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Switched off: Afghan media struggle to survive under Taliban rule

·7-min read

More than 250 newspapers, radio and TV stations have closed in first 100 days of militants’ rule


The romantic serials have gone after the Taliban warned against racy content, the popular women’s call-in shows were axed after the militants said they didn’t want female journalists on air, and news investigations were cancelled after officials demanded oversight before anything was broadcast.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, most people who used to tune into Radio Sanga, once one of the most popular stations in southern Afghanistan, have turned off.

“There is still some fun content but I’m not sure if we can continue,” said owner Agha Sher Munar, who has lost nearly 80% of his 1.5 million listeners and laid off a third of his journalists, including all three women who worked there. Also gone is a lot of his passion for journalism.

Related: Afghan journalists decry Taliban rules restricting role of women on TV

“The Taliban asked us to share anything before we broadcast it, so now we just repeat news that has gone out on official stations. Recently I heard about an incident in the city, and I wasn’t even interested in sending anyone to check it out.”

Afghanistan’s thriving media sector was seen as one of the few success stories of the past two decades, a standout in a region where censorship, arrests and even murders of journalists are more common than support for a free press.

But with the return of the Taliban, the industry is in freefall. Dozens of journalists terrified of reprisals for their reporting fled the country, others went into hiding, and many women were forced from their positions. The economic collapse has pummelled smaller outlets too.

Over 250 newspapers, radio and TV stations closed in the first 100 days of Taliban rule, and about 70% of journalists have lost their jobs, according to Afghan press watchdog NAI.

That means far less news coming out of Afghanistan, just when the country is on the brink of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, and the expansion of the regional Islamic State franchise makes its security an international concern.

“When I meet friends, they say ‘the media is finished’,” said Habibullah, a photographer in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif who is planning to become a taxi driver. “Either we have to leave the country, or we have to get another job.”

There is no money to pay his salary, but even more of a problem is informal Taliban regulations that make working as a news photographer virtually impossible.

“If there is an accident, or an attack, you can’t go there directly to take photos, you have to speak to the Taliban first to get approval,” he said. “But then we miss showing the reality. It takes four or five hours to get permission and by then everything has been cleaned up.”

The Taliban for years targeted reporters for assassination and abduction but in August spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid promised press freedom campaigners RSF that “no threat or reprisal will be carried out against journalists” under the group’s rule.

They have largely given foreign correspondents free rein, allowing critical reporting and prompting social media praise of the troops’ willingness to engage.

For Afghan media though, work is much more complicated and dangerous. A tangle of new official regulations and informal local controls – often handed down verbally – have made news reporting far more risky. High-profile assaults like the vicious beating of two journalists covering a protest have a chilling impact on other reporters.

The censorship goes beyond official reports. One journalist who posted something critical on a personal Facebook account was summoned to Taliban offices and warned not to post negative things again.

For managers, the Taliban’s austere approach to entertainment makes it hard to find engaging programmes, and some of the best talent has fled the country, gone into hiding, or quit.

“There hasn’t been an official ruling that we can’t employ women or play music, the Taliban just told us that,” said Sayed Satar Mahtabi, manager of Zma radio station in Kandahar, who said editors are pushing back against new controls where they can.

“We asked for some kind of official regulation banning music, and when we didn’t get it we carried on playing it,” he added.

Related: Afghan musicians silently await their fate as Taliban’s ban looms

But people are frightened to drive around with music on their radio in case they are stopped at a checkpoint by Taliban soldiers and punished for it – fighters killed guests at a wedding where music was played in eastern Afghanistan. Shops and other businesses no longer dare play music either. So listener numbers continue to fall.

And editors are wary of violating even informal Taliban regulations when their journalists’ safety might be at stake. “I had three women journalists, who still want to work, but they are frightened of the Taliban,” said Mahtabi.

At Zma radio he laid out a separate women’s office to make it easier for women to work in this conservative town. It now sits empty, a reminder of the particularly high toll the Taliban rule is taking on female reporters.

“Our team is working inside of Afghanistan but their identities are hidden,” said Zahra Joya, editor in chief of Rukhshana media, an all-women online news site for Afghanistan, who went into exile herself after Kabul fell.

“I’m not very optimistic about the future of female journalists in Afghanistan. If the Taliban stay in power for a long time, I think we will lose female journalists, because they will not be allowed to work.”

Tolo TV, perhaps the country’s most influential station, has kept its female anchors on air, and their prominence, size and international connections may offer some immunity.

“We are the canary in the coalmine. We use our size to try and secure freedom for others as much as possible,” said Saad Mohseni, head of the Moby media group that owns Tolo. “We have made it point of principle to have more women on air, professional women in front of and behind the camera. The need to employ more women has taken on a new urgency.”

This week the central government put out harsh new guidelines that barred any drama series with female actors – so far largely ignored – and barred female reporters from the air unless they met unspecified Taliban standards on “hijab”, or covering up. Many reporters see rulings like this as a step towards pushing women out of the sector entirely.

In Kabul at the end of July more than 700 women worked as journalists; a month later only a few dozen were still writing or broadcasting, according to a report from press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ).

Some of them have fled the country, including Beheshta Arghand who rose to international prominence and raised hopes of a genuine shift in Taliban attitudes to women when she grilled a spokesman on live TV in August.

Others have gone into hiding, particularly across the provinces where the Taliban victory unleashed threats from men who never joined the militants, but always resented the success and visibility of female journalists.

Neda was a television anchor, but she has left her home city and is now living alone in another part of the country, because she feared for her own life and her family’s safety.

Her phone is now filled with terrifying messages from strangers, threatening to hand her over to the new authorities.

“I will send all of your pictures to the governor. The Taliban should punish you. You should be put on public trial, you barefaced woman,” read one of the anonymous messages. “You should know the consequences of your work.”

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