Slipping Past Taliban Censors
Meet the female journalists risking all to tell the truth and fight for a better future in Afghanistan.
Sana* used to love traveling for work in Afghanistan. As a journalist, she was always meeting sources in other provinces and covering events on the ground. When a new story came up, she would book a flight, throw her things in a bag and head to the airport. “We would just send a last-minute message to our families to let them know where we were going. That’s how safe and relaxed it was,” she says.
These days, life looks very different for journalists in Afghanistan, particularly women who are barred from most forms of employment by the Taliban. Traveling, even the short distance to Kabul from Sana’s home in Bamiyan Province, is now extremely difficult. “Women who travel without a male companion are always questioned a lot. The Taliban members turn away as though disgusted to talk with them. That’s how these people react to women,” she says.
When the Taliban seized power in August 2021, thousands of journalists fled Afghanistan. New regulations were announced, curbing press freedom and forcing many outlets to close. A decree issued by Taliban supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in July 2022 warned that “defaming and criticizing government officials without proof” and “spreading false news and rumors” are forbidden. Those who “slander” government employees will be “punished,” he said.
In the space of a year, Afghanistan lost 60 percent of its journalists as the Taliban reshaped the media landscape into a propaganda platform for the regime. These findings, published in a survey by Reporters Without Borders, show that female journalists were the hardest hit, with 76 percent losing their jobs.
A year on, the situation has deteriorated further. The domestic media agencies that remain are closely monitored, and many reporters self-censor to avoid antagonizing the regime. Yet a handful of journalists inside the country report the truth, working in secret to keep the international community informed. These journalists undertake significant risks to ensure the horrors happening at home are broadcast to the world as the Taliban attempts to erase reality and establish its legitimacy as Afghanistan’s ruling regime.
The Taliban’s Edit
In the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, countries around the world cut diplomatic ties with Afghanistan and refused to recognize the new regime. With this went much of the overseas assistance that accounted for 75 percent of Afghanistan’s government expenditures, plunging it into an economic crisis. Efforts by the Taliban to restore foreign funding and secure legitimacy on the global stage are being shored up at home as the regime molds media output to support its international agenda.
Speaking to the BBC in the aftermath of the takeover, a member of the Taliban’s social media team discussed their strategy. "Most Afghans don't understand English, but the leaders of the Kabul regime actively communicated in English on Twitter - because their audience is not Afghans but the international community," he said.” Social media is a powerful tool to change public perception…. We want to change the perception of the Taliban.”
The approach stands in stark contrast to the first Taliban regime in the nineties, which banned the internet and smashed up television sets. Today’s Taliban is media savvy, harnessing social media to engage with Afghans and cultivate a new image. A new online trend features YouTubers posting videos of themselves as they stroll around Kabul, eating in cafes and interacting with women and foreigners to show a supposedly safe and peaceful side to Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
“It’s a viral trend in Afghanistan at the moment,” says Ahmad Mansoor Ramizy, Afghanistan Program Director at Ideas Beyond Borders, pointing out the Taliban minders often present in these videos. “These reporters propagate the Taliban agenda, which doesn’t tell the true horror story of what is going on in the country,” he says.
When the Taliban first seized power in 2021, there was some suggestion that they would stand by promises to respect human rights, including access to education for women and girls. That hope quickly drained away as they barred teenage girls from school and rolled back the rights of women with strict limits on dress and conduct, compelling them to stay at home and limit their presence in public life.
Meanwhile, reports of torture, disappearances, public floggings and executions revealed by local reporters and rights groups show how quickly Afghanistan has reverted to the darkest days of the first Taliban regime. A culture of fear prevents many from speaking out about family members who have been tortured or murdered, for fear of retribution. “The Taliban will do whatever possible to cut people off from information and the outside world. This is where the work of the journalists supported by Ideas Beyond Borders can make a difference,” Ramizy adds.
Culture of Fear
Journalists like Sana and Tamana*, who continue to uncover the truth at great personal risk, know that at any time, they might be discovered. “The Taliban sees reporters as spies. If they find us reporting, especially for a foreign media agency, it would put our lives in danger,” Tamana explains. “At the very least, they would stop our work and put us in prison.” Reporting in the streets, she is careful to keep a low profile. “Even holding a phone makes us suspicious,” she says.
Researching the circumstances of female drug users in Afghanistan for a recent story, she used a fake ID card and conducted the interviews in secret with help from a friend at a Taliban-approved media agency. Afghanistan has the highest number of opiate users in the world, with an estimated 12.6 percent of adults using drugs, but these issues are being sidelined with the Taliban in power, she says.
Tamana works for an organization called Radio for Peace International, which recently received an Ideas Beyond Borders grant to produce a series on the stories of Afghan women. The program’s coordinator, Jamila Karimi, was forced to flee Afghanistan shortly before the Taliban seized power. Now she is helping female reporters to continue their work on the ground because she sees it as one of Afghanistan’s last hopes. “Saving gender journalism means saving a diverse society and ensuring pluralism in the country,” she says.
For a while, before the Taliban regained power, life was improving for female reporters in Afghanistan. “We could report on location, go to offices freely, it was good. In rural areas, people had a more traditional mindset and were not comfortable seeing a woman with a camera, but for the most part, female journalists were normal,” she says.
But as the Taliban expanded their influence across the country, that began to change. In 2020 and 2021, there was an alarming rise in threats and attacks against journalists as the insurgents grew brazen in their attempts to stamp out free speech. After a colleague was assassinated, Karimi and her husband went on the run, hiding at a hotel in Kabul, before moving to Uzbekistan.
“We felt the danger among the journalist community – there were calls and texts from the Taliban threatening us,” says Karimi, who worked as a reporter for Pajhwok Afghan News, a leading news agency in Afghanistan. The platform, which still describes itself as ‘Afghanistan’s largest independent news agency’ is among those that continue to operate in Afghanistan, but a disclaimer on the platform’s website reminds readers of the pervasive presence of the Taliban’s watchful eye:
“Given the current situation in Afghanistan, the reporting situation for Pajhwok staff is not always safe, so, to protect our teams, we may not always be able to report all sides of a story or may need to delay publication of some details, due to threats on our staff.”
Resisting a New Reality
It's not just the security situation and Taliban censorship that are making life difficult for journalists in Afghanistan. The country’s economy is close to collapse, starved of its lifeline from international aid programs. A UN report published in April this year, revealed that nearly 34 million Afghans are now living in poverty, out of a population of 40 million, amid soaring food prices and high unemployment.
For most Afghan reporters operating in secret, overseas funding from organizations like Ideas Beyond Borders is the only means of sustaining their work. Hoor Sabah* launched her online magazine Zane Rooz in November last year to tell the stories of Afghan women under the Taliban. “We are shedding light on the horrible atrocities the Taliban and their people are committing. Otherwise, people will become accustomed to what they are seeing and start to accept this new reality,” the 26-year-old explains.
An incident she covered recently revealed the suffering of a woman who was beaten to death for defying her husband and visiting her mother without his permission. When he told the Taliban this, he was released without charge. “These cases are very difficult for us to comprehend, very shocking and disturbing. Nobody mainstream is talking about them because they can’t,” she says.
This makes reporting these stories all the more vital, not just to show the outside world what is happening in Afghanistan, but to remind Afghans that these violations must never become normal. “While we can’t save the people in these stories, we can help shape society and save women in the future,” Sabah adds.
An IBB grant covered the first six months of operation, enabling her to launch Zane Rooz and hire reporters to gather stories from across the country, including remote parts of Afghanistan. With fewer journalists on the ground, it is increasingly difficult to access women in rural communities, where a climate of fear prevents people from speaking out about violence and abuse.
Most of the journalists that remain are based in Kabul and, with travel restricted, it’s difficult to shed light on cruelties perpetrated elsewhere in Afghanistan. In its report, Reporters Without Borders found that, of the 2,756 women journalists and media workers employed in Afghanistan prior to August 2021, only 656 were still working a year later and, of these, 85 percent were in the Kabul region.
“Looking at the future Afghanistan faces, it’s more important than ever to find ways of amplifying the few voices still finding a platform for the truth,” says Faisal Al Mutar, President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “Without these brave individuals, our view of Afghanistan would be restricted, and the Taliban’s violent campaign against women would be hidden from the world.”
Sabah’s male colleagues work in an office, but she and other female members of the team work from home, aware that any day they might be discovered by Taliban officials, who conduct house-to-house searches and question people in the street. But while the fear of discovery hangs over her as she works, Sabah refuses to stay silent. “If we don’t take this risk, nobody will know what’s going on,” she says.
For Sana too, the toll of telling these stories is a heavy one. Sitting with women as they unburden their struggles in hushed tones, she listens and consoles, offering what little comfort she can because these days, there’s nothing else. “If a woman is abused and has troubles at home, nobody is going to listen to her, no court will prosecute her case. The least I can do is listen, let them express their thoughts and talk about what they went through,” she says.
Many have nowhere else to turn. One woman Sana spoke with was hospitalized by her husband for querying his decision to take a third wife. His family had a relationship with the Taliban, so she stayed silent, afraid they would take revenge on her father or brothers if she uttered a word. “It brings me to a state of shock knowing that in the 21st century, this still happens,” Sana says. “There is a sense of hopelessness to see people in other countries live with rights, liberty, and freedom when in Afghanistan, women are prosecuted just for being female. It’s painful that I can’t do anything about it other than listen.”
Returning home in the evenings, she feels altered by the suffering she has seen. “I get upset, unsettled, even my relationship with my family is different when I hear these things.” But she perseveres, hoping that one day it will make a difference in bringing these stories to light. “When I leave, I tell them everything will be ok, they are empty promises, but at least it brings comfort to them,” she says. “And they are happy knowing that somewhere around the world there are people and organizations that are interested in hearing what they have to say and understanding what they are going through.”
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*Pseudonyms have been used for several individuals featured in this story to protect their identity. This article was written by Olivia Cuthbert.