Fear Grips Afghanistan with Hazardous Media Landscape

From the time she leaves her Kabul house for the workplace at Afghanistan’s main television station each morning, reporter Banafsha Binesh is filled with fear.

The Taliban warriors, who patrol the streets of the capital with guns draped over their shoulders, are the beginning. Binesh, 27, says she is more concerned about their reputation for being rude with women than any bad incident.

With each new news of a fellow journalist being imprisoned, interrogated, or abused by Taliban militants, fear and anxiety grow.

“Working is stressful,” remarked Binesh, a TOLO-TV employee.

Since assuming power six months ago, the country’s new authorities have also issued guidelines urging media to adhere to Islamic values and strive for the greater welfare of the country – restrictions that appear to be geared at stifling independent reporting.

Criticism is acceptable, but it must be constructive, according to Bilal Karimi, a deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Information.

He accused overzealous Taliban for attacks on journalists, which occurred frequently while they were covering women’s marches, explosions, and other stories. He stated that other journalist arrests were unrelated to their job.

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Steven Butler said it’s unclear if the attacks on journalists are systematic or “simply semi-random acts launched by some Taliban official with a grudge.”

Butler, the Asia program director at CPJ, described the situation as “full with threats that are not totally anticipated.” “Journalists are being pulled up on the basis of their reporting, interrogated, assaulted, and then released after hours or days.”

Recently, two United Nations refugee agency journalists were detained for six days before being freed last week after the UN voiced concerns. After establishing the journalists’ names, the Taliban announced they would release them.

Butler voiced worry that Taliban intelligence personnel are getting more “involved” in arrests and disappearances.

TOLO currently boasts more female journalists than male journalists, both in the newsroom and on the streets, breaking the trend.

After over 90% of the company’s employees fled or were evacuated in the initial days of the Taliban takeover, TOLO news director Khpolwak Sapai claimed he made a point of employing women.

Female personnel, he claimed, have not been intimidated by Taliban officials, but have been denied access on occasion because of their gender.

When the acting minister of mines and petroleum discovered that the station had sent a woman to the briefing, he prohibited a TOLO reporter from attending.

TOLO, according to Sapai, responds quickly to similar situations and publishes reports about them.

During the turbulent days after the Taliban takeover in August, the number of journalists in Afghanistan shrank considerably. Foreign countries and groups have evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans.

According to a December poll by Reporters Without Borders and the Afghan Independent Journalist Association, 231 out of 543 media institutions have shuttered since the Taliban took power, and more than 6,400 journalists have lost their jobs. According to the research, the publications shut down because of a lack of funding or because journalists had fled the country.

The Taliban had little opposition under their previous administration in the late 1990s, and they outlawed most television, radio, and publications. Foreign news organizations, as well as certain local ones, were permitted to operate during the time.

Faisal Mudaris, a TV journalist, blogger, and YouTube star, says he was abused and threatened while in Taliban prison for eight days.

Mudaris comes from the tumultuous Panjshir Valley, which was the Taliban’s last bastion during their initial weeks in power. Mudaris is concerned that his ethnicity as a Panjshiri, rather than his journalism, has put him in Taliban custody. He feels he is still in danger and fears that no one will be able to hold the Taliban accountable.

Other ethnic minority’ journalists, such as the Hazaras, who have long endured prejudice from previous regimes, are also concerned. Several journalists from a tiny outfit named Etilaat Roz were imprisoned and abused in the months following the Taliban takeover. They were both Hazaras.

Karimi claims that anyone is being targeted because of their ethnicity and assures that anyone who insult the Taliban will be investigated. According to Butler of the CPJ, there is no method to track attacks based on ethnicity.

Under the Taliban, there appears to be some opportunity for critical reporting. TOLO, for example, showed a video of Taliban gunmen abusing a former Afghan soldier on many occasions.

Within days, top Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhunzada issued a warning to Taliban members, stating they would be punished if they went too far. He reaffirmed his commitment to ex-soldiers of amnesty.

“Did the news article cause a shift?” “I’d like to think it had something to do with it,” TOLO news director Sapai added.

According to Sapai, Taliban ideas range from those who hold on to the rigid ideals of the past to others who desire a more open society that includes education and jobs for everybody – including girls and women.

Domestic and global pressures on the Taliban, he argues, should not be overlooked. “Most Taliban commanders realize that Afghanistan and the world have changed, and that it’s difficult to go back in time,” he added. “However, there are still disputes among them.”

Journalists are concerned about the uncertainty of which viewpoint will prevail.

“Our greatest concern is that the Taliban would restrict us from doing our work in the future,” said TOLO reporter Asma Saeen, 22. “This is my greatest dread and source of concern.”

She has no recall of the Taliban’s harsh reign in the 1990s and claims to have been allowed to work freely. She, on the other hand, despises the numerous limits placed on girls and women, such as the prohibition on teen-age girls returning to school, at least for the time being, and the refusal of many women to return to their occupations.

Saeen and Binesh both want to leave Afghanistan, claiming they miss the freedoms they had before the Taliban took power.

“We were not expecting to confront so many limitations after 20 years of democracy,” Binesh remarked. “I’m all set to leave.”

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