“Every single day, the situation is intensifying,” Zan Times editor-in-chief Zahra Nader told an audience this week. Along with Afghan Witness and the Centre for Information Resilience, the Zan Times editor shone a spotlight on the experiences of Afghan reporters with the online event Discrimination, Prohibition and Perseverance: The Reality for Female Journalists in Afghanistan.
Nader started her journalism career in Kabul, but now lives in Canada. From there, she is not only an Index contributor, but also runs Zan Times, a women-led investigative newsroom focused on human rights violations in Afghanistan. She works with journalists in the country who all use pseudonyms, as well as others outside the country.
“Our aim is to report and tell the truth,” she said. She wants to put the power into the hands of women, so that “they define news”.
The laws that prevent women reporting effectively are not always specific to female journalists, she explained. They are impacted by the intersection of being female and of being a journalist. The Taliban issued decrees that women are not allowed to travel alone, that TV presenters and guests must cover their faces, and in some provinces that their voices cannot be heard on the radio. Travelling to meet sources suddenly becomes impossible, while radio presenters and other female voices are silenced in places like Kandahar, where women have been told they cannot phone into radio stations.
Nader explained how journalists in general, female or not, are forbidden from publishing anything contrary to Afghan culture or Islam. The Taliban has a strangling hold on media policy. She described a landscape where the Taliban has tortured people for covering women’s protests, and where more than half of media outlets have closed down due to a lack of funding or the impossibility of working within Taliban restrictions. The Taliban recently closed a women-run radio station in Badakhshan, and Nader is doubtful that any woman-owned media remains.
“The possibility of them to function seems very low,” she said.
Nader also suggested that for media organisations, “the Taliban vice and virtue would knock on their door everyday” is they hired female journalists, assessing what they were wearing and doing. She has heard reports of some organisations telling women that if they want to work as a journalist, they must do so without pay.
“Women are the main target of the Taliban,” she said, asking who, without female journalists, will platform women’s voices.
“The traditional classic work we used to do in Afghanistan no longer functions,” she said, explaining that new ways of reporting are needed, including offering women cyber security training to minimise risk, which is were working with organisations like Afghan Witness comes into play.
Afghan Witness’s Anouk Theunissen works from outside the country with open-source reporting and citizen journalism to de-bunk Taliban narratives. She explained that in the days since the Taliban takeover, online hate speech against women has increased significantly.
“As women have been erased from society, they have taken to social media,” she said. There, they can speak out more freely. But female journalists are beset with hateful comments and messages. Nader recalled one particular instance where a male journalist commented on a post, calling the abuse of women fake news.
Both Nader and Theunissen are doubtful about the situation in Afghanistan improving. What is missing, Nader said, is solidarity from the international community.
For women still working as journalists in Afghanistan, safety is paramount. Nader explained that rather than putting all their Afghan journalists in one WhatsApp group, Zan Times editors keep each conversation separate. Otherwise, if one journalist is arrested and their phone checked, all will be at risk.
Female journalists are forced to work remotely as much as possible for their own safety, and Zan Times advises them to only speak to sources who they can be sure are not linked to the Taliban. Any time they tell someone they’re a journalist, they risk being identified.
Some of Nader’s colleagues on the ground describe leaving their homes and wondering if that is the day they will be arrested, and yet they continue to go out.
“That gives me a little bit of hope, when they are still resisting,” she said. “That resistance might just be keeping the hope alive.”