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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For five days after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban insurgency, Mariam (not her real name) didn’t leave her house. As a professional athlete, this was very unusual. However, 23-year-old Mariam is also one of the city’s up and coming journalists and staying at home did not feel right.
The militant group, known for their regressive ideology and restricting women’s rights and freedoms, had forced many Afghan women to retreat in to the shelter of their homes in the days following the siege. But Mariam had enough. “I wanted to get back to work. I wanted to get out,” she said.
So on Friday, an otherwise normal day off in Kabul, Mariam decided to go to her workplace, a newsroom in the centre of the city. “Around 11.45 am, as I was getting into the car, I got a call from an unknown number. I answered it and the man on the other line, asked, ‘Are you Mariam?’ and I froze in my tracks.”
“He sounded friendly, as though we might have been old friends,” she said.
But something about his voice made her very uncomfortable. Still, she replied, “Yes I am.” He then asked her, “Do you know me?” and she replied, “I don’t and I don’t have your number saved either. Who is this?”
Without answering her question, the man continued, this time in a much less friendly tone. “He identified the location of my office and asked if I worked there. I was so scared, I didn’t reply. He then said, ‘We [the Taliban] are coming for you’ and I immediately hung up and put my phone on airplane mode.”
Mariam is not alone.
In her short career as a journalist and TV presenter, ‘Marzia’ has received many threats from insurgents as well as fundamentalist groups who disapprove of her work in the media. As a woman and as a member of Afghanistan’s persecuted Hazara ethnic group, she was no stranger to threats, but they were always a world away from her vibrant and empowered life in Kabul. Until, that is, the country fell into the hands of the Taliban on 15 August.
‘Fauzia’, another Afghan female journalist, said: “Of course there were challenges of being a journalist in Afghanistan; it was never easy. But I could deal with those because we had platforms, and more importantly, we had the media, to help us fight for our rights.” Fauzia is currently on the run due to the threats she has received.
The Taliban seized control of the majority of the country earlier this month, including the capital. The Afghan president along with many top government officials were forced to flee after being asked to resign on the pretext of creating a transitional government. The militants, however, have taken control of the capital and large parts of the country creating panic and chaos among those who have been outspoken critics of the Taliban.
Since the fall, there has been a rush of Afghans trying to escape the country to avoid persecution from the Taliban who are known to be vengeful. The Journalists in Distress (JID) network, a collaborative effort of media support organisations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) are working in collaboration to evacuate Afghan journalists to safety.
Nadine Hoffman, deputy director of the IWMF said: “The race to evacuate Afghan media workers and their families has been the most challenging and complex emergency the press freedom community has faced. Conditions on the ground, particularly at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, have made this gargantuan task feel at times insurmountable.”
“Those individuals we are supporting to evacuate have faced extreme physical duress; they have been beaten, shot at, and threatened in their homes by the Taliban. It is heartbreaking to watch this tragedy unfold. Women journalists voices in Afghanistan are being silenced.”
In a statement on Monday, the CPJ shared that they had registered and vetted the cases of nearly 400 journalists in need of evacuation, and is reviewing thousands of additional requests. Other organisations have similarly large lists of media persons seeking safe passage out of Kabul.
In a press conference held the day after the fall, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid assured that media will remain independent but said the journalists “should not work against national values”. However, despite the group’s assurance of a full amnesty to those who work in media and the previous government, Afghan journalists do not trust the terror group with a history of violence against the Afghan media.
Already, several journalists have reported being threatened by Taliban members across the country. Meanwhile, the CPJ also documented multiple attacks on the press from the Taliban in the last week, including physical attacks. A female state TV anchor was also forced off the air, underlining the Taliban’s lack of commitment to protecting the rights of journalists.
Several at-risk journalists shared that the Taliban had been visiting their homes collecting information on “those who worked with infidels” and warned that action would be taken later, implying this would happen after the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.
“We knew sooner or later they would come looking for us so we destroyed all our documents, certificates and IDs that show our work with the Americans,” said a journalist from Nangarhar province, ‘Sahar’. “It was the body of my lifetime of achievements, and I set it all on fire,” she added, the grief evident in her voice.
However, it did little good, as the Taliban came to Sahar’s neighbourhood armed with biometrics devices seeking to identify people with data that was shared with the previous government. “They haven’t come to our house yet. I know they will kill me. They have already killed some of my friends,” referring to the journalists assassinated in March in Jalalabad.
Sahar’s fears are not unfounded. Taliban fighters killed the relative of a Deutsche Welle (DW) journalist on Thursday, while looking for him during a similar door-to-door search as described by Sahar. “They shot dead one member of his family and seriously injured another,” DW reported.
Earlier this month, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Toofan Omar, the owner of Paktia Ghag Radio. Officials in Kabul said Omar was targeted by the Taliban due to his work.
Last month, the group killed and mutilated the body of Danish Siddiqui, an Indian journalist working with Reuters, in Spin Boldak in Kandahar province.
Notably, of the total seven journalists killed in Afghanistan this year, four have been women, highlighting the increased risks women in media like Mariam, Fauzia and Sahar face. Already, earlier this year, the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee reported that nearly 20 per cent of Afghan women quit the media due to the threats they faced. The Afghan media watchdog reported that at least nine provinces in the country had no female journalists employed in the media, essentially depriving women’s voices and presence in the national debate.
These figures are feared to have risen considerably in the last week. “Soon there will be no one left to tell the story of Afghanistan,” Fauzia remarked.
After the call Mariam received on Friday, she made a decision she never thought she would ever have to make. Choking back tears, she said. “I decided to leave my homeland; a country I had previously wanted to serve.”
“I went back home, packed a small bag and left for the airport with my sister. We got on the first plane they [offered]. I don’t even know where we are going but I know we can’t live there.”
[All names of journalists in this article have been changed to protect their identities.][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117075″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]I was on a conference call with my colleague Ajmal Omari a while ago when we were briefly interrupted by what seemed like static. The disruption was no more than the usual challenges of internet connectivity one faces while working in Afghanistan, and we continued our conversation.
After the call, Ajmal texted me to inform me that the “interruptions” were actually a number of BM-1 rockets hitting the neighbourhood of his office. While he and his colleagues survived the attack, there was considerable damage to their building and vehicles parked outside. For Ajmal, a dedicated, talented Afghan reporter and journalist, this was yet another close call.
Despite much progress in the area of free speech and expression, particularly in the years that followed the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a high-risk country for the journalists who work here. The risk is exacerbated for local reporters who face threats not only from the insurgent groups, but also from the strongmen and war lords that have gained power and influence in the country over the last two decades.
The situation has worsened since the US-initiated political settlement in 2019. The eventual deal that the US administration struck with the Taliban in February 2020 saw the start of a new chapter in violence in Afghanistan, one that was more bloody than anything this generation of Afghans had experienced.
Targeted violence, much of it coming from an emboldened Taliban, saw a spike in assassinations of civil activists, government officials and Afghan journalists. According to Human Rights Watch, “Taliban commanders and fighters have engaged in a pattern of threats, intimidation, and violence against members of the media”. At least 11 Afghan journalists were killed in 2020, and five more have been murdered this year, four of them women. Many others, in the meanwhile, have had several “close calls” like the one Ajmal witnessed.
Several journalists who have faced threats are seeking safe spaces in other countries, while those who can’t leave find themselves displaced internally. Over the last year, I have met and interviewed many Afghan journalists who are on the constant move to be able to survive the threats they face in their provinces. The violent threats they face are not only inhuman, but also a major blow to the Afghanistan’s free press.
One such journalist is Habibullah Sarwary, who has worked as a journalist for a decade and half in one of the most dangerous, albeit vibrant, places on Earth. Sarwary, whose name I have changed to protect his identity, is now in exile from his home in southern Afghanistan.
“I have covered everything, from war to development; I have exposed corrupt warlords and documented the rise of insurgency in the country. I have also reported on the more beautiful side of Afghanistan and its culture. But now I am a marked man,” Sarwary told me. While Sarwary is no stranger to threats arising from his profession, the murder of a colleague at the hands of the insurgent group forced him to take the threats more seriously.
Today, Sarwary is a displaced man, seeking to go home to his family. “I can’t return because the Taliban leaders have threaten to kill me if I do. My family has tried to negotiate with them but they won’t let me return,” he said, talking from a safe house where he has been holed up for the past 10 months.
As the violence in the south, and across the country, worsens, Sarwary’s hope of returning home fades further. Aside from the mental stress and physical discomfort he faces, Sarwary is also out of a job. “The south was my turf, it is my home and I am most familiar with its issues. Here I can’t do any useful work or make money to support my family back home,” he said. “I have run out of savings, and am surviving on the kindness of friends,” he added, the sadness evident in his voice.
He hopes the warring parties are able negotiate a political settlement that could reduce the violence. However, he urges the Taliban to allow him to return to his home so he can document the historical changes taking place in Afghanistan. “I should be there right now telling the story of Afghanistan,” he said.
There seems to be next to no hope of improvement in the near future. In the last three months, the withdrawal of US and Nato forces has furthered invigorated the Taliban who have launched increased military attacks on many districts across the country. Afghan journalists are risking their lives to report on these violent developments and often get targeted by warring parties who do not always provide the press the immunity they should.
The situation is worse for women in media, who not only face threats from the insurgent but also from the fundamentalist elements in society who disapprove of them. A recent report by the Afghan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC) revealed that over 300 women in media—18 per cent of the total number of the country’s female press—quit journalism in a span of six months in 2020, reducing an already small community to the fringes of extinction.
The AJSC report also noted that nine of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan did not have a single female journalist employed by a news service. In a country where many social spaces remain gender-segregated, lack of women’s presence in media essentially means that women’s voices, concerns and issues from these areas are excluded from the national debate and discussions, not very unlike the days of the Taliban regime.
Today, as the Taliban attempts to control more territory and destabilise the rest of the country, Afghan journalists are very concerned over the future of free media in the country—a celebrated gain of the last two decades. Afghan media houses that have flourished since the fall of the Taliban had thrived because of the relatively unregulated media landscape, providing a unique platform for Afghans to vocalise their political, social and cultural diversity.
Their future in the country now remains uncertain, especially in parts where the Taliban already has some control. The insurgent group has never been one to encourage free and inclusive speech, and has often used its military might to suppress vanguards of freedom of expression. In many places, media businesses have already restrained their operations; in other regions they are withdrawing investments. The eventual fall out of this is bound to impact the unbiased, unrestricted flow of critical information. The information blackout will in turn contribute to suppressing civic and social rights of the Afghans.
It has never been more clear than it is now, that increasing attacks on Afghan media are an attempt to trigger an intellectual blackout of an entire generation.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]