factual reporting (four rules). The third orders journalists to work closely with the Government Media Information Centre (GMIC) and avoid broadcasting or publishing unconfirmed issues.
While the first and second sets of rules are not bad as such, they are vague and open to interpretation. For instance, it is unclear who should be considered a ‘national personality’, what kind of reports would insult them, or what ‘national privacy’ means. Would criticising a member of the Taleban cabinet for his failures in discharging his duties constitute an insult to a national personality? Could leaking information about corruption in a ministry be a violation of national privacy? These are a few of the many unanswered questions, leaving space in the guideline for interpretation and the misuse of rules by the authorities.
The third set contains the more challenging rules that censor information, publication, and broadcasting. These rules stress that issues that have not been confirmed by the Taleban should not be published; media outlets should produce their detailed reports in coordination with the GMIC, using the form specially designed for this purpose. Unlike the first two sets, the third is quite clear: It prohibits the independence of journalists in their reporting and places conditions on their access to information. What is implicit in this portion of the guideline is the Taleban’s intolerance for criticism, their desire to control the media narrative about them and signals their intention to coerce the media into toeing the Taleban line.
Reporters Without Borders issued a statement, saying it was disturbed by the new rules announced by the Taliban. RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said:
Decreed without any consultation with journalists, these new rules are spine chilling because of the coercive use that can be made of them, and they bode ill for the future of journalistic independence and pluralism in Afghanistan. They establish a regulatory framework based on principles and methods that contradict the practice of journalism and leave room for oppressive interpretation instead of providing a protective framework allowing journalists, including women, to go back to work in acceptable conditions. These rules open the way to tyranny and persecution.
The second guideline, which was sent only to five TV stations, including Tolonews and One TV, on 25 September, only has six rules. The first five mainly echo the first guideline. The sixth rule, however, is a strongly-worded demand for media outlets to call the Taleban administration by its complete name the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and refrain from using terms such as “group” or “network” when referring to the Taleban administration, adding that the Taleban control the entire country and serve “the religion [Islam], the country and the nation.” In other words, the sixth rule compels the media to recognise the Taleban as the government of Afghanistan. Outside Afghanistan, foreign governments have refrained from recognising “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA)” and attempts to be recognised by the United Nations have been unsuccessful. On 1 December, the nine-member United Nations Credentials Committee deferred a decision on the Taleban’s 21 September request to send their permanent representative to the UN.
The third guideline, which has eight rules, was issued on 21 November and has been widely distributed on social media and other online platforms. The rules largely focus on banning dramas and entertainment programmes, including a) dramas violating Islamic and Afghan cultural values; b) dramas damaging social morals and Afghan cultural norms; c) entertainment and programmes insulting personalities; d) dramas violating Sharia principles and human dignity; e) films and videos showing uncovered private parts of a man’s body; and f) dramas showing the face of actors playing God’s messengers and sahaba (Prophet Muhammad’s male companions).
With this, for the first time since their return to power, the Taleban imposed explicit written restrictions on women in the media, requiring them to “wear Islamic hijab on TV channels [screen]” and banning the broadcast of “drama and theatre with women actors.” This guideline drew strong reactions, Associate Director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, Heather Barr, tweeted: “Not content with smashing up the lives of real women and girls, the Taleban set their sights on shutting up fictional women too.”
The fallout from the guidelines is far-reaching for television programming. Turkish and Indian soap operas, abundant with actresses, have been the most popular with audiences and attractive to advertisers. Banning them means reduced revenues for TV channels and a sharp drop in content to fill their on-air hours. The third guideline has been strictly imposed on broadcasts in Balkh and Takhar, with female voices banned even on radio stations in Takhar, Afghan Journalists Safety Committee reported on 12 December.
The legal status of Taleban guidelines, including the three guidelines for the media, is unclear. The Taleban have not yet defined their legal system, legislative body or legislation procedures for issuing legal documents. While some guidelines were issued by the Taleban Supreme Leader, their acting cabinet, ministries, spokespersons and even provincial authorities, their legal status is unclear. They look more like recommendations than legal documents. Almost every guideline prohibits the commission of certain acts, but says nothing about consequences for violators.
Each media guideline was issued by a separate organ of the Taleban administration: The first by the head of the GMIC, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, the second by Taleban spokesperson and deputy information and culture minister, Zabiullah Mujahid, and the third by the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Neither guideline appears to have been endorsed by the acting Taleban cabinet or the Taleban Supreme Leader (Amir-ul Mumineen), Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada or submitted for their approval, which could indicate that the Taleban administration is not yet a cohesive policymaking body.
Similar to other guidelines issued by the Taleban, the media guidelines are lists of prohibited items; some are carryovers from the laws of the former government, including article 45 of the 2009 mass media law. In the second guideline, which mainly echoes the first, Mujahid included five of the eight items forbidden by article 45 and omitted three: 1) insult other religions; 2) assault the social personality of victims of domestic violence and rape; and 3) violate the constitution, all of which are also criminalised by the penal code. In the third guideline, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue added two new items to Mujahid’s list: The two restrictions against women (explained earlier).
Enforcing the media law: The distance between words and actions
The Taleban’s boldest move in their efforts to regulate the media is their announcement to enforce the Republic’s Mass Media Law. Although the law supports a few items of the Taleban’s restrictions over media publications and broadcasts, it also provides a set of rights for journalists and media outlets, including the right to protection and access to information. The three Taleban guidelines did not address the issue of rights, which made them more problematic. This was cause for concern for the head of the Afghanistan Independent Journalists Association, Hujatullah Mujadadi, who believed that the new Taleban media guidelines, in the absence of a legal protection mechanism for journalists, opened the “door to censorship.”
The core protections afforded journalists by the media and access to information laws were immunity for whistle-blowers who exposed corruption, misuse of power, injustice, broke the law and committed crimes, violated human rights and caused serious damage to public security and the environment. These laws allowed journalists to refrain from revealing the identity of their sources and to sue officials who violated their rights through a fair mechanism defined by each law. The other core element is the plan to establish the Commission to Review Media Violations and Complaints. This commission was made up of the information and culture minister (chair) and representatives of journalists’ unions, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Afghanistan bar association, Afghanistan science academy, the justice ministry, filmmakers unions, women’s unions, and head of Kabul University’s journalism faculty. The commission was given the power and duty to review complaints against journalists and media outlets and prevent state institutions from interfering in media affairs.
While the Taleban’s move to uphold the media law has been welcomed, it is not clear when they will move from words to action. In a long and detailed interview with Tolonews on 18 February 2022, Mujahid promised again to push for the media commission to be re-established.
Notably, the media and access to information laws were not as good in practice as they were on paper during the Republic and the MoIC did not hold enough sway to enforce them effectively. Afghanistan ranked 122 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which, in light of the so-called peace talks that were underway in Qatar at the time, expressed concerns that “basic freedoms, including the freedom of women journalists, could be sacrificed for the sake of a peace deal.”
The Ghani administration tried to impose more restrictions by amending the law. For example, in 2020, the government attempted unsuccessfully to amend the article protecting sources and article 45 by adding a few more forbidden items, but the amendments were dropped after journalist organisations opposed them. The Ghani administration also tried to bar direct communications between the media and local authorities, especially provincial security personnel. The access to information bill was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it obliged state agencies to reply to all individual requests and provide information on their activities in annual reports. On the other, it restricted access to information by defining specific mechanisms for information sharing. The Ghani administration’s focus on the latter part had raised the ire of media managers and journalists.
Beyond the guidelines: Actions speak louder than words
While the guidelines have not been issued by a top decision-making body of the Taleban and resemble a set of recommendations, media outlets are cautiously implementing most of the rules.
The author made the following observations during regular monitoring of three TV channels (Tolonews, Ariana News, One TV) and one local radio station in Daikundi provincevin October and November:, and one. The biggest TV channels refer to the Taleban administration as the government of Afghanistan and use its complete and official title, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), in their reports, in contrast to early September when they referred to the Taleban as a ‘group’. The Taleban are heavily present in talk shows and self-censorship is evident in interviews. For example, claims made by Taleban officials are not scrutinised with follow-up or challenging questions. Few programmes and news segments criticise the Taleban or their acting cabinet. A Tolonews anchor, Bahram Aman, who presents the 6 pm news and the popular political talk show Farakhabar (Beyond the News), explained the difficulty of working as a journalist under the Taleban: “you are under a lot of pressure from various dimensions. You know you are watched under a magnifying glass. You have to choose your words with caution.” Nevertheless, influential TV channels still extend the stage to the Taleban’s most ideological opponents, including Afghan politicians like Latif Pedram or Shukria Barakzai, to share their views. They also broadcast critics from the international community, including international human rights organisations.
In addition, since September, journalists in Kabul have been asked to register with the MoIC. In return, they receive an ID card signed by Mujahid. ID cards issued by media outlets or journalist organisations are not sufficient proof of a journalist’s profession. “Not having an ID card signed by Mujahid could mean no immunity for a journalist reporting in public places,” Masroor Lutfi told AAN. Additionally, journalists have been asked to interview Taleban spokespersons for official views and information and refrain from interviewing ‘irrelevant’ officials. While the first guideline asked the media and journalists to work closely with GMIC, chaired by Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, most Taleban spokespersons are members of the former information commission, which was integrated into the MoIC after the takeover. AAN was unable to confirm whether the MoIC mechanism replaces the GMIC coordination mechanism or is a parallel one that works alongside GMIC.
In Kabul, efforts by reporters to keep the torch of independent and impartial journalism alive have led to a few detrimental scuffles between the media and the Taleban, said Lutfi of the ANJU. For instance, attempts by journalists to cover women’s protests or clashes between the Taleban and the Islamic State of Khurasan Province (ISKP) in Kabul drew a strong reaction from the Taleban, who detained, tortured and threatened journalists for their reporting or highly restricted their access to the scene. They justified their actions by declaring these events “illegal” and said that journalists should not promote illegal activities by reporting them.
In the provinces, the situation is even worse. Interviews conducted by AAN show that local Taleban authorities have been harsher in their dealings with the media. Elyas Nawandish believed this was likely because local Taleban are more conservative, but also because the international oversight mechanisms are weaker in the provinces, and the journalism community is smaller and more easily recognisable in remote, less populated areas. The latter provides direct and quick access to journalists and media outlets and confounds attempts to escape or hide in provinces. This has resulted not only in more censorship by the Taleban but also in self-censorship by the media and journalists. The Information and Culture Directorate (ICD), the MoIC’s provincial branches, have effective control over media programmes and journalists. Though the level of control varies from one province to another, there are increasing reports that journalists have been asked to coordinate with the head of the ICD before producing, broadcasting and/or publishing a report. According to the AJSC in Badakhshan, Faryab, Logar and Ghor, approval of reports in advance of their publication is required by the respective head of the ICD. An interviewee from Daikundi province confirmed to AAN a similar requirement set by the former Taleban provincial governor, Amanullah Zubair, and the current provincial police chief, Sediqullah Abed. However, due to a lack of capacity, the pre-approval of reports has not come into force in Daikundi. According to the AJSC, in Nimruz, only those pre-approved by the ICD can be invited as guests on programmes. In Faryab, live programmes and those critical of the Taleban have been banned.
In the provinces, the ICD is the only official source of information. It usually takes days to receive a response, if at all, which is of little value to breaking news stories. Control and censorship are applied to all stages of broadcasting – the preproduction, production and postproduction. Local Taleban authorities are banned from giving media interviews without the ICD’s permission, according to Masroor Lutfi. In Takhar, for instance, a military commander invited a few journalists to cover a military operation without coordinating with the head of the ICD, Ansarullah Ansari, in advance; when he found out he banned the broadcasting of any reports related to the manoeuvre, Lutfi added. According to the state-owned Bakhtar news agency, in a meeting with the heads of police districts in Takhar, Ansari said: “The media is the voice of the state,” and asked participants to direct all media interviews to him instead of speaking to reporters themselves.
Additionally, journalists have been asked to broadcast programmes favouring the Taleban administration and report Taleban-sanctioned news and prepared statements, which many journalists have called ‘a mandate to report propaganda’.
In the past, media outlets broadcast paid advertisement programmes for the state, but the current demands made by the Taleban to integrate these items into mainstream news creates an ethical slippery slope that journalists and the organisations they work for must traverse. For example, a journalist working for a privately-owned radio station in Daikundi told AAN that the day after Nili (Daikundi’s provincial capital) collapsed, the Taleban forced him to reopen the radio station and announce “the victory” of the Taleban. Since then, the Taleban have regularly forced the radio station to broadcast Taleban statements, most of which are not newsworthy. “Some days, we are forced to interview one official more than once about one or more topics,” the journalist said.
The AJSC’s reports revealed that a reporter working for the Pajhwok news agency in Kunar was threatened by the province’s head of public health directorate for not quoting him in his report about the health situation in the province. After the AJSC and other journalists met with the provincial Taleban authorities, including the governor, the issue was finally resolved. The AJSC’s reports from Badakhshan and Kandahar show that local Taleban authorities informed journalists and media outlets not to carry any reports against their government. In a meeting with media representatives, the head of the ICD in Logar, Qazi Rafiullah Samim, asked them to broadcast programmes that would help bolster the Taleban regime, Bakhtar reported.
Beyond the guidelines, a lack of cooperation with the local Taleban authorities has its own consequences. Journalists have been regularly summoned, detained, interrogated and threatened because of their reports. In Daikundi, for instance, the Taleban police chief and former provincial governor summoned a journalist twice and threatened him for his reporting on the forced eviction of Hazaras from Pato and Gizaw districts, a source told AAN on 25 October. The same journalist received two more threats on the streets of Nili city from the local police chief. Three journalists in Charikar, the capital of Parwan province, were detained and interrogated because of their reports, Masroor Lutfi of the ANJU told AAN. They were released after local elders intervened and guaranteed that the “mistakes” would not be repeated. The AJSC’s report from Farah province shows that a journalist (for his reporting) and a radio station manager (for broadcasting music) had been summoned and threatened.
A significant number of media outlets have closed and a vast number of journalists have either left the country or lost their jobs since 15 August 2021. However, due to the absence of accurate and up to date information, it is not possible to ascertain how many, or what percentage, of Afghan journalists have left since the Taleban takeover. Overall reports by media watchdog organisations reveal that the damage to the Afghan media sector was highest in the early days after the fall of the Republic. While the damage was extensive, there are signs that this is slowing down. Hundreds of female journalists are going back to work, and a few media outlets have resumed their activities. With a few exceptions, those media outlets that survived the initial shock are still operating, though under difficult conditions.
The damage to the media sector can be attributed to three reasons, not all new, but intensified by the regime change, but not necessarily by the Taleban. First, without exception, all Afghan media outlets have faced significant financial difficulties since the Taleban takeover and the end of the foreign grants that kept them afloat. Add to this the economic collapse that followed the fall of the Republic, and it’s easy to see how many of Afghanistan’s beleaguered media organisations were forced to raise their shutters. However, two other reasons can be attributed to Taleban rule, including the burden of restrictions and censorship, the lack of protection afforded to journalists, and the swell of violence against the media.
Access to information is now severely constrained and journalists are told, formally and informally, what and how to report. In some cases, those who disobeyed were summoned, interrogated, threatened, tortured and detained. Violence against journalists continues, with the Taleban identified as the main perpetrator. The Ministry of Information and Culture is not the only state entity the only source of restrictions; intelligence actors and the Ministry of Vice and Virtue also act to restrict press freedoms, creating the appearance of a soft competition between these institutions over control of the media.
This decision was taken after critics raised the alarm about arbitrary arrests of journalists and women protesters, blaming Istekhbarat. It would certainly prevent the intelligence agency and interior ministry from directly interfering in media affairs, including the arbitrary arrest of journalists. However, establishing any kind of media oversight structure by a repressive regime such as the Taleban’s could in itself enable another means of control over Afghanistan’s media.
Edited by Jelena Bjelica, Roxanna Shapour and Emilie Cavendish
This article was last updated on 6 Mar 2022