A night for Afghanistan

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The daily risks taken by Afghanistan’s female journalists

“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.”

The harsh reality for Afghanistan’s journalists

In deeply patriarchal and repressive societies like Afghanistan women have always been subjected to gender-based discrimination and violence. This was the case before the Taliban came to power but it has become much worse since – and women, who were already underrepresented in the media industry, are suffering immeasurably.

The dwindling community of female journalists has reached a concerning level. Soon after the Taliban’s coup they started a crackdown on all journalists. There were raids on the houses of journalists, arrests, detentions, intimidation and harassment.

In addition to direct threats, the Taliban started to systematically harass women in the media to make it difficult for them to work. The Taliban introduced strict dress codes, including making the veil mandatory. The ban on long-distance travel of women without a male guardian has made field work for women impossible. Women have also been banned from appearing on TV shows. The Taliban effectively want us to completely disappear from the media landscape.

Due to these barbaric laws many women have lost their jobs and many have fled the country. Those women who were the sole earners in the family are now living in destitution.

The outflux of women with essential skills has created a brain drain in Afghanistan. Years of progress with regards to media development, women empowerment and capacity building of women in media has been undone by the Taliban in merely two years. All the women journalists who toiled for years and built up their skills – despite the difficulties – are now either confined to the home or in exile in miserable situations. Unfortunately some have lost their lives in attempts to seek shelter. A female senior Pashto journalist, Torpekai Amarkhel, drowned with her family in a boat sailing them to Italy just a few weeks ago.

Amarkhel’s asylum case for Australia was in process. But due to the long, arduous, slow and chaotic process of filling and requesting asylum or refugee status in developed countries, journalists in distress are opting for perilous and illegal means of immigration. It’s a response coming from extreme desperation and frustration. Western countries must try to understand this and must make the visa process easy, fast and efficient.

Within Afghanistan, people’s desperation is being exploited for financial gain. Acquiring essential travel documents is being aggravated by long delays, tough requirements and chaotic procedures, which has meant the opening of illegal channels to mint more money from helpless people running for their lives. For example the average fees for a passport right now is at least $3000 and fees for a Pakistani visa is $1200. This makes the legal evacuation from Afghanistan for those journalists at risk almost impossible, forcing them to opt for illegal channels. For those taking this route the outcomes can be awful. In many instances people are arrested and detained in neighbouring countries.

In exile the Afghan journalists are unable to continue their journalistic work due to a myriad of issues, such as lack of opportunities in the countries of temporary residence, language barriers, legal barriers and discrimination against Afghans. The result? Women journalists in exile are either forced to stay at home or they are forced to do menial work to simply make end meets. They’re out of work, gaps in their career growing. Some are now quitting the industry and switching careers.

The situation is stifling for male journalists too. The heart-wrenching stories of Afghan journalists are sadly countless. A journalist who worked alongside me in a media outlet recently posted on Twitter and other social media platforms about selling one of his kidneys to get some money to support himself and his family in exile in Pakistan. Another journalist from Afghanistan trashed all his academic and professional documents out of frustration at his joblessness and inability to get any humanitarian support. And another journalist, a senior one with a strong track record in the industry, has become a cobbler working in the streets.

In order to save the community of journalists in general, and women journalists in particular, the world must act. Western countries must open their doors so that we can access work, education and free speech and expression which we have been denied in our own country. But everyone can help protect Afghan journalists and create opportunities for them within Afghanistan and in exile. Engage with Afghan journalists through fellowships, scholarships, workshops, training and other opportunities to save the media from dying. And finally pressurise the Taliban to reverse their barbaric decisions that have created a gender-based apartheid and is pushing generations of Afghans back to the stone age.

Women journalists caught in middle of Afghanistan’s nightmare

As a woman and a journalist, I have been living my worst nightmare since 15 August 2021, the day the Afghan capital, Kabul, fell to the Taliban. Since that Sunday, I have been reporting about what women have lost – and what they continue to lose – as the new regime expands its power.

The Taliban have limited every aspect of women’s lives, from banning them from school and work to introducing long black uniforms that cover them from head to toe. Having grown up in Kabul since 2001, when the Taliban were deposed, I never imagined a return to the days when women were forced to stay home because of their gender.

When I was working as a journalist based in Kabul between 2011 and 2017, the media was the last hope for dissidents. Now the media, which continue to expose wrongdoing, have turned into dissidents. Today, making an editorial decision in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is literally making a decision about life and death.

In our small newsroom at Rukhshana Media, an all-women news website, one recurrent concern is how to tell a story with minimum risk to the people involved. The journalist is often the first to face the consequences of his or her work.

Journalism under the Taliban

Afghanistan has never been a safe country for journalists but, after 2001, the nascent Afghan media were freer than media in neighbouring countries.

Now they can hardly function without getting visits and calls from the new rulers in charge – the group that labelled the media a military target and continued to threaten them before coming to power in mid-August.

Media outlets are closing and journalists are being arrested, tortured and being forced to go on the run.

On 14 August, the day before Kabul fell, Mujeeb Khalwatgar, executive director of the Afghan media advocacy group Nai, told me his organisation had heard from journalists in Baghlan, Kandahar and Herat provinces that the Taliban were searching for them.

The same day, I talked to a young journalist from the north-eastern province of Badakhshan who said his name was on the Taliban’s blacklist. He was hiding outside Fayzabad, the provincial capital.

Days before the Taliban took Fayzabad, one of his female colleagues was attacked by a man who covered his face. She survived the attack, but they were worried whether they could survive the new regime.

I talked to several women reporters from the provinces who sought shelter in Kabul as the Taliban took over, hoping to leave the country on evacuation flights. Many of them didn’t make it.

In early November, a 24-year-old-woman, one of only three female journalists in an entire province – who asked me not to name the province – said she was on a Taliban blacklist, according to a relative who was working with the militants. The radio station she worked for was among more than 150 media outlets forced to close because of Taliban-imposed restrictions and the economic crisis a month after Kabul fell.

As the breadwinner of a family of nine, the change in rulers meant she not only lost her job but is on the run for her life, simply for being a woman journalist. In the past two months, she has been forced to change her place of residence seven times to hide from the Taliban.

Women journalists are disappearing

An Afghan female journalist attends a Taliban news conference. Photo REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Two weeks after the Taliban’s return to power, Reporters Without Borders warned that “women journalists are in the process of disappearing from the capital”. The organisation noted that, of about 700 women journalists with jobs in Kabul, more than 600 had not returned to work. Some fled while others were forced to stay at home or go into hiding.

Our investigation at Rukhshana Media shows that there are no women journalists in radio or TV working in the western provinces of Herat, Farah, Badghis and Ghor.

The systematic removal of women from the media landscape is not the only immediate consequence of the Taliban’s return to power. Just three weeks after their takeover, the militants arrested 14 journalists, with at least nine of them subjected to violence during their detention, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Among those detained were an editor and four other journalists at Etilaat Roz, a newspaper that was a winner of Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Award in 2020. Two of them were tortured by the Taliban and needed hospital treatment.

Today, journalists – both men and women – are still on the run. In November, I talked to a 31-year-old journalist who for the past eight years has been an investigative reporter for local print and online outlets. Since 15 August, he has been on the run with his family of four, having spent nights in five different places. He is particularly worried about his investigations into the Taliban-run religious schools.

“No one is listening to my calls for help, no one. I am just hoping the Taliban don’t catch me alive,” he said.

Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch have issued warnings about the Taliban censorship of media, especially their “media regulations” which require journalists and media not to produce content “contrary to Islam” and not to report on “matters that have not been confirmed by officials”.

The chief editor of a radio station in Kabul who, despite not having a passport, attempted (unsuccessfully) to get on an evacuation flight out of the country in late August, told me his story. Now he is back at work, where, in one month, the Taliban have visited his office four times. Twice when his colleagues used the word “Taliban” instead of “the Islamic Emirate”, he received calls warning him to be careful with the choice of words.

He says his radio station, like all other Afghan media outlets, is under the Taliban’s scrutiny. Three of his colleagues in other provinces have been ordered by provincial officials to send their news first to the Taliban before it is signed off for broadcast.

With reliable sources of information having dried up and journalists either on the run or operating in an environment of fear, censorship and self-censorship, it is becoming harder to be a journalist.

The new environment creates opportunities for the circulation of false stories and propaganda on social media. Lately, it has become difficult to distinguish between real news and propaganda. Many on social media, including some journalists, are propagating stories that correspond with their biases and social and political prejudices which then will be used by some international media to verify their own assumptions and biases.

Fake news

Exposing false and misleading stories has been one of the primary goals of our team at Rukhshana Media, where we investigated two stories directly connected to misinformation and staged reporting in the past two months.

Many news outlets reported that Mahjabin Hakimi, a 25-year-old professional volleyball player, was beheaded by the Taliban. The reports were based entirely on the claim of her coach in Kabul’s volleyball club who spoke under a pseudonym. But our investigation, in which we interviewed five sources, including her parents and a friend who was present the day her body was found, showed that she died on 6 August – nine days before the Taliban took over Kabul.

In the second story, several people connected to the family of a nine-year-old girl featured in CNN’s bombshell report on child marriage told Rukhshana Media the report was invented.

Our reporters are working on the ground to bring women’s stories to the surface of a male-dominated Afghan media. In the past months, we have partnered with two international newsrooms, The Guardian and The Fuller Project, which has helped amplify the voice of Afghan women to wider audiences outside the country.

With women journalists remaining at risk, we are trying to create opportunities for them to continue their work and tell the stories of women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where they are banned from work and education and have no idea when they will be able to return to public life.