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.

Pressing refresh: Meet the women owning the internet

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”101103″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Cultural stereotyping, extremism, a patriarchal society, a deficit of safe and secure educational environments, verbal and sexual harassment. These are the terms that Fereshteh Forough, founder of Afghanistan’s first ever coding school for girls uses to describe what women face in her country every day.

This repression continued after the fall of the Taliban in 2011, the Code to Inspire CEO told Index on Censorship, and still “prevents women from participating in many social activities outside of their hometown”.

Forough is working to open up online spaces for women and hopes that in doing so these digital freedoms will break down social and economic barriers in Afghanistan. Code to Inspire’s first school opened in Afghanistan in 2015 and teaches girls how to programme. By empowering young women Forough hopes to carve a way through the digital space, which mirrors the male-dominated spaces of their lives, so they can participate in the economic market in Afghanistan and gain independence. “Knowledge is power and technology is the tool for empowerment,” she said.

Harnessing technology is a way, Forough believes, of liberating women in all aspects of their lives. It is a way of using progress to combat regression. “Looking at the technology and how it enables people to cross borders without geographical boundaries and share their stories is such an empowering tool,” she explains.

“For an Afghan woman who can not commute due to family restrictions or safety reasons to other cities or outside, it can help her to explore the world virtually, get connected to the people outside of Afghanistan and feel more confident.”


Internet use in Pakistan and Afghanistan is far from straightforward and being a woman makes it even harder.

Internet access in Afghanistan has much improved since the fall of the Taliban. Yet despite the current government’s recognition of the tool as important for the country’s development, problems remain. The CIA factbook reported in 2016 that only an estimated 10.6% of the country’s population had access to the internet. The National Unity Government is working to end gender inequality and there are more women holding positions of power than at any other time in history. 27.7% of seats in parliament are held by women. But according to Global Rights Study, 87% of women experience physical, sexual or psychological violence in their lives. Stigma still surrounds female education despite rising numbers in school attendance.

Freedom House concluded in their 2017 Freedom of the Net report that Pakistan’s internet is “not free”. Starting in June 2016, Pakistan’s mobile internet service was shut off for more than a year in Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The internet has been shut down several other times at politically divisive moments. As the country comes up to an election this year, Freedom House predicts internet shutdowns and for political speech to be restricted online.

The country’s first comprehensive cybercrime act was passed in 2016 by the National Assembly and Senate, enabling censorship and surveillance. Alongside infrastructure limitations, taxes on the internet are high and prevent the majority of the population from connecting. Many rural areas remain offline due to ongoing conflict or underdevelopment.

“Women are being excluded from the digital revolution”

While progress may be slow and the internet unstable, going online presents fresh possibilities and challenges for women in these neighbouring countries. As new technologies clash with historically patriarchal cultures, being connected means being seen. Being plugged in provides greater scope for education and potential participation in an ever-expanding jobs market. Online spaces, ideally, enable democratic discussion and freedom of expression. But in societies where independent women can be regarded as shameful, prejudice inevitably follows them into online spaces.

Mats Granryd, director general of the UN’s Working Group on the Gender Digital Divide said in their 2017 report: “Mobile is the dominant platform for internet access in many parts of the world. The issue is that while mobile connectivity is spreading quickly, it is not spreading equally.” Oliver Rowntree reported from GSMA’s Connected Women’s Study 2018: “Women are being excluded from the digital revolution. Only 10% of women in Pakistan use mobile internet compared to 26% of men.”

Access to technology and autonomy online are difficult, however. Access is often monitored by male family members or connections. Some women are fatally endangered through online activity.

In 2016 Qandeel Baloch died after being strangled by her brother for her social media presence. In his confession, he said: “Girls are born only to stay at home and to bring honour to the family by following family traditions.” Online harassment is rife and further discourages women from accessing information communication technologies, especially with social support in such situations unlikely.  

“The digital divide between men and women in Pakistan is among the highest in the world as a result of religious, social, and cultural restrictions on women owning devices,” Freedom House’s report outlines. Militant Islamic attacks have also been carried out on internet cafes for encouraging moral corruption.

Professor Deborah Wheeler has lectured throughout the Middle East and Europe about her research into the internet’s impacts on women. She currently works in the United States Naval Academy’s Political Science Department. Wheeler is passionate about the potential for technology to empower women everywhere.

She tells Index on Censorship: “Given social constraints on women’s movement, participation in public life, dress, expectations and voice in the Muslim world, digital communication gives women tools with which to create change on issues which directly affect their lives.”

While censorship and punishment for violating media laws by directly opposing the government online do occur, what I find more interesting and more promising as a force for change in women’s lives, are the kinds of widespread experimentation with voice and agency taking place in everyday life.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_raw_html]JTNDZGl2JTIwc3R5bGUlM0QlMjJtYXgtd2lkdGglM0E4NTRweCUyMiUzRSUzQ2RpdiUyMHN0eWxlJTNEJTIycG9zaXRpb24lM0FyZWxhdGl2ZSUzQmhlaWdodCUzQTAlM0JwYWRkaW5nLWJvdHRvbSUzQTU2LjI1JTI1JTIyJTNFJTNDaWZyYW1lJTIwc3JjJTNEJTIyaHR0cHMlM0ElMkYlMkZlbWJlZC50ZWQuY29tJTJGdGFsa3MlMkZuaWdoYXRfZGFkX2hvd19wYWtpc3Rhbmlfd29tZW5fYXJlX3Rha2luZ190aGVfaW50ZXJuZXRfYmFjayUyMiUyMHdpZHRoJTNEJTIyODU0JTIyJTIwaGVpZ2h0JTNEJTIyNDgwJTIyJTIwc3R5bGUlM0QlMjJwb3NpdGlvbiUzQWFic29sdXRlJTNCbGVmdCUzQTAlM0J0b3AlM0EwJTNCd2lkdGglM0ExMDAlMjUlM0JoZWlnaHQlM0ExMDAlMjUlMjIlMjBmcmFtZWJvcmRlciUzRCUyMjAlMjIlMjBzY3JvbGxpbmclM0QlMjJubyUyMiUyMGFsbG93ZnVsbHNjcmVlbiUzRSUzQyUyRmlmcmFtZSUzRSUzQyUyRmRpdiUzRSUzQyUyRmRpdiUzRQ==[/vc_raw_html][vc_column_text]Time for change

Like Forough, Nighat Dad, who runs Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation, is trying to enable just that. A digital rights lawyer and activist in Pakistan, she is fighting against women’s exclusion from online spaces and working to ensure safety online. She told TED: “It’s how patriarchal norms treat women in offline spaces, and the same mindset is true in online spaces.”

Dad explains that her family forbade her from having a phone as a young woman. Her husband, from whom she is divorced, allowed her to have a phone but it was so strictly monitored she says it felt more like a surveillance device. She founded the Digital Rights Foundation, which like Code to Inspire was shortlisted for a 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Fellowship, in 2012 to defend women’s rights online. They  recently established a helpline for women experiencing harassment online.

Women, who make up only 20-25% of internet users in the country, are regularly subjected to revenge porn, harassment, blackmail, privacy violations and more. As a result, they retreat from online spaces. Dad wants to prevent this silencing of women’s voices.

The DRF said: “Digital Rights Foundation envisions a place where all people, and especially women, are able to exercise their right of expression without being threatened.”


Thanks to the courage and persistence of women like Forough and Dad, things are changing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Forough is not letting a lack of resources hold her back. Sometimes you don’t have the available resources to succeed,” she said. “As a refugee born, I learned to be scrappy and resourceful. Change is possible, no matter who or where you are!”

Over email, she quotes Rumi. “‘Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.’ From the ruins of a shattered nation and shattered lives of refugees can come treasure, if we know where to find it. We hope to empower this generation of young women in Afghanistan with technology so that the next generation will be peacebuilders and not war makers.”

Women like Nighat and Fereshteh are forging a new future for women, both online and off. Nighat tells Index on Censorship she hopes for “A future where women don’t have to fight for the rights they were born with, a future that is without discrimination and is safe, inclusive and free for everyone.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”Digital Freedom” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”4883″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

#IndexAwards2018: Digital Rights Foundation protects women from cyber-harassment

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=””][vc_column_text]The Digital Rights Foundation based in Pakistan have been nominated for its work on a cyber-harassment helpline which was set up a year ago and has supported more than a thousand women.2018 Freedom of Expression Awards link

It is the first service of its kind in Pakistan and helps women report cyber-harassment regardless of where they live in the country. The helpline is important because it is an innovative and practical way of challenging women’s exclusion from online spaces and bolstering women’s rights to freedom of expression. 

DRF was founded by digital rights activist Nighat Dad. As well as the helpline, the organisation provides training for women in online harassment, carries out advocacy work for a safe internet and raises awareness of digital security and censorship issues.

“Digital Rights Foundation envisions a place where all people, and especially women, are able to exercise their right of expression without being threatened,” said DRF. “We believe that free internet with access to information and impeccable privacy policies can encourage such a healthy and productive environment that would eventually help not only women, but the world at large”.

The impetus behind the helpline was the murder last summer of the Pakistani social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch who had a million followers and lived in a small provincial town in Punjab.

She was killed by her brother for her sexually confident posts on Facebook, posts which would be normal in Western countries. In small town conservative Pakistani society, dominated by religious leaders they caused outrage.

While Baloch’s was an extreme case, women online – who make up only 20 to 25% of the online population –  routinely face bullying including revenge porn,​ ​blackmail, impersonation,​ ​non-consensual​ ​usage​ ​of​ ​personal information,​ ​privacy​ ​violations and other kinds of ​harassment. Women are afraid to report how badly they are treated and so react by withdrawing from online spaces.

This silencing of female voices and the exclusion of women from social media and other sites, which mirrors the exclusion of women from public spaces and public life generally in Pakistan, is a significant threat to freedom of expression.

The support team includes a qualified psychologist, digital security expert, and trained lawyer, all of whom provide specialised assistance. The helpline helps women, children, human rights defenders, minority communities and anyone who might feel unsafe in digital spaces. It receives around 80 calls a month, and 60% of the requests for help are from women. Quite a few are also from men seeking advice on behalf of women.

Staff ensure victims can make official reports of harassment to the authorities.  As law enforcement offices where victims can file a complaint are only located in provincial capitals, it can be extremely difficult for victims in more remote parts of the country to initiate an investigation. To address this, the helpline has its own legal officer who can pursue cases on behalf of victims.

The helpline team produce reports every six months, which include an analysis of the kind of issues callers ring in about, and recommendations for action by Pakistani institutions responsible for online safety to make sure that women’s voices are heard.

“We at Digital Rights Foundation are honoured to be nominated for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards.” said DRF. “The recognition means a great deal to us especially given the shrinking spaces for activists both online and offline. The Award will go a long way in lending legitimacy to our work and will amplify our dissent in favour of a free and safe internet”.

See the full shortlist for Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards 2018 here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content” equal_height=”yes” el_class=”text_white” css=”.vc_custom_1490258749071{background-color: #cb3000 !important;}”][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_custom_heading text=”Support the Index Fellowship.” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:28|text_align:center” use_theme_fonts=”yes” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]

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Journalists targeted with threats of sexual violence


Dutch journalists launched a campaign to pressure advertisers into reconsidering advertising on sites that denigrate women.

Dutch journalists launched a campaign to pressure advertisers into reconsidering advertising on sites that denigrate women.

Journalists are increasingly subjected to online harassment, but when the journalist is a woman misogynistic abuse quickly escalates into gender-based defamation and threats of sexual violence, according to a review of incidents reported to Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project.

In the latest case, political editor Laura Kuenssberg, who works for the BBC, was provided with a security detail while she covered the Labour party conference in Brighton. Kuenssberg had been targeted with sexist abuse by individuals who were upset by what they saw as her anti-Labour and anti-Jeremy Corbyn bias.

Laura Kuenssberg street art (Credit: duncan c / Flickr)

A derogatory poster depicting Laura Kuenssberg as a Nazi (Credit: duncan c / Flickr)

“Sadly, Laura Kuenssberg’s experience is all too common across the 42 countries that Mapping Media Freedom monitors. Women are often targeted with threats of death and rape. As a society, we only hear about the most high-profile cases, which obscures the fact that this type of misogynistic intimidation is a widespread and pernicious obstacle to the performance of journalists’ professional duties,” Hannah Machlin, project manager at Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project, said.

In July, Poland’s state-controlled news channel TVP INFO ran a critical piece about Dorota Bawołek, Brussels correspondent for Polsat, a private Polish TV channel, which led to online harassment.

Bawołek reported that she had received hundreds of insulting messages on social media after TVP INFO accused her of asking provocative questions with intent “to harm Poland”. In the messages Bawołek was called a “prostitute”, “anti-Polish manipulator”, “stupid” and “a snitch”.

In May, there were two cases that exemplify the seriousness of the threats that women journalists receive online.

In Ukraine, journalist Darina Synytska was threatened with rape and kidnapping on Facebook. Responding to a post in which Andriy Knyazev, a resident of Poltava, accused Synytska of passing the personal information of activists, three Facebook users — Ruslan Zarubin, Vitaliy Soloniy, Danylo Plakhov — left threatening comments. Other users were urged to “disappear” the journalist. The journalist union for the region issued a statement of support and solidarity of Synytska, and pledged to monitor the police investigation of the incident. The threats followed Synytska’s investigation of a conflict over a construction site in the centre of Poltava.

In The Netherlands, Loes Reijmer faced a storm of sexual harassment including threats of rape after a popular right-wing blog published her photo with the text: “Would you do her?” Reijmer had previously published critical columns about the controversial site GeenStijl, which has been routinely criticised for sexist content.

The GeenStijl post targeting Reijmer resulted in a public call on advertisers to stop advertising with the outlet backed by an open letter signed by over 100 women from the media and entertainment industries.

“Combating online threats against female journalists will remain at the top of my agenda as it is an integral part of the safety of journalists. There can be no freedom of the media without safety,” said the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir.

“These cases highlight the seriousness of the threats women journalists face in the course of their work. These online campaigns are intended to silence and intimidate women who write critically. The solidarity of unions and a wider community reaction has been crucial in communicating that threats of sexual violence or otherwise are unacceptable,” Machlin said.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1506602857542-6ca50442-57e4-6″ taxonomies=”8189, 7132″][/vc_column][/vc_row]