The Washington Post
Afghanistan’s free press is crumbling under the Taliban
Soon after regaining power in Afghanistan, the Taliban made reassurances that its new reign would preserve some of the progress made on women’s rights and democratic governance, including upholding freedom of speech and permitting female journalists to work.
But their reassurances have proved utterly hollow.
According to a recent report from the International Federation of Journalists, more than half of media outlets across Afghanistan have shuttered since the Taliban’s takeover. Just around 20 newspapers remain in a country of 40 million people. What’s more, over 70 percent of the Afghan journalists who’ve left the profession are women.
The destruction of Afghanistan’s media landscape — an outcome of both ongoing Taliban violence against journalists and the country’s economic collapse — is not unexpected. Local press in war-torn Syria, Somalia and Yemen, for example, has endured a similar fate. However, what’s perhaps defining about the tragedy in Afghanistan is the sheer magnitude of lost progress toward a free press —and how much both Afghanistan and the world are lesser for it.
In the two decades preceding the Taliban’s takeover, legions of print, radio and television journalists bloomed, serving as watchdogs of the Taliban as well as the sitting Afghan government. Nurtured through initiatives such as the Afghanistan Journalism Enhancement Education Program and Kabul University’s robust journalism department, this generation of up-and-coming reporters constituted a bright spot for a country rebuilding from the throes of the pre2001 Taliban’s oppression.
When one of Afghanistan’s trailblazing independent publications, Kabul Weekly, resumed operations shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, then-publisher Fahim Dashty hailed the comeback as “unprecedented freedom” for Afghan journalists.
The return of Kabul Weekly kicked off a renaissance of sorts for independent media outlets, which burgeoned to at least 150 in number by 2003. Investigative reporting on corruption, abuse of power and discrimination signaled a march toward a new dawn for journalists who, despite lingering fear, found tools to carve out their critical role in Afghan society.
Sadly, Dashty was killed last year in Panjshir Province during a clash between the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan and the Taliban.
Female Afghan journalists, though frequently facing death threats throughout the past two decades, also became a formidable force interrogating power and gender norms. Radio Shaesta, established by the activist Zarghona Hassan in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province, centered women’s voices on topics ranging from politics to reproductive health, distilling actionable information for self-empowerment.
At one point, Radio Shaesta had an estimated 800,000 listeners, a testament to the influence of its programs such as “Unwanted Traditions,” which put the attitudes and practices that stifled girls’ advancement under the microscope.
Despite the Taliban setting Radio Shaesta ablaze in 2015, Hassan refused to be silenced. She reopened the station within just six months.
After the Taliban’s takeover, numerous female Afghan journalists have reported being barred from accessing their workplaces. In Ghazni Province, the Taliban specifically instructed one radio station that their operations could proceed if done so “without any woman’s voice.”
Indeed, to be a female journalist — or any journalist — in Afghanistan today is to walk an impossibly thin tightrope. On one hand, senior Taliban leaders assert that journalists can practice within the confines of rules designed to promote “the truth.” On the other hand, these opaque rules, including a thinly veiled threat against media that “could have a negative impact on the public’s attitude or affect morale,” hardly allow for real journalism at all.
During the Taliban’s takeover last year, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen frequently appeared on Western media outlets to reiterate a policy of “general amnesty” for Afghans who had been aligned with the Afghan government. At the same time, Afghan journalists took to social media to document the Taliban’s extrajudicial killings in rural regions outside of international purview, violence that Shaheen dismissed as unauthorized.
This pattern of the Taliban dodging accountability creates a predicament for how best to shore up a once vibrant Afghan media. More than just a bulwark against the Taliban’s dubious claims and contradictions, a free Afghan press represents a light in a long struggle, a bend toward a future where a journalist’s role as our collective keeper is firmly entrenched.
While accepting her Nobel Peace Prize last year, Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, who’s faced numerous arrest warrants for her work, said she stood as “a representative of every journalist around the world who is forced to sacrifice so much to hold the line, to stay true to our values and mission: to bring you the truth and hold power to account.”
The generation of Afghan journalists who risked their lives in the name of that vision are heroes. And their erasure is a loss we all bear.