Media and Freedom of Speech in Afghanistan: Journalists and Social Media Users Under Pressure and in Detention

Hasht-E Subh During the course of last one year, the Taliban have imposed severe restrictions on the media and those who work in the media in Afghanistan. In addition to limiting access to information, this group has continued to torture, arrest, and threaten journalists and media workers. In a year and a half, in addition to limiting the free flow of information, and suppressing freedom of expression, censorship, and suffocation, they have also added additional pressures such as banning the media related internet domains, controlling, and exerting influence on media policy and content production. However, the United Nations has said that the media in Afghanistan are facing limitations and a lack of resources, and a clear framework is required to protect media freedom. The women’s department of this organization considered the restrictions imposed on the media as a sign of systematic repression, and said that all laws protecting and supporting journalists have been canceled. Based on the official calendar of events, the Hasht-e Subh Daily has found out that in the past two months, in addition to arresting journalists and media users, severe pressure has been applied to the media.

In this report, the recorded events of the state of freedom of expression and media during the last two months in the country have been discussed. Arrests, tortures, and more cases may have been applied by the Taliban against journalists and media, that were not covered here due to the closed atmosphere and fear of the Taliban. This report has covered the number of media incidents that have been reflected from August 16 until October 22 and has found that severe pressure has been imposed on the media during the last two months. Even in some cases, many media managers and employees have been forced to leave the country.

The Taliban have continuously imposed restrictions on the media in the past year. In addition to journalists and media, they have also searched and tortured social media users. On Tuesday, August 16, this group in Kandahar province, published a newsletter and said that they arrested a man named Ghulam Mohammad, who was publishing content against them on social networks and handed him and the evidence against him over to their legal and judicial bodies.

During the past two months, the Taliban, in addition to inspecting the mobile phones of social media users and arresting them, on Wednesday, August 17, in the Sherpur district of Kabul the capital, American journalist and filmmaker Ever Shearer and his colleague Faizullah Faizbakhsh were arrested. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York, on Friday, August 19, published a statement confirming that the Taliban intelligence had arrested the two men. Carlos Martinez, program director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York, said at the time: “The growing pressure of the Taliban and the increase in arrests of journalists and media workers, including the arrest of American filmmaker Ever Shearer and his colleague Faizullah Faizbakhsh, show the group’s lack of commitment to the principle of freedom of the press in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban continued to inspect the phones of citizens, on Thursday, August 18, by establishing checkpoints, they checked the mobile phones of many residents of Panjshir Province. Speaking to the Hasht-e Subh Daily, these people confirmed that the Taliban do not care about their privacy in the slightest. By establishing checkpoints in the “Pay-e Mazar” area of the Gulbahar region, which is a part of the Jabal Saraj district of Parwan province. The Taliban checked the photos and personal videotapes of the locals there.

Based on the recording of media events of the Hasht-e Subh Daily, the Taliban continued to arrest media workers, on Saturday night, August 27, Omid Azimi, the manager of Radio Sama in Ghazni province, was arrested and then severely beaten him. The intelligence of the Taliban has warned him that he should not work in the media after this. After beating him, the militants of this group had taken him to the hospital in the middle of the night in an unconscious state.

In addition to arresting and torturing journalists, the Taliban have also imposed restrictions on media work. The Directorates of Information and Culture of the Taliban in the provinces have prevented the free flow of information and its publication by exerting extra pressure. Habibullah Elham, the head of information and culture of the Taliban in Nimroz province, on Monday, August 29, in a meeting with the journalists of this province, said that they should not publish news without the permission of this directorate. An action that had been reported many times before by local journalists in the provinces.

The Taliban in Herat province have arrested and beaten several people for filming. Many residents of Herat province told the Hasht-e Subh Daily that this group arrested and beat up several residents of the province on Friday, September 2, after an explosion near Herat regional hospital. These people wanted to film the scene of the explosion and during that, they were beaten severely by the Taliban militants.

According to the daily event report calendar of the Hasht-e Subh Daily, in the Guzargah area of Herat province, where the explosion took place, the Taliban also beat up several people and took their phones, and took several people to their custody and moved them to their police station. Also, the bodyguards of the head of information and culture of the Taliban in Herat province slapped Ismail Azad, the reporter of the local Peace TV in this province, during the coverage of the funeral ceremony of Maulvi Mujib Rahman Ansari on Sunday, September 4, and have not allowed the journalists to cover the news and enter the regional Herat hospital of the Herat province.

Arrest, torture, and the uncertain state of the arrested journalists that are happening on daily bases have shattered all hopes. On Thursday, September 8, sources confirmed to the Hasht-e Subh Daily that Abdul Hanan Mohammadi, a provincial reporter, was tortured daily by the Taliban intelligence in the prison of the Kapisa province, and after this date, he was transferred to the 40th intelligence directorate of central intelligence of this group in Kabul the capital. The Taliban arrested Abdul Hanan Mohammadi on June 12 of this year while preparing a report. At that time, Mr. Mohammadi’s family said that he was arrested by the Taliban intelligence because of publishing reports.

In addition to not allowing journalists and free media to operate, those journalists and media who are willing to behave according to the policy of the Taliban regime, despite the extensive pressures of this group, have also faced the risk of torture, arrest, and denial of access to information. On Sunday, September 11, when the Taliban participated in a consultative meeting in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, the officials of the Department of Information and Culture expelled journalists from the meeting. This was while journalists were invited by the organizers of this public meeting. These journalists expressed their concern about the increasing restrictions on their work and said that the Taliban treat them with discretion.

According to the daily even report calendar of the Hasht-e Subh Daily, the Taliban arrested eight local journalists in Paktia province on Saturday, September 19. At that time, local sources had told the Hasht-e Subh Daily that following the publication of news of the protest of female students in this province, the Taliban had detained eight local journalists for several hours and put them under interrogation. The Taliban had checked the journalists’ equipment and mobile phones and warned the journalists to be careful in publishing their news about this group.

Journalists and media, in addition to the pressures of the directorates of information and culture and intelligence of the Taliban, are also faced with the imposition of restrictions on their employees. In a meeting with journalists of Balkh province on Monday, September 19, the Taliban said that all media workers should decorate themselves in the ways of the Prophet of Islam. They have also insisted on prioritizing the publication and broadcast of religious scholars’ sermons.

The Taliban in Kabul the capital has also continued to impose restrictions on the media. On Monday, September 26, sources in visual media of Kabul province told the Hasht-e Subh Daily, that the Taliban have imposed new restrictions on the presenters of these visual media programs. Based on information from the sources, the Taliban have recently ordered the managers of the visual media that male and female presenters will no longer be able to perform joint programs and that women’s interviews will be recorded and published with their faces covered. The Taliban are not satisfied with imposing these restrictions and have told the media, that from now on, they will introduce the political experts as the guest of the political discussions.

During the past two months, this group, in addition to imposing strict restrictions on the media, which has forced even media employees to quit their jobs, has also taken away the right to cover women’s protests from the media. On Saturday, October 1, the Taliban beat up several media workers for covering women’s protests. A number of these journalists told the Hasht-e Subh Daily, that the Taliban confiscated their cameras and work equipment. They wanted to cover the protest rally that was supposed to be held in front of Muhammad Ali Jinnah Hospital in Kabul, where the victims of the Kaaj Educational Training Center incident were hospitalized.

On the other hand, the Taliban announced on Monday, October 3, that they have blocked the Internet domain of the Hasht-e Subh Daily and Zawia Media for broadcasting and publishing “offensive content against the Taliban”.

However, in the most recent case, the Taliban in Kandahar province have arrested the head of the “Sada-e Mellat” radio station who is a local reporter and an actor. On Sunday, October 23, sources told the Hasht-e Subh Daily that Bismillah Watandost, head of the “Sada-e Mellat” radio station, Sher Ahmad Noori, a local reporter, and Attaullah Zar, an actor, were arrested by this group. Sources say that Sher Ahmad Noori was arrested from his place of duty on the charge of anti-Taliban media activity, and Bismillah Watandost was also arrested from his home. According to sources, Attaullah Zar was arrested from the market. There is no information about their fate so far. The press officials of the Taliban say that Attaullah Zar has been arrested for criminal offenses and Bismillah Watandoost for fighting with the militants of this group, but they have not said anything about Sher Ahmad Noori.

In addition to all this, a new page on Twitter has recently started to operate, and it introduces numerous news from the media, including news of the Hasht-e Subh Daily and the Afghanistan International TV, as “fake news”. Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman of the Taliban, shares the contents of this page. Several media experts, who do not want to be mentioned in the report, believe that this action was carried out by Taliban spokespersons, and this is their new war against the media. According to them, this group under the title of “fake news” hinders free, independent, and impartial information in various ways, and there is no law to hold them accountable in this regard.

The constitution of the republic government guaranteed freedom of expression and press in the country. In Article 34 of this law, it is stated: “Freedom of expression is immune from aggression. Every Afghan has the right to express his thoughts through speech, writing, image, or other means in compliance with the provisions of this constitution.” This article of the constitution also states that every citizen of Afghanistan can print and publish content “without first presenting it to the government authorities”.

On the other hand, the Law of Public Media also guaranteed and facilitated “the right to freedom of thought and expression and the regulation of the activities of public media” in the country. “Supporting and guaranteeing the right to freedom of thought and expression”, “supporting the rights of journalists and providing the conditions for the free operation of the media”, “promoting and developing free, independent and pluralistic mass media” and “respecting the principle of freedom of expression and mass media established in the Universal Declaration of Human rights, in compliance with the principles and rules of the holy religion of Islam” were mentioned as one of the main goals of this law. Based on the fourth article of this law, freedom of thought and expression was guaranteed against interference, restrictions, and censorship.

By taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban have abolished all laws. Although the Ministry of Information and Culture under the Taliban administration has announced that the law of public media is in place, in practice, the fighters and various institutions of this group apply their law to the media and people working in the media. The way this group interacts with the media demonstrates that they adhere to their preferences and ideologies when dealing with the media.

Meanwhile, Markus Potzel, the acting head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said on September 21, during a visit to a private media that a clear framework is needed to protect the freedom of the media in Afghanistan. He had said before that the media in Afghanistan are facing restrictions and a lack of resources.

In the latest case, the United Nations Women’s Department has said that a month after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, certain restrictions were imposed on the media and female employees in the Afghan media, which shows systematic repression. On Monday, July 24, this institution said in a tweet that from September 2021, all laws protecting and supporting journalists have been canceled. According to this organization, restrictions, and laws imposed on the media and the people working in the media, especially women, are implemented through intimidation, torture, detention, and harassment.

The UN Women section notes that Afghan female journalists have been singled out for harassment and restrictions. This institution has mentioned covering the faces of female presenters on TV channels. The organization has warned that, collectively, these restrictions show a systematic and coherent effort to suppress the media and exclude women from the public sphere.

At the same time, the International Federation of Journalists has said that the Taliban have banned a female foreign journalist from entering Afghanistan. The International Federation of Journalists reported on Wednesday, October 19, that Stefanie Glinski, a foreign journalist who works with international media, has been banned from entering Afghanistan for preparing critical reports. According to this global organization supporting journalists, Stefanie Glinski, who worked with the “Guardian” and the “Foreign Policy” media since 2018, left Afghanistan in July of this year.

Glinski wrote in a note on social networks that after publishing an article entitled “Taliban Wage War Over Coal in Northern Afghanistan” and his critical notes about this group, she was bombarded with questions on WhatsApp Messenger, and asked her to provide her sources.

Before this, the organizations supporting the media expressed their concern about the state of freedom of expression and media in the country and said, that in one year of Taliban rule over Afghanistan, out of 547 active media outlets, 219 media outlets have stopped their activities. Before this, several journalists who sought refuge in third countries, especially Pakistan, after the fall of Afghanistan, expressed their concern about their bad living conditions and their continued misery. They claim in an interview with the Hasht-e Subh Daily that they are unable to go back to Afghanistan because of their fear of the Taliban and the direct threats they have received and that the countries that welcome immigrants do not handle their immigration files either. Due to the persistence of the current scenario and their uncertain futures, the majority of these journalists are experiencing depression.

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