WWhen Beheshta Arghand interviewed a Taliban spokesperson live on Afghan television two weeks ago, the very fact that he was willing to answer a woman raised hopes that the Islamist group had changed. Within a week, we now learn, the young journalist had left Afghanistan.
She is not alone. Despite promises by the Taliban to protect women’s rights to school and work, few people on the ground seem to believe them. Even when their spokesman spoke of respect for human rights, the Taliban had already taken two off-air female state broadcasters and attacked and beaten many journalists.
A report this week found that of the 700 female journalists who worked in Kabul before the inauguration, fewer than 100 remain. A handful of women continue to work outside the capital, in the provinces taken over by the Islamist group before the inauguration. Kabul’s fall, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Center for the Protection of Afghan Journalists.
Speaking from Qatar, Arghand, 24, was on the verge of tears: “I am very sad that this generation really fought for a new Afghanistan.” She appealed to the international community for help and said she hoped “to become the voice of women because they are in a very bad situation.”
While things seem bleak for all women in Afghanistan, female journalists face the double whammy of doing work that the powerful everywhere don’t like. Arghand said the Taliban had told local media to stop discussing his inauguration: “When you can’t [even] ask easy questions, how can you be a journalist? “
Thousands of Afghan journalists have tried to leave the country in recent weeks. The “list” of journalists seeking help with visas and other documentation has become a “directory,” according to Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary general.
While the situation has never been easy for journalists in the region, increasing press freedom is seen by several relevant watchdogs as one of the main achievements since NATO forces defeated the Taliban 20 years ago. Today, Afghanistan is home to hundreds of different media outlets that broadcast in a variety of languages. One fifth of the 10,000 media workers in the country are women: there are even female-led media outlets that produce content exclusively for women. However, in the wake of the Taliban takeover, the radio waves are now, like the streets, almost entirely populated by men.
Much has been written about warnings from within the country ignored in the rush to withdraw by NATO forces. These include warnings that the Taliban’s seemingly savvy new ways of media remain dangerous for journalists and, in particular, women journalists. Najib Sharifi, head of the Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee, said in May: “Journalists are at the forefront of violence in Afghanistan.” It warned that targeted killings had already led to “a lot of self-censorship,” while the number of female journalists declined by 18% in the first six months of the year.
With hundreds of journalists reporting direct threats last year, the UN finds that more than 30 media workers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2018. A list compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists cites the Taliban as the most more likely to be perpetrators than any other individual group. . However, the committee’s pleas, along with those of 50 other civil rights groups, for the G7 nations to remain in Kabul after August 31 to help provide safe passage for the thousands trying to flee, as well as to journalists still trying to work there were largely ignored.
Individual countries have tried to help journalists in the chaos of recent weeks. A coalition of British newspapers and broadcasters, including The Guardian, worked with the Foreign Ministry to grant visa waivers to more than 200 Afghan journalists who worked with the British media. Efforts to help those left behind, some stranded for not getting to the airport on time, remain highly sensitive.
The prospects at the individual level are dire, but international efforts are not cause for hope either. The G7 member countries are part of the Coalition for Media Freedom and signatories to the Global Commitment on Media Freedom. But there was little concrete action at last week’s G7 meeting, and now there is talk of a G20 meeting after the UN general assembly in September, which will feature those well-known bastions of free speech, China, and Russia. included in efforts to insist that the Taliban stop terrorizing all journalists, and women in particular.
The hope is that these countries can help convince Taliban leaders that times have changed in the last 20 years. Deloire at RSF says she is “neither optimistic nor pessimistic” as her organization tries to help those left behind by talking to the Taliban. “We keep talking to them to try to secure commitments that go beyond promises made during a press conference… We may not go back to what happened in ’96. The Taliban of today are not the Taliban of yesterday. “
Along with his first interview with a journalist in Afghanistan, the early days of his inauguration suggested that the Taliban recognized the importance of the media after the growth of the internet and social media since 2001. They used WhatsApp and a film crew from the The Qatari-backed television news channel Al Jazeera even broadcast live the moment the Taliban fighters gained access to the Kabul presidential palace.
Arghand’s head at Tolo News, Saad Mohseni, said on August 17 that the Taliban were trying to win over the local population and placate Western governments. “It is important for them to win hearts and minds, and to show internationals that they are legitimate and that they are people to work with. In this phase, the media will have much more freedom than in the later phases. “
This initial phase seemed to have lasted only a few days. On September 1, Mohseni, an Afghan-Australian citizen and owner of Afghanistan’s largest news and entertainment network, said he had to hire new people as all his well-known journalists had already left the country.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism