Desperation mounts for Afghanistan’s persecuted journalists

“The situation has not changed, the Taliban didn’t change. They are not allowing journalists, especially women journalists, to work, and any output is censored by the Taliban.” These were the words of Afghan journalist Ali Bezhad, who spoke to Index for our Spring 2023 magazine issue after escaping the country and relocating to Germany. Since then a year has passed, but Bezhad’s words still ring true. Journalists in Afghanistan remain under constant threat of persecution by the Taliban, a situation which has been ongoing since the group regained power in 2021.

This has not gone unnoticed at Index. In February this year, we received an email from another Afghan journalist who feared for their life and safety (and in March, a similar one via Signal). M. Yousufi told Index of her experience of being targeted by the Taliban for her work and having to regularly change location. She said that in recent years, several of her family and friends have been “arrested, tortured or killed”.

“I have continuously been active against the ideas of the Taliban and other extremist groups, and therefore my activities are considered to promote prostitution and blasphemy,” she explained. “My work and activities have been completely censored.”

Yousufi describes her journalism as being focussed on women’s and minority rights, freedom of speech, social justice and the crimes of the Taliban.

“I have dedicated my whole life to freedom of speech to be the voice of the people of society, especially the oppressed women of Afghanistan,” she said.

Having previously been arrested and detained overnight by the Taliban, as well as being subjected to violence and harassment, she said it is no longer possible for her to continue working in the media.

“The increasing restrictions and threats from the Taliban and other extremist groups and Islamic fundamentalists stopped my activity,” she said.

This is not an isolated incident. Over the past year, calls for action have been routinely made to address the situation facing media workers in Afghanistan. In June 2023, an expert panel hosted by Index’s Editor-at-large Martin Bright saw Zahra Joya, an exiled Afghan journalist and founder of Rukhshana Media, and Zehra Zaidi, a lawyer and advocate for Action for Afghanistan, discussing the plight of journalists in the state and urging the UK to do more.

In October 2023, freelance journalist Mortaza Behboudi spoke out for the first time about his experience of spending nine months in an Afghan prison after being charged with spying and assisting border crossings.

“I felt as though I’d been kidnapped,” he told Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “There was no trial, nothing, no future. I was harassed all the time. They used to hit me.”

The Afghanistan Journalists Centre (AFJC) has documented the alarming rise in attacks on journalists since the Taliban took over power. In their 2023 Annual Report on Media Freedom in Afghanistan, the organisation found that over the last year, media workers in Afghanistan have encountered significant obstacles and infringements on their rights, limiting their capacity to function effectively, and recorded 75 incidents of journalists being detained or threatened in this time. Press freedom under the Taliban is clearly heavily restricted across the board, but although all journalists face threats to their safety, women are at much greater risk. In April 2023, we spoke to the editor-in-chief of the Zan Times, Zahra Nader, who explained that the laws preventing women from reporting effectively are not always specific to female journalists, but are a result of the intersection of being both female and a journalist.

This was further demonstrated in February this year with the Taliban’s warning that if women did not adhere to certain guidelines regarding their appearance while working in media then they may issue a complete ban on women working in the industryRSF responded to this by detailing their alarm at the “worrying increase in the restrictions imposed on journalists, with authoritarian directives on women journalists’ dress, restrictions on women’s access to the audiovisual media and a ban on filming or photographing Taliban officials”.

Cries for help continue to be made. Last month, during the 68th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women – an annual meeting for UN states to discuss gender equality – four Afghan women journalists were interviewed by International Media Support (IMS). One of the interviewees, who remained anonymous for safety reasons, said: “After three difficult and unjust years [under the Taliban], I have become a fighting girl, a photographer trying to showcase the beauty of Afghan girls, and a journalist trying to be the voice of thousands of girls.”

Afghan journalist and women’s rights activist Faranaz Forotan also spoke at the event. “In Afghanistan, being a female journalist is an endless act of bravery,” she told the committee.

“Women journalists have changed the narrative of journalism in Afghanistan and today, with the least resources, they strive to preserve and nurture freedom of expression in Afghanistan.”

These examples all point to a situation which is growing steadily more precarious, as journalists in Afghanistan are targeted and brutally silenced for their work. A year on from Index’s call for action, the only change we’ve seen is for the worse.

New online platform provides free education to girls in Afghanistan

It is accepted around the world that children and young people have a right to education. But for girls in Afghanistan, this is not the case. 

In 2021, the Taliban seized power after launching a military offensive which lasted three and a half months. One of the first measures they imposed was a ban on girls over the age of 12 returning to school. A year later, they extended this ban to include universities, leaving millions of Afghan girls without any access to higher education at all. 

Accessing education was already a struggle prior to the Taliban’s return to power due to the scarcity and inadequacy of learning facilities for girls. It is estimated that 30% of girls in the country have never even entered primary school. Now, in light of the current ban, receiving education beyond this will be close to impossible.

The Begum Academy has been launched in an attempt to combat this.

The Begum Academy is an online platform aimed at female students from seventh to twelfth grade, which offers the entire Afghan curriculum free of charge by subject based on the official school books from the Ministry of Education. The idea behind the initiative is that girls will be able to teach themselves the Afghan school curriculum from their own homes in order to improve their future prospects even if they aren’t allowed to physically attend school.

A spokesperson for the organisation, who preferred not to be named, spoke to Index about the importance of this movement for a country with the lowest ranking for women’s inclusion, justice and security in the world.

“If you take into account Covid and the Taliban in power at the moment, girls have been out of school for basically five years,” he explained.

“The idea is to give them hope. To be a girl in Afghanistan today is hell. There’s absolutely no future. The idea for us is to say okay, you’re forbidden to go to school, you’re not forbidden to learn.”

The platform contains more than 8,000 videos from a team of teachers and producers covering the entire school curriculum in Dari and Pashto, chapter by chapter, which took many months to put together. 

“Recording videos, editing them, working the content. It’s an enormous task,” admitted the Begum Academy correspondent. “Everybody told us that it was crazy, that it was impossible. We decided to go for it.”

The group is also endeavouring to break down other barriers faced by those in Afghanistan who want to learn, such as the lack of internet access in a number of homes across the country. They note that this is an issue they are actively “working on” to try and ensure that as many girls as possible are able to access the resources provided.

This is a sizeable task. Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 2021, internet connection in the state has been limited. Gallup’s 2022 World Poll found that just 15% of the Afghan population said they have access to the internet. This is potentially due to costs of Wi-Fi or electronics considering more than 90% of the country’s population is affected by poverty.

There is also a significant gender disparity when it comes to internet access, with only 6% of women having access compared to 25% of men. Those living in cities were also more likely to use the internet than those in rural areas. 

Thankfully, the Taliban do not seem to have any plans to ban the internet completely. They even use the internet, which they previously rallied against due to their suspicions of what they deemed to be Western technology, to communicate with the world on social media.

According to a 2023 report by the Atlantic Council, the approximate $77 million in taxes collected by the Afghan government from internet and mobile phone operators since taking over is a crucial source of income. The Taliban have even announced plans to upgrade to 4G networks – a hopeful sign on the internet access front.

However, the Taliban have also been accused of limiting internet access for their own gain, allegedly suspending connectivity in Kabul and other areas on a regular basis in order to curb opposition, as well as blocking millions of websites for “immoral” content. There is therefore a fear that even if internet access is available, the militant group can restrict the content available on it. 

Nonprofit group Access Now, who advocate for digital rights, warns that even those who can access Google in Afghanistan are restricted by the fear of surveillance due to the ability of the Taliban to monitor browser history. Debilitating internet speeds and frequent power cuts may also hinder proceedings.

Despite concerns about the accessibility of the platform in the long-term, the overall feeling regarding the Begum Academy’s launch is positive today.

“We still have a lot of things to do, but I think this project can genuinely help,” the platform’s spokesperson said. “Once the word has spread, and it’s started already on social media, we can expect something quite big.”

You can find the Begum Academy here: 

You can also access online materials on their YouTube channels: (Pashto) (Dari)

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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.”