There was nothing subtle about it. Earlier this year, Ali, a 27-year-old journalist in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, received a phone call from a top Taliban official. “He told me to send him my stories before they were published,” Ali, who works for an online news outlet, told Grid. “He was clear — we aren’t allowed to criticize the Taliban. If we do, we don’t know what could happen. There could be torture, or worse. It is all very different now.”
“Now” — meaning the six-month period since President Joe Biden pulled U.S. troops out of the country, a withdrawal that led to the collapse of the government and a return of Taliban rule. The upheaval also put at risk gains made over the previous 20 years — including in the country’s vast and increasingly vibrant media sector.
When the U.S. drove the Taliban from power in late 2001, there were no free and independent media in Afghanistan. Journalism did not exist. Two decades later, when the U.S.-backed government fell, the country boasted more than 130 television outlets; radio stations numbered close to 300; and print and online publications totaled nearly 200, according to the International Federation of Journalists.
Today, the numbers have dwindled: 81 TV outlets, 63 print and online publications, and the number of radio stations has almost halved. For Afghan reporters, editors and broadcasters, this has meant a wave of job losses, their ranks depleted by more than half since last summer. For the nation, it has meant a precipitous drop in reliable news and information.
“Everything flipped overnight,” Ali said.
Climate of fear
The closures are due to a combination of factors — collapsing revenue as the Afghan economy crumbles, a loss of international grants and subsidies for media outlets, and concerns for the safety of journalists and entertainment producers under the new Taliban regime.
Those journalists still working speak of a climate of fear — fear of writing or tweeting or even saying the wrong thing as the Taliban imposes its writ across Afghan society.
Soon after it took power last year, the group issued 11 vaguely worded rules for journalists. The first three forbade stories that run “contrary to Islam,” “insult national figures” or violate “privacy.” But there was no specific guidance as to what would constitute a breach, or who would determine whether coverage had violated those rules, according to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
The result has been a menacingly uncertain environment for reporters and editors. In a recent survey of 500-plus Afghan journalists, 86 percent complained about the lack of clear guidelines; 70 percent said that under Taliban rule local media could not report freely and independently. Journalists in several parts of the country told Grid that they now had no choice but to censor what they wrote or broadcast. The Taliban, they said, monitors their work and their social media. Faiza, a 21-year-old reporter from Kabul, recalled posting a video online that showed a group of Kabul women protesting against the country’s new rulers. “I received a message saying, ‘If you love your life and your family members, delete the video,’ ” Faiza told Grid. “I was scared, so I deleted it immediately.”
Grid has changed the name of the journalists quoted in this story to protect their identities.
A “tightrope” for journalists
To be clear: The media landscape under the current Taliban regime remains dramatically different from — and still a great improvement upon — what it was when the group was last in power.
Back then there was one radio station, which was run by the Taliban and which broadcast regime-approved programming. There were no private operators, no television channels. And although many Afghan journalists have lost their jobs or fled the country since the takeover, thousands of professional reporters and editors remain. In interviews, they spoke of fear — but also a determination to cover the news as best they can under a regime run by men who in prior years had repeatedly targeted them.
“There is obviously pushback from the Taliban,” said Saad Mohseni, CEO of the Moby Group media conglomerate. Nearly two decades ago, Mohseni started a radio station in Afghanistan, and in 2010 he launched Tolo news, the country’s first 24-7 news operation. “But our folks have been relentless in their reporting.” While women have been hit hardest in the recent wave of job losses across the industry, Mohseni told Grid that Tolo has actually hired more women since the Taliban takeover, and tried when possible to push the envelope and test the new limits.
Others are trying, too, but treading carefully.
Case in point: coverage of protests by Afghan women demanding their rights under the new government. With thousands of women forced out of work and education under the Taliban, there have been several such protests in recent months in Kabul and other cities. There are no official rules restricting coverage of these demonstrations, journalists told Grid. But Taliban leaders have made their views known in informal conversations: Criticism of the new Afghan leadership would not be tolerated. Journalists’ groups have also documented numerous cases of Taliban fighters attacking reporters covering the protests. A Kabul-based news executive at one local television network told Grid that “the Taliban have said in private meetings that they don’t believe in the media. There is an unwritten rule: No one is allowed to speak against them.”
Some reporters and editors said they had tried to find compromises, walking a kind of journalistic tightrope. As the news executive explained: “We did cover the protests, but instead of saying there were many women, or going into detail, we just had a small item. We said there were a few women, and they wanted the regime to help them get food and jobs.” Protests by pro-Taliban women, organized by the regime in recent months, were covered more extensively, the executive said.
For those journalists based outside major cities, the critical audience now is the local Taliban leadership. This is how Ali, the reporter in Bamiyan, goes about his work.
The local Taliban official who called him had been irked by a report Ali authored that might, on the surface, have seemed harmless: a story about an annual ski contest. But Ali had made the mistake of highlighting the absence of women, who until recently had participated alongside their male counterparts.
Ali said the official warned him not to “make everything about women.” Ominously, the official added: “This time I am just warning you.”
For many journalists, self-censorship has become a survival tool. “It is beyond difficult,” Farah, a 28-year-old reporter from Kabul, said. “The Taliban can haunt us any minute.”
Her concerns echoed an appeal last year from more than 100 Afghan journalists who called on the outside world to ensure that their trade did not “become extinct in Afghanistan, as it did from 1996 from 2001,” under the prior Taliban regime.
“All of us are forced to remain anonymous when making this appeal,” they said. “Despite public undertakings by the Taliban, we see concrete signs of an undeclared general crackdown that includes threats to journalists in the field, intimidation of news media and indirect censorship.”
There are also reports of violence. In mid-January, a journalist in Kabul said he was visited late at night by two men who said they were with the local police. According to an account published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, when he opened the door, “one of the men grabbed him and hit him in the head with an unidentified object, and the other, whose face was covered, tried to stab him in the neck with a knife.”
Reporters who spoke to Grid said the fear of retribution permeates both public and private spaces. “A few days ago I posted a report on a WhatsApp group with some colleagues, about some Afghan women abroad meeting foreign politicians,” said Farah, a television journalist in Kabul. “Everyone told me to delete it.”
She did. That she is a woman, she says, meant that she was already on the wrong side of the Taliban. “It is not just a group,” Farah told Grid, “It is an ideology. They believe women should stay home.”
An increasing number of Farah’s colleagues are doing just that. According to one recent report, of 979 women who were working as journalists a year ago, more than 75 percent have left their jobs since the Taliban takeover. Some have been hit by the wave of media closures. Others have been fired by nervous bosses worried about the Taliban’s attitude toward women. In several cases, female reporters told Grid that they had been pressured to leave work by family members who were concerned about their safety.
“We are trapped and there is no way out,” Farida, a 23-year-old television journalist in Kabul, told Grid. “Women have no value under the Taliban. Basically, they don’t exist.”
Soap operas without women
If the Taliban guidelines for journalists have been vague or ill-defined, the rules for televised dramas are now crystal-clear. New regulations issued in the aftermath of the U.S. departure prohibit the broadcast of soap operas or dramas featuring women. “The new environment is a lot more restrictive when it comes to entertainment programming,” said Mohseni, whose Moby Group network includes both broadcast journalism and entertainment. “We have had to pull some of the risqué soap operas and pop music.”
On the news side, Mohseni told Grid that the new environment has driven many of Afghanistan’s most experienced journalists to leave the country. “That has left a massive vacuum which for most outlets will take years to fill.”
To Ali, in Bamiyan, who works for a far smaller publication, the future looks bleak. Journalists and journalism are “drowning,” he told Grid. “There is no such thing as a free press in Afghanistan anymore.”