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Afghanistan turmoil

Taliban threaten Afghan press, causing exodus of journalists

Reporters delete bylines from past stories and social media accounts

ISLAMABAD -- With the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, journalists and media workers in the country are fleeing for their lives or going into hiding. Several private media outlets have preemptively closed their operations or minimized news bulletins and removed critical talk shows, popular music and entertainment shows and foreign dramas. Those remaining are forced to disseminate pro-Taliban news to protect their lives.

Outside Kabul, away from the world's attention, the hard-line group has been using some media outlets as voices for their activities after capturing the capital.

Following the withdrawal of U.S.-led allied forces, the Taliban in a weekslong offensive gained control of most of the territory and became Afghanistan's new rulers for the first time since the U.S.-led forces toppled their regime in 2001.

The regime change is putting an end to press freedom and will lead to reprisal attacks on journalists who have written critical stories on the Taliban, fear media rights bodies, which have documented a rise in threats and violence against the media from the Taliban. In May, the Taliban warned that local journalists reporting "one-sided news in support of Afghanistan's intelligence" would "face the consequences."

On Aug. 6, the Taliban killed Dawa Khan Menapal, the director of Afghanistan's Government Information Media Center in Kabul. Two days later, suspected Taliban militants killed Toofan Omar, who managed the privately owned station Paktia Ghag Radio, while he was traveling to Kabul from nearby Parwan Province. Taliban members also kidnapped Nematullah Hemat, a reporter for Gharghasht TV, in the southern province of Helmand.

After Kabul fell, reports emerged that Taliban fighters were searching the homes of journalists, accusing some of propagandizing for the government. On Aug. 19, Taliban fighters hunting a Deutsche Welle journalist shot dead one member of his family and seriously injured another.

They have also stopped at least two female journalists from doing their jobs at the public broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan and have attacked at least two members of the press covering a protest in the eastern Nangarhar Province.

Due to the increased risks, a large number of journalists have left the country since the beginning of August, and some are desperately waiting for the resumption of flights out of Kabul. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other bodies have registered and vetted hundreds of journalists -- mostly women -- to whom the Taliban threat is clear and imminent.

"After the reports that Taliban has been conducting home-to-home searches and checking computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices, most of the journalists have erased the digital histories and valuable data," Ali, a Kabul-based journalist working for a foreign publication, told Nikkei Asia.

Ali has gone into hiding, deleted his Twitter and Facebook accounts and asked his editor to remove his byline from past reports that were critical of the Taliban and remain online.

Ali and other Afghan journalists Nikkei talked to requested anonymity or used only their surnames because of fears of reprisals from the Taliban.

Zabiullah Mujahid says journalists can report the news in the Taliban's Afghanistan "If they work according to Shariah [Islamic law]."   © Reuters

Taliban leaders have recently promised to respect press freedom in Afghanistan. "If they work according to Shariah [Islamic law], they will be free, they can work, they can broadcast freely," said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid in a news conference in Kabul on Aug. 17.

But journalists and media freedom bodies are concerned about Mujahid's vague qualifications about press freedoms, saying fighters on the ground could harm journalists by claiming their reports violate Islamic values and neutrality. A day after the conference, Taliban fighters whipped Ahmad Navid Kavosh, a reporter with the privately owned Khurshid TV, lashing his neck, shoulders, waist, thighs and feet. The reporter had been performing his duties outside the Kabul airport.

"District-level commanders and street fighters still live in 1996 and know nothing about media freedom," said Ali.

The violent behavior continues. On Wednesday, the Taliban assaulted Ziar Khan Yaad, a reporter working with Tolo TV, Afghanistan's most popular private television station, and his cameraman, and confiscated their phones and cameras. "I still don't know why they behaved like that and suddenly attacked me," Yaad tweeted.

The attack was carried out with Tolo TV in talks with the Taliban about continuing its 24-hour news service. On Aug. 21, the Taliban had sent Ahmadullah Wasiq, the cultural commission's deputy head, to the station's office to discuss security, freedom of expression and other issues.

Steven Butler, the CPJ's Asia program coordinator, said the recent attacks on journalists are a test for the Taliban to "honor their promise of allowing independent media to operate freely in the country."

"The people of Afghanistan need access to news, and therefore the Taliban must learn to respect the basic rights of journalists to freely report it," he said.

A 2009 RSF report termed the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001 "a dark period in Afghanistan's history." All media were banned except one, Voice of Shariah, which was dominated by calls to prayer and religious teachings.

Afghan journalists film inside a classroom after a terror attack at Kabul University, Afghanistan, on Nov. 3, 2020.   © Reuters

However, after the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan's thriving media scene was hailed as one of the biggest achievements of the past two decades. Government figures show that there are around 248 TV networks, 438 radio stations, 1,669 print media and 119 news agencies in the country.

Khan, a journalist working for a local media outlet in Ghazni Province for the past 15 years, was transferred to Pakistan in mid-July after the Taliban started gaining momentum with the capture of several districts from fleeing Afghan forces. "It is very hard to live and perform journalistic duties under Taliban's rule," said Khan. A journalist friend of his was killed by the Taliban in December in his hometown.

"I am thinking of starting a new life in a new country, far away from the shadow of the Taliban," said Khan, who has considered seeking asylum in Europe.

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