Written by Jyotsna Iyer, a second-year undergraduate student.
Freedom of the press (and the media) is the principle that communication via the press (and other forms of news or other media) should be free and unrestricted. Looking back at history, one of the primary steps taken by autocratic and tyrannic governments is to curtail the freedom of the press and bring journalism under its control. The freedom of the press in Afghanistan is under threat since Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, and journalists are engulfed by fear and uncertainty.
This article explores the claims made by the Taliban regarding press freedom, and the reality of the situation, which does not seem to be in line with these claims.
Why is press freedom important?
Freedom of the press (and media) is the principle that communication via the press (and other forms of news or other media) should be free and unrestricted. Although there are ongoing discussions about ‘reasonable restrictions’ for the press, it is widely accepted that press freedom is integral to the foundation of a free society. Journalism as an institution holds the responsibility of amplifying the people’s voices to reach the concerned authorities, as well as reporting the workings of those in power to keep the public informed and aware. Journalism is often referred to as the ‘fourth pillar of democracy’ as a free press has the power to question the authorities and hold them accountable to the public. It would be almost impossible for the press to fulfill this role in the absence of press freedom. Looking back at history, one of the primary steps taken by autocratic and tyrannic governments is to curtail the freedom of the press and bring journalism under its control.
Taliban’s claims on press freedom
The last Taliban regime in Afghanistan was in power from 1996 to 2001, and the accounts of strict laws, oppression, atrocities, and curbs of freedom are horrifying. There was practically no freedom of press and journalists were expected to work under the control of the Taliban regime, abiding by their rules. Entertainment media was banned, and people were even punished for watching television.
The leaders of Taliban, since their siege of Kabul in August 2021, have tried to assure the people that their course of action would be different (and better) this time. The Taliban have adopted a more formal and ‘diplomatic’ approach this time, at least on the face of it. The official speaker, Mujahid, said that they were committed to safeguarding the rights of media workers within their cultural framework and that private media could continue operating freely.
The speaker, in a press meet, mentioned that the media could operate freely and that the Taliban had “some requests for the media.” It was stated that the rights of women journalists would be protected. They also specifically claimed that they did not intend to carry out retaliatory attacks on persons who worked for the previous governments, with foreign forces or were a part of the Afghan National Security Forces.
Reality of press freedom in Taliban’s Afghanistan
However, Taliban’s actions haven’t been in line with their claims in press meets and in the communications issues by them to the international community. Armed men who identified as Taliban conducted door-to-door visits targeting people who worked with the previous government, UN and NATO according to a UN report. According to Human Rights Watch, journalists across the country were intimidated through threats as well as violence, and sources state that they had intimate knowledge of these journalists’ personal lives and families. A relative of a journalist who worked for DW was killed by the Taliban, and journalists were beaten up for covering a women’s protest in Afghanistan. Female journalists face the highest threat, as they are targeted for dissent as well as breaking the Taliban’s social code.
Despite Taliban’s claim, most of the female journalists have been forced out of work, threatened as well as harassed. Although the restrictions haven’t been codified as laws by the regime, intimidation and violence are being used as a message for journalists across the nation. This has caused many news media and entertainment media institutions to engage in self-censorship, and not bring out any content that could make them possible targets of the Taliban.
Journalism and the freedom of the press have come a long way in Afghanistan in the past two decades, and it is now on the verge of being crippled again.
The atrocities faced by Afghan journalists have caused many international forums to conclude that the only way to safeguard these Afghan journalists is by helping them flee the nation and through evacuation missions. Interviews with the journalists currently operating in the regime of fear have shone light upon the fact that there are many journalists who have stood up against the regime to protect their rights, showing an awful amount of courage. Nevertheless, freedom of the press in Taliban’s Afghanistan is under threat, which is a testament to their fallen democracy.