August 15, 2021 seems to have marked the death of the press in Afghanistan with the return to power of the Taliban. Abandoned to its fate by NATO and the United States, the country has been sinking for more than a year into total obscurantism. The regime promised to respect Human Rights, but its numerous exclusive and authoritarian policies have proven the opposite. In one year, the Afghan media have suffered so much repression that over 50% of them have disappeared. Dozens of journalists have been forced to flee the country to escape the government, without giving up on Afghanistan and their freedom. How do they organize themselves both abroad and in Afghanistan to make their voices heard and keep working and avoiding jail ?
In September 2021, the Taliban government imposed a directive containing 11 articles to censor and control the Afghan press and journalists. They use the media outlets to spread their own information, making the work of journalists very difficult. According to the report of SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, “laws have been enacted to prohibit the publication or broadcast of information considered against Islam or the regime.
More than half the media closed in Afghanistan
Since the takeover, at least 80 journalists have been arrested and all are subject to censorship. More than 51% of media outlets have been closed and 80% of women journalists have been left without jobs in 15 months. As a result, 10 out of 34 provinces in Afghanistan have no female journalists. Zan and Bano TV, two privately owned media outlets that were run by women, had to stop their activities and lay off their mostly female staff.
The most recent case is Kabul News TV, one of the largest news channels in the country. It was founded by former President Karzai’s former chief of staff, Karim Khorram. In recent years, the channel was in opposition to President Ghani’s government, but was closed in 2021 due to pressure from the Taliban and economic difficulties.
For several months, women and girls have seen their freedom shrink. They are no longer allowed to go to school or practice their profession, and the Afghan journalists who are still in place are fighting to keep their jobs. We were able to talk to one of them as well as colleagues now based in neighbouring Pakistan about their current condition and their means of fighting against censorship and the regime.
The many obstacles encountered in getting in touch with them are a sign of their difficulties: the telephone numbers of the refugee journalists in Pakistan can only be reached for a given period of time, before they are redistributed to other people.
Two contacts never answered our calls because their visas had expired and their telephone numbers had been given to another refugee. Others do not have control over their phones, with their brother or strangers answering for them.
The double punishment of the Afghan woman journalist
Fortunately, some were able to answer our calls. Banafsha Binesh is an Afghan woman still living in Kabul and working for TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s leading TV news channel. We had to wait until the second call when she was alone to interview her and get straight answers.
“We are working in very bad conditions,” she tells us. “Censorship is extremely strict and there are more and more bans on our work. For example, a while ago I covered a UN event on the situation of Afghan women. Representatives were criticising the Taliban agenda and policies and we were banned from broadcasting our story because we are not allowed to criticise the regime.” With composure and pride, Banafsha Binesh assures us that she does not want to be anonymised because she is “already fighting the Taliban from Kabul.“
But why does she continue to work despite censorship and danger? Apart from the need to “make the voices of women and the Afghan people heard“, the journalist explains that she is the only one who can support her family financially. TOLOnews has not escaped the repression and has itself reduced the number of its employees, but Banafsha Binesh has managed to keep her job.
“We must continue our work and show the international community that Afghan women have not given up their lives. They continue to fight for their freedom, democracy and to stand up to the Taliban. They are still alive !“, she says in a straightforward voice.
Before the Taliban, the young woman experienced what she calls “real journalism” in her many reports and refuses to turn away as she and her colleagues “raise the voices of the people who live under constant threat. We feel like activists, in a sense.”
Prison for an interview
But her courage is threatened daily. She is terrified every morning to go to her office, being both a woman and a journalist. “One day, while I was reporting with my cameraman on the terrible economic situation of Afghan women, we were brutally interrupted. I was interviewing an ice cream vendor in Kabul when the 8th District Intelligence Department arrived to arrest us. We were imprisoned for four hours, threatened and tortured. They forbade us to do interviews and to give a negative image of the government. We were not allowed to broadcast our work.”
This was not the only intervention by the Taliban during her working hours, far from it. Binesh testifies that on several occasions the regime interrupted and cut off her live broadcasts, especially when she was interviewing refugees or students outside schools. On that day, “they came and prevented me from talking to the students and girls there, I could only greet them before I had to leave.” She cannot appear on screen without her hijab and mask.
But Banafsha Binesh and her compatriots cannot win this fight alone, she insists on many occasions. “It is the role of the international community to put pressure on the Taliban. It meets them every day in Doha, Qatar, so what is it waiting for to force them to respect women’s rights and freedom of expression? We can no longer go to the parks or the hammam, we can no longer get an education or do cultural activities. We cannot move forward without the international community. Journalists from all over the world must also be able to focus on Afghanistan and the condition of women here, it is our responsibility.”
Getting a foot in the door of journalism
Other journalists have had no choice but to flee the regime and seek refuge in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the situation is not much better for them, as the two Afghans with whom we were able to communicate, who wished to remain anonymous, can testify.
The first of them has been based in Pakistan for 15 months and used to work for Itlat-E-Rooz Daily as an investigative and peace journalist. Wahid Haderi and four members of his family fled their home country in August 2021. He says that in recent months, refugee journalists had arrived on medical and tourist visas. “But without a journalist visa, we cannot work in Pakistan. The country does not issue journalist visa, and for a normal tourist, people should pay $1,000 to brokers, wich is far too much money when we fled with what we have on our backs and no work.”
“Most journalists who have visas have them for only three or six months and even mine has expired. Pakistan has announced that it is closing the borders and our colleagues have no choice but to cross the border illegally. At the end of the year, they will face three years in prison or deportation to Afghanistan, but what can they do? Many have families to support and they have a better chance of meeting their needs from Pakistan than from Afghanistan.” Risking death on the spot or taking a slim chance elsewhere is what our speaker is saying. He said that international aid was too specific to really help Afghan journalists.
“Some organizations like Amnesty International or the Committee to Protect Journalists provide financial aid, but you have to prove that you are in great danger to get it. Most of them have escaped without any legal documents to save their lives. And even if you manage to get the money, it is never enough to survive for more than a few weeks. And you have to have been tortured or imprisoned, not just threatened. But they all suffer from mental or psychological problems because they are traumatized.” Many still cannot talk about their experiences and their escape.
The same sound is heard from our third journalist. He too has fled to Pakistan to escape the death promised by the Taliban, but the country is not safe for journalists. “We feel threatened here too, we can’t criticise the Pakistani government either. Terrorist groups like Daesh and the Taliban themselves have influence and support in Pakistan. We can still be imprisoned by Islamabad for our opinions or as a result of our visa expiring. Many journalists can no longer even rent a flat,” he says. “It’s a nightmare situation.” Although he applied for a visa in France and Germany last February, he has not received any reply.
He confides that he simply expects us “to be heard and to be able to work without being threatened with death or torture.” About 350 journalists and media workers are currently refugees in Pakistan and are asking the international community to take up their asylum cases.
They need to be given an answer as soon as possible, so that they can make a fresh start and have a normal life. They also need to be informed about their cases and visas, which take a long time to be processed in order to get them out of their desperate situation. Their lives are at stake.
These journalists need to be supported by the international community, based on a clear and transparent mechanism, so that their voices can be heard in the country. Journalists in danger in Afghanistan must also be evacuated and their asylum cases examined in an appropriate country.
After all, Afghanistan is not frozen in political immobilism. The fact that the Taliban government has kept its political office in Qatar means that they are willing to negotiate in many cases, they have regular meetings with representatives of the Islamic Emirate’s political bureau and European political sections. These visits have made it clear to the Taliban that their continued political power depends on the acceptance of the basic rights of citizens.
Issues of freedom and human rights, especially freedom of expression, were discussed with the group’s political representatives. And this opened the way for a political conversation, a conversation that led to the creation of a comprehensive government and the end of forty years of violence.
Maud Baheng Daizey and Noorwali Khpalwak