Author : Vaishali Jaipal

Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Jun 12, 2024 Updated 0 Hours ago

The motivations behind the media crackdown in Afghanistan are clear—to control the narrative, silence dissent, and restrict the Afghan people's access to information

The myth of moderation and media freedom in Afghanistan

After coming to power in Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban’s assurances contingent on ‘moderation’ and ‘inclusive rule’ indicated a purported shift from its first stint as a draconian Islamic theocracy in the mid-1990s. While the larger international community met these pronouncements with scepticism, interpreting them as a calculated strategy to appease the group’s way into global recognition; their unprecedented nature hinted at a silver lining—hoping for a possible softening of the Taliban’s ideology in the backdrop of its geopolitical compulsions.

The Taliban’s iron fist controls the dissemination of information, meticulously crafting a narrative that silences dissent and paints a rosy picture of their rule.

In the past two and a half years, rapid clampdown on independent institutions like media and free speech has debunked the sham of a ‘reformed Taliban’. Estimates suggest over 450 documented cases of media violations by the Islamic Emirate since its takeover. This includes the murders of three journalists, 219 detentions, and a staggering 235 incidents of threats and physical violence. As a result, about 53 percent of journalists have lost their jobs. Self-censorship has skyrocketed as fear and repression take hold. Safety and working conditions for journalists, particularly women, have become perilous. The Taliban’s iron fist controls the dissemination of information, meticulously crafting a narrative that silences dissent and paints a rosy picture of their rule.

The slow death of Afghanistan's free press 

Since taking power, the Taliban has tightened its grip on Afghan media. Despite initial tacit assent given to the existing Media and Access to Information Law by their spokesperson, suggesting its acceptability, the group has issued diktats contradicting their statements.

In September 2021, the Taliban unveiled ‘11 Rules of Journalism’ to regulate and control media content. These rules invited criticism for their vagueness, allowing broad discretion in enforcement, particularly concerning stories deemed ‘contrary to Islam’ or ‘insulting to national figures’. They also lacked international frameworks found in previous laws, further enabling arbitrary enforcement. In April 2024, Taliban officials detained three journalists and blocked access to the privately owned channels—Noor TV and Barya for violating ‘national and Islamic values’, without offering sufficient explanation.

Furthermore, a few rules require confirmation by officials before publication. Reporting on topics like insecurity, human rights, and corruption are forbidden. The media is pressured to portray the Taliban positively, restricting interviews with ordinary Afghans or NRIs. The Taliban’s media body, the Government Media and Information Centre (GMIC) calls for media outlets to ‘coordinate’ reports with the GMIC, raising cases of pre-approved news, discouraging independent reporting, and insinuating the revival of oppressive media control akin to the 1990s.

While penalties for violations haven't been officially announced, media entities face threats, arrests, and punitive actions for non-compliance.

To date, 17 parallel directives have been issued and enforced across Afghanistan. While penalties for violations haven't been officially announced, media entities face threats, arrests, and punitive actions for non-compliance. These directives, issued as executive orders escaping the legislative process are enforced by Taliban leadership in Kandahar and local officials in Helmand, Khorst province, the ministries of Information and Culture, and Vice and Virtue, the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) or the Istikhbarat, and act as de facto laws, undermining the press freedom achieved under the Republic government.

Afghanistan's once-thriving private media sector, heavily reliant on foreign investments, served as a vital alternative to the opaque national broadcasting, but Taliban restrictions have decimated it. Many journalists fled due to funding cuts and attacks, prompting some to launch exile-based digital platforms for Afghan audiences. The US launched the ‘Reporting Safely in Afghanistan’ programme in a bid to offer emergency assistance and facilitate information sharing through offshore channels, while USAID provided a US$20 million grant to the Afghan Support Project until mid-2026. However, the Taliban brand these outlets as ‘propaganda machines’ and detain associated journalists, citing their illegality under the new regime.

In the face of excessive censorship, social media platforms like Facebook act as vital sources of uncensored information for news outlets, catering to 3.15 million active social media users in Afghanistan. In April 2024, the Taliban proposed blocking Facebook, citing ‘national interest’ and alleged misuse by the youth. Interestingly, the Taliban officials themselves leverage platforms like Facebook and X to announce policies and present an optimistic picture of Afghanistan's economic, security, and political situation. This hypocrisy follows Meta’s (Facebook’s parent body) closure of accounts associated with Taliban officials and also pseudonymous accounts. The ban is being seen as the last nail in the coffin to stifle information flow in the country.

(Ir)Rationale behind restrictions on female journalists 

The Taliban's anti-women reputation long predates their recent ascend to power. Their policies, mirroring their past regime, are ‘systematically’ expunging women from media and public life, betraying the initial promises. The impact is devastating—over 80 percent of female journalists have lost their jobs owing to restrictions, harassment, and fear.

Fearing the group’s resurgence, media houses preemptively asked women to stay home, and Taliban positioning outside offices reinforced this trend. Despite a brief return in early 2022, only 17 percent of women journalists remain, significantly lower than pre-Taliban levels. Many have been allegedly ‘blacklisted’ by Taliban officials, contributing to a voluntary exodus from the information ecosystem due to safety concerns.

Fearing the group’s resurgence, media houses preemptively asked women to stay home, and Taliban positioning outside offices reinforced this trend.

Further, the regime's obsession with dictating women's clothing choices makes female journalists vulnerable given their intersectional identity. In November 2021, the Ministry of Virtue decreed female journalists/reporters to wear ‘hijab’ on air, a practice already in place. A ministry spokesman clarified it to be a ‘religious guideline’ rather than a rule, suggesting some leniency. It later extended it to a full ‘face covering’ mandate in May 2022. This time, the Ministry presented it as an unyielding religious edict demanding strict adherence, reiterating it multiple times as unopen to debate.

The edict acts as a calculated attack on women’s employment prospects. It vests in the media channels the responsibility to ensure compliance by the female staff, even directing them to suspend the ones who fail to do so. This puts an implicit onus on the male counterparts to intimidate women, impinging on safety and professionalism. While some female journalists are willing to adapt, many fear that it will hinder their ability to effectively lead hours of programming, convey information and visual cues, and connect with viewers. In the wake of restrictions on appearing on camera, the radio industry offers a refuge to female broadcasters. However, the regime permits employment only in all-women radio stations, which is rare in Afghanistan. It recently outlawed female voices and their interviews from broadcast, reflecting a serious intent to erase them from public discourse.

Besides, female journalists grapple with the restrictions imposed on mobility and movement of the demographic itself. Not being allowed to travel more than short distances unaccompanied by a male chaperon (mahram) makes field reporting nearly impossible. Afghan female journalists have reported being prohibited from press conferences and interviews held by Taliban officials, while the same engage with non-Afghan women journalists, revealing their discriminatory outlook.

While some female journalists are willing to adapt, many fear that it will hinder their ability to effectively lead hours of programming, convey information and visual cues, and connect with viewers.

The Taliban's inconsistent pronouncements on women in media exhibit a troubling ebb and flow, reflecting the power struggles within the group. Every conciliatory gesture risks being swept away by the tide of hardline interpretations of Islamic law by the Kandahar faction which wields the ultimate power, as observed during the vetoing of the announcement on resumption of female education in 2022.

Geopolitical ramifications

The Taliban's approach to media regulation in Afghanistan is a study of contradictions. The 2024 World Press Freedom Index, saw Afghanistan plummet 26 points, ranking a dismal 178th out of 180 countries, classifying it as one of the most dangerous countries for media freedom.

In this challenging context, the regime is proposing a new media law, claiming to ‘slightly adjust’ the existing laws to align with the Sharia law, but with no gender-based limitations, stating all citizens can work in the media. However, these promises clash with the broader context.

Taliban’s informal recognition of Hanafi jurisprudence as the supreme law and their disinterest in adopting a formal constitution grants unchecked power to the Emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada over the fate of the country's laws, including the new media law. Their record suggests a potential disconnect between their pronouncements and reality. Even in the new law, local representation is missing while ambiguity persists on media funding and the discretionary role of GDI, suggesting that the present nature of non-transparency in dictums/decrees will permeate into the new legislation as well. Taliban may offer benign-sounding media laws on paper, but the lack of transparency and potential for subjective interpretations could lead to a hostile environment for journalists in practice. But despite all this, journalists are demanding the implementation of this pending law. In the absence of an overarching framework, even a flawed law offers some semblance of legal clarity.

Taliban may offer benign-sounding media laws on paper, but the lack of transparency and potential for subjective interpretations could lead to a hostile environment for journalists in practice.

The motivations behind the media crackdown are clear—to control the narrative, silence dissent, and ultimately, restrict the Afghan people's access to information. The rigid interpretation of sharia and forceful imposition of the hijab is a brutal echo of the past, effectively projecting the vision of Taliban 2.0—to shut women out from as many aspects of public life as possible. It outlines the Taliban’s image as a repressive regime, against a backdrop of waning interest in international recognition, which they perceive as already achieved owing to working diplomatic relations and failed attempts at international isolation.

Furthermore, restrictions on content, reporting style, and interview subjects deem Afghan media an unreliable source of information that cannot be taken at face value, demanding deeper scrutiny by the international community. While the initial pronouncements were deployed to gain legitimacy and gauge international reaction, now with their grip consolidated, the Taliban has less incentive to compromise. Thus, the path forward for Afghan media remains bleak, shrouded in an atmosphere of fear and repression.


Vaishali Jaipal is a Research Intern with the Observer Research Foundation

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Author

Vaishali Jaipal

Vaishali Jaipal

Vaishali Jaipal is an intern with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation ...

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