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.

Evan Gershkovich: We must be as loud as possible

This Friday, 29 March, marks the one-year anniversary of Russia’s arrest and unlawful detention of my colleague, Evan Gershkovich, of The Wall Street Journal. That’s one year that Evan has been deprived of his basic rights and confined to a cell 23 hours a day, held on a charge of espionage which he, the US government and the Journal vehemently deny. One year that his parents and his sister have been deprived of their son and brother.  And one year since a mass chilling effect descended on the foreign press corps in Russia because of this brazen assault on the freedom of the press.

Evan’s detention is a singular outrage but also part of a much broader pattern. Last year and this year have been brutal for the safety of journalists working to get the facts from dangerous places across the globe, as chronicled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and others.

Even within Russia, Evan is not alone: Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was seized by Russian authorities on a trip to visit her mother and has been in prison since October. Paul Whelan, of course, has been detained there for five years.

After Evan’s arrest, many news outlets withdrew to cover Russia from Berlin, Warsaw and elsewhere given that Vladimir Putin’s regime has made what you and I understand to be fair and independent reporting effectively a crime.

So we are deprived of fact-based news from a country that is central in defining the future for the USA and other democracies. If we don’t stand up and protest against the silencing of the media on such a vital story, when will we decide the time is right to be loud?

We have been making noise for a year now, to ensure we are drawing as much attention as possible to Evan’s predicament and this broader outrage. We did so in part because journalists run at the story. But we also did so because, in the very early days after Evan’s arrest, we received advice from a trusted source that there will be times to be loud and times to be quiet and this was a time to be loud. Put another way, until there is reason to be quiet – which might suggest a sensitive breakthrough is near at hand – be loud.

We also didn’t have a choice. There may be times when quiet diplomacy can be effective to resolve such hostage issues. In our case, the Russian government had publicly accused our innocent colleague of spying, a message we had to counter as forcefully and as quickly as we could.

In that, as in so many other things over the course of the past year, we were greatly aided by outside help.

The White House, the State Department and the US Senate Intelligence Committee immediately made clear Evan – an accredited reporter in Russia – is not a spy. And in the days, weeks and months that followed, we have benefitted hugely from the interest and support of other news organisations, the international community of journalists and well-wishers the world over to keep awareness of Evan’s situation high.

We know that The Wall Street Journal won’t directly negotiate his release – that is the responsibility of governments. But we are convinced keeping Evan in the spotlight will help set the stage for successful negotiations at the right time. We hope that time is very soon.

Within the Journal, we have learned that being loud is a companywide effort. I don’t think there is a department at Dow Jones & Co., the Journal’s parent, that hasn’t in some way been involved.

The company’s leadership, legal team, the newsroom and communications department would be obvious. Less so, maybe, the marketing team, which we rely on to create ads that we and other newspapers have run on milestones such as 100 days of Evan’s incarceration. Or the advertising department, which has used barter ads to push Evan’s cause on social media. Or government affairs, which has launched a campaign of awareness on Capitol Hill in Washington. Or technology and circulation, which have built a page outside of our paywall on so readers can learn about Evan free of charge. Or our Standards team, which ensures that our advocacy work and our news reporting are kept appropriately apart. Or our individual reporters, who have taken it upon themselves to organise runs, swims, read-a-thons and letter-writing campaigns to highlight Evan’s work and interests.

Yet we also realise all this has yet to pay the one dividend that matters: Evan’s safe return.

So on his one-year anniversary we also ask that you take the time to think of Evan, to talk about him, to amplify stories about him with the hashtag #IStandWithEvan, to explore his work at, and to dig in with us so that the light we shine on Evan and the broader cause of press freedom is brighter than ever.

The deadly challenges of reporting on Sudan’s “forgotten war”

Described by The Economist as “The Forgotten War”, the current conflict in Sudan may have escaped the notice of the average news consumer. Beyond headlines of rushed evacuations shortly after the hostility erupted in April 2023 and mastheads warning of an “Afghanistan repeat”, the situation in the north-eastern African nation has rapidly receded from view. Google searches reflect a similar trend: a brief spike in interest when the war began, declining within a couple of weeks and plateauing since. But has the war been “forgotten” or “underreported”?

Reporting on Sudan has been a complex challenge for decades. During the reign of President Omar El-Bashir (1989-2019) Sudan was one of the most difficult media environments in the world, with journalists facing censorship, harassment and imprisonment on a routine basis. The Revolution of 2018/2019 introduced a period of hopeful respite, with the re-establishment of an independent journalist’s union having over a thousand members, hundreds of whom voted for the Syndicate’s formation. However, many of these gains have been lost in the months since April 2023.

Security is one of the primary issues. The simple act of asking questions, or holding a camera, places a target on your back. “Revealing oneself as a journalist is perilous,” said one respondent in a recent survey, a concern echoed widely in the journalistic community. A Unesco supported poll, conducted by NGO Media in Cooperation and Transition in November 2023, revealed more than half of the respondents had experienced physical (53%) and digital (51%) threats. In September 2023, Sudanese Journalists’ Syndicate reported 249 violations against journalists, including murder, in the four months since the outbreak of the war. This number did not include detentions of the team of the Sudan National Broadcasting Corporation, Hala96 FM, Alhurra Channel and RT in Khartoum, due to lack of available data.

Threats are not confined to the reporters themselves, with many journalists’ families also the victims of attacks. In a recent investigation, the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism documented the story of Manal Ali, kidnapped and tortured for her independent reporting into rape incidents in Darfur.

“They had a list…and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) were searching for us by name. They destroyed my house completely,” Manal told the ARIJ. While being held by the RSF, she was severely beaten, tortured and threatened. “We killed some of your family members, and we will torture you by letting you see the rest of your family being killed,” she was told. “Then, killing you will become easy.”

In addition to the critical security situation, even accessing basic utilities presents challenges. The availability of electricity, reliable internet connections and telecom networks cannot be taken for granted, which makes reporting almost impossible. Many journalists have fled to neighbouring countries like Chad, Egypt and Eritrea. For those who stayed, only 23% receive a paycheck, typically under $100 a month.

This is a “sector faced with an existential crisis” said Tawfik Jelassi, Unesco's assistant director-general for communication and information.

In a twisted metaphor, at the outset of the conflict, the premises of the national Radio and Television Corporation were taken over by the RSF and turned into military barracks. Numerous media outlets have closed, and international journalists are having their entry visas into the nation denied. For journalists from the Sudanese diaspora, or with residency in Sudan, entry still requires clearance either from the Sudanese Armed Forces or the RSF, depending on the area in question. This is both difficult to achieve and comes with no guarantee of safety, due to the febrile nature of the conflict.

The high risk for journalists in Sudan has led to a dearth of professional reporting from the ground. In this environment it’s unsurprising that self-censorship is flourishing. Those journalists who remain in the country report either practising self-censorship or dealing with direct requests to modify, delete or publish specific content. It is even becoming challenging to report facts without being seen as “taking a side”.

At the same time as the war has dragged on, journalists who might have ordinarily been reserved about their political inclinations feel like they do have to take a position.

“This war is being framed as a war about the very existence of the Sudanese state,” said veteran journalist Isma’il Kushkush.

It is becoming difficult to find nuanced positions, and the concept of objectivity itself is being challenged by readers. In a conflict that is dividing the nation, even the journalists are being polarised. For citizen journalists, this challenge is even more pronounced, with readers and social media users frequently attacking those sharing news as supporting one of the warring parties.

There are reports of efforts to establish new platforms in Sudan to bolster and enrich the media ecosystem. One such example is the US-based Sudan Broadcasting Corporation, involving Luqman Ahmed, the former head of Sudan Radio and TV Corporation. The SBC joins Radio Dabanga and Sudan Tribune as news sources on Sudan based outside the direct reach of the state. But although a handful of Arabic-language satellite news channels, including Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, continue to report from the ground, the challenges to communicating the events of Sudan’s war to the world are extreme.

“People want to know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy,” said Kushkush. The problem is the complexity of Sudan’s situation eludes a simple narrative. And, in a global context where numerous other conflicts are live and pressing - including Gaza and Ukraine - there is only so far attention spans and resources can stretch.

Still, that can’t be an excuse. In 2023, Sudan topped the International Rescue Committee’s Emergency Watchlist, analysing countries “most likely to experience a deteriorating humanitarian crisis”. This month, the Clingendael Institute reported that looming famine means most likely “seven million people will face catastrophic levels of hunger by June 2024…and a half million people will die.”

At the end of the day, whatever the complexities, “it’s a human story” as Kushkush said. “The tragedy of displacement and death.”

Argentina’s Milei ushers in atrocity denialism, trolling and attacks on the media

After far-right economist Javier Milei won Argentina’s presidency on Sunday night, it didn’t take him long to set his sights on the media.

"Public television has become a propaganda mechanism,” he told journalist Eduardo Feinmann of Radio Mitre in his first interview on Monday morning. “[...] I don’t believe in those practices of having a covert propaganda ministry. It must be privatised.”

Milei won Sunday’s presidential run-off election with 56% of the vote. His opponent Sergio Massa, economy minister and candidate for the ruling centre-left Union for the Homeland coalition, got 44%. Massa’s defeat came as Argentina suffers through a drawn-out economic crisis: inflation is running at 143% and just over 40% of the population are living in poverty. Neither the current ruling alliance nor the right-wing administration that preceded it have been able to turn things around.

In this context, the libertarian’s victory is a shocking rejection of politics as usual - but his election has been hotly controversial in Argentina. Milei is an outsider whose brash, abrasive populism has drawn comparisons with far-right former presidents Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. He enjoyed a vertiginous rise to the limelight as an eccentric TV pundit espousing ultra-libertarian views, and had never held elected office until he was voted in as a deputy in 2021. As president, he promises to dollarize Argentina’s economy, liberalise gun controls, privatise healthcare and hold a referendum on abortion, which was legalised in 2020.

As he surged to the forefront of national politics, Milei shouted at reporters, refused to do interviews with critical outlets and accused the media of lying. Online, his supporters insulted and harassed journalists, activists, women, LGBTQAI+ people and anyone else who spoke against their leader.

Now, faced with four years of a Milei presidency, onlookers worry his coalition will move to silence critical media, intimidate dissenting voices and embolden elements of the extreme right who deny the atrocities committed by Argentina’s last civic-military dictatorship.

Lucas “Fauno” Gutiérrez, a queer, HIV-positive activist and journalist, is already receiving thousands of hate messages from hordes of pro-Milei trolls on his social media, and fears the situation will worsen when he takes office. “Once they’ve installed that hate speech, we communicators think twice before saying many things,” he said. “You don’t always have the emotional momentum to deal with 700 messages attacking, insulting and threatening you.”

Some of the most disturbing threats involve Argentina’s last dictatorship. Under the military junta that ruled the country from 1976-1983, 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured and murdered, many of them thrown alive from aeroplanes into the River Plate in the “death flights”.

The scale of the violence and the difficulties reporting disappearances mean it’s impossible to reach an exact figure, but the number of victims is widely accepted by human rights groups in Argentina. However, Milei’s vice president-elect, Victoria Villarruel, campaigns on narratives that seek to play down and exonerate atrocities committed by the security forces. She has repeated the denialist claim that the true number of victims is far lower, a statement Milei echoed during a televised presidential debate. A lawyer by training, she has defended former members of the security forces accused of crimes against humanity. Before his death, she also visited former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in jail.

In this context, some Milei supporters have taken to threatening those they disagree with by sending them photos of green Ford Falcons with no licence plates - the vehicle the dictatorship’s security forces used to abduct their victims.

“The green Ford Falcon means endorsing the disappearance, torture and extremely violent death of all those who opposed the dictatorship,” said Beatriz Busaniche, president of the human rights and technology foundation, Vía Libre. She described Milei and Villarruel’s denialism as “re-legitimising” discourse that was widely discredited in Argentine society.

“There’s been a retreat of public discourse,” she said. “The sphere of public debate has become so aggressive that many people have started to lock their accounts and leave social media.”

Despite his promises, it is not clear whether Milei would be able to privatise Argentina’s public media, because doing so would require changing the law that governs them, explained Agus Lecchi, secretary general of the SiPreBA journalists’ union, who works for Argentina’s Televisión Pública. That means it would have to pass through Argentina’s congress. Milei’s Freedom Advances coalition will not have a majority in either the deputies or the senate.

Nonetheless, Argentina’s public media have come under fire from hostile governments before: in 2018, right-wing President Mauricio Macri’s administration attempted to lay off 68 journalists at the state news agency, Télam, although all were reincorporated after a labour court found their dismissals to be illegal.

“TV Pública plays a fundamental role for Argentine democracy, not just with regard to pluralist information, but also in terms of coverage of situations across the country,” Lecchi said. “In some corners of the country, TV Pública, National Radio or [state news agency] Télam are all they receive.”

While his comments on Monday took aim at Argentina’s state-owned media, Milei would also have tools in his arsenal to pressure private media. Many Argentine outlets, especially small local and independent media, rely largely on state advertising revenue to stay afloat. Politically-motivated allocation of this budget can exert pressure on the media.

Gutiérrez believes that major social media platforms like Meta and X (formerly Twitter) have a duty to stop hate speech, but worries that they often hold back because the floods of abuse he receives drive engagement. “My emotional life, my mental health and our freedom of expression can’t be subordinated to engagement,” he said.

In October, the government passed the “Olympia Law”, which recognises digital attacks such as doxxing, revenge porn and threats or harassment as a form of gender-based violence. If enforced, its proponents hope it would serve to dissuade some of the worst online attacks. However, Milei has already said that he plans to shut down Argentina’s Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, along with most other government ministries.

A bill currently under discussion in Congress also aims to prevent people who deny the dictatorship’s crimes from holding public office, but with the change of government in less than three weeks, it’s unclear whether the bill will become law.

To Busaniche, faced with a president who many say represents antipolitics, the first line of defence could be politics itself. “Congress will oblige him to negotiate,” she said. “Unlike what many Milei voters might expect, the importance of politics will be central.”