The Washington Post

Afghanista­n’s free press is crumbling under the Taliban

- BY HENNA HUNDAL AND KHUSHNOOD NABIZADA Henna Hundal is a public policy specialist and contributo­r to Afghanista­n’s Khaama Press News Agency. Khushnood Nabizada is the founder and owner of Khaama Press.

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.

 ?? LORENZO TUGNOLI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Journalist­s of the Etilaatroz newspaper sort back issues in September 2021 before moving to a new building in Kabul.
LORENZO TUGNOLI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Journalist­s of the Etilaatroz newspaper sort back issues in September 2021 before moving to a new building in Kabul.

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