The State of Freedom of Speech and Media in the Past Year
Elyas Nawandish is an Afghan journalist and editor at the popular digital magazine Etilaat Roz.
As a journalist, he worked in the past half a decade to promote freedom of expression, propagate democratic values and practices, and fight against corruption through his investigative and critical reporting.
In this report, he briefly reviews the situation of the media and journalism in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban came to power.
A year into the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, we have now seen that freedom of expression and journalism in the country are no longer in question. Journalists are seeking to save their lives by finding a way to escape Afghanistan. The situation of journalism in Afghanistan is very different from what it used to be during the Republic, about a year ago. As a journalist, I will try to illustrate the changes by bringing in, statistics and documentation.
In the last two decades, Afghanistan had witnessed qualitative and quantitative growth of free media, which was denoted as one of the most prominent indicators of change for a better future and thus had become one of the main and serious debates in the Peace Talks from 2018 between the Taliban and the US Special Representative regarding Afghanistan’s peace process. The talks continued between the Taliban and the Afghan government in political and media circles, concerning important issues on how to protect the achievements of the past two decades. Among other issues, the main concern remained on the protection of freedom of expression and the future of the media in Afghanistan.
So, the future of freedom of expression and the media in Afghanistan became a serious matter. At the same time, for media executives, the question arose on whether free media could continue to operate as in the past - if peace was attained and a political agreement was reached with the Taliban. Otherwise, the Taliban will be forced to act in accordance with the principles and values of journalism and journalists to continue their work. In other words, at that time, we wondered if the Taliban entered the political arena in Afghanistan after the peace process, would they accept free media coverage, and would reporters be able to sit freely in the newsroom at the desk with the Taliban?
Up to this point, the media and especially investigative journalism played an important role in holding government officials accountable. Journalists were keen observers, they revealed corruptions and the corruptors within the authorities. They lift the veils of corruption, and in many cases, they became the voices of the people and society. These journalists closely examined the peace process and actively participated in reflecting the demands and concerns of the people of Afghanistan. Contrary to what was discussed in peace process talks, the situation in the country changed. Afghanistan’s political system collapsed on August 15, 2021, with the escape of the country’s president, as when the republic was replaced by the Taliban. As a result of this collapse of the modern, democratic political order in Afghanistan, the media and journalists found themselves at gunpoint and were threatened by the Taliban. The day after their victory, the Taliban drew a new set of rules for the media and journalism. Their military officials began torturing, beating, and detaining journalists.
The legal status of the media and the journalist
The Constitution of Afghanistan, adopted in 2003, had guaranteed freedom of speech and media in the country. According to Article 34 of the law, “Freedom of expression is protected. Every Afghan has the right to express his or her opinion through speech, writing, images, or other means, in accordance with the provisions of this constitution.” This article of the constitution also states that any citizen of Afghanistan may publish content “without first submitting it to government officials.”
The Law on Mass Media, adopted in August 2008, also facilitated and regulated “ensuring the right to freedom of thought and expression and regulating the activities of the mass media” in the country. Article 4 of this law had guaranteed freedom of thought and expression against personal interference, restrictions, and censorship. “The right to access information, to publish critical reports and opinions” was also protected by the mass media law. To obtain a license in order to practice journalism in accordance with this law was within the ability of the Ministry of Information and Culture. The Public Media Commission oversaw investigating mass media complaints and resolving their legal disputes, reporting criminal offences of the mass media to the judicial authorities, and supervising the finances of the mass media.
These laws require journalists to abide by Afghanistan’s rules and regulations, and there are clear definitions of the guidelines, phrases, and issues related to the media and the journalist. These laws limit the possibility of government officials interfering in the affairs of media, and very clearly outline the authorities responsible for violations and crimes resulting from media activities. Nevertheless, with the advent of Taliban, these laws were abolished in practice. Despite the Taliban’s introduced Ministry of Information and Culture claims that the mass media law is in place, in practice various departments and individuals within the Taliban government have laid out specific guidelines for the media and journalists. As a result of the enactment of these guidelines, the job of the media and the journalists has been challenged. Their efforts to control and manage the free media and journalists show that the Taliban government does not follow a clear legal framework for the media and journalists.
One of the departments of the Taliban government, involved in media coverage and inferring with the activities of journalists in violation of the mass media law, is the intelligence service. Reporters Without Borders claims that Jawad Sargar, a Taliban official in the 53rd Directorate, contacted the media and reporters, telling them “Do not publish such news anymore and do not invite such a person” or even occasionally threatened them that: “We pull the tongue out of your deep throat.” On November 22nd of 2021, the Ministry of Promoting Goodness and Prohibiting Badness of the Taliban government issued a request urging the media not to publish anything in violation to Sharia law, the principles, and values of Afghans and for female journalists to observe the Islamic way of hijab. Two months before that, the Taliban government’s head of the media centre issued eleven articles to the media, emphasizing adherence to Islamic values and the principles of impartiality and the journalistic profession. At the time, Reporters Without Borders called the guidelines dangerous for free journalism in Afghanistan, that this could “open the door to censorship and harassment of journalists.”
In the latest case, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the leader of the Taliban, stated in a decree that it is not permissible to criticize the government of the Taliban official. He said that, according to Islam, ‘it is not permissible to make false accusations against the officials of this group and criticize them far from reality.’ According to him, ‘Islamic guidelines’ are the legal Shariah responsibility of all citizens, and the Taliban forces and news media are to follow them.
The challenge of accessing information
The right to access information is defined in different Afghan laws. According to Article 50 of the Constitution and to ensure the right of access to information the “Law on Access to Information” was approved by the National Assembly of Afghanistan on October 20, 2014. On March 3, 2018, the Law on Access to Information was signed for the second time by the president with some amendments. The law described how citizens and journalists could access information from both governmental and non-governmental sources. Under the law, every governmental office was required to have an “information expert.” This office was responsible for receiving the request for information and submitting it to the applicant at the time specified in the law.
At the end of the financial year 2020, the statistics from the commission of the access to information shows that since the establishment of this commission on December 30, 2018, up to January 2021, a total number of 66 information authorities were introduced in Kabul and more than 950 in other provinces. These individuals served as sources of information in the ministries, independent directorates and commissions, the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and within the provinces. With approval of this law and the awareness of citizens, especially journalists, of its significance, in the last four years, the graph of demand for information from government departments had plunged. According to the statistics of the Information Access Commission from the year 2019 up to 2022, more than six thousand information requests have been registered from 134 different departments.
On the one hand, the content of the law Access to Information had provided the basis for investigative journalism in Afghanistan. On the other, government offices and officials were required by law to provide information. This act not only made it easy for journalists to access information, but it was also an important and a step forward in fighting against corruption. With the advent of the Taliban, access to information is one of the main challenges for journalism in Afghanistan. The Taliban state has a handful of spokespersons and media outlets, and these individuals do not provide the information that journalists want. This challenge has left not only journalists but also Afghan citizens unaware of the activities of the Taliban officials and government officials. The Taliban interfere in the publishing arena of the media, and in giving information they also act in a way that they see fit.
Fleeing, threatening, and torturing
Violence against journalists and the media has always existed in Afghanistan, but with a difference since August 15, 2021. Before the rise of the Taliban in power, journalists were mostly killed and injured in terrorist attacks and other targeted incidents. At that time, despite the critical role of the media, there was no threat to journalists, at least from the government and its officials, but it was government officials who feared criticism and revealing media reports. With the Taliban coming to power, reporters sought to flee Afghanistan. Hundreds of journalists left Afghanistan, and those journalists remaining in Afghanistan who denounce the Taliban state, are not only looking for a way to escape the country but are also living in constant fear of being arrested and summoned by Taliban officials.
Contrary to claims by senior Taliban officials that freedom of expression was respected, violence against journalists began shortly after they took control of Kabul. On September 8, 2021, Taliban members arrested two journalists from Atleat Rooz [the Daily News who were covering a demonstration by women. Later in the police station, these journalists were brutally beaten. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, last year on September 7th and 8th, the Taliban arrested at least 14 journalists who were covering anti-Taliban protests, and eventually then released them.
In the last few months, the Taliban's intelligence service has doubled its efforts to arrest and torture the journalists. According to the latest report by Reporters Without Borders, at least 80 journalists and media workers have been arrested since August 15, 2021. Many of these arrests were made by Taliban intelligence. Three other journalists are in prison on charges of ‘acting against the country’s security and one person has been sentenced to one year in a military prison.
In the pre-Taliban government, according to data from the Ministry of Information and Culture, 3,578 media outlets were registered in the last two decades. Of these numbers, 972 comprised audio and visual media, 937 comprised cultural institutions and 1660 included print media, such as newspapers, magazines, book publications, etc. It is not clear to the ministry how many of these media outlets were shut down before the fall of the government, but this figure shows the significant growth of the media in Afghanistan.
However, with the rise of the Taliban, the activities of a large number of media were stopped due to financial and security problems. By December 2021, more than 40% of the media outlets in the country were closed and 80% of women journalists and media workers were unemployed. The findings of the Reporters Without Borders organization and the Afghan Free Journalists Association at that time showed that ‘since August 15, 2021, a total of 231 media outlets were closed and 6,400 journalists and media associates had lost their jobs.’ The findings of the Federation of Afghan Journalists, which were reviewed by the Committee to Protect Journalists, also showed that before the fall of the government, about 4090 male journalists and 979 female journalists were active in Afghanistan.
As of now, the Reporters Without Borders organization reported that 59.39% of media and 59.86% of journalists and media workers have disappeared from ‘the country's media sector.’ This organization has said that there are no women journalists in eleven provinces of Afghanistan and three out of four media professionals have lost their jobs. In one of their reports, it is said that, on August 15, 2021, countries had 547 media outlets, after which 219 media outlets are no longer active. Before the Taliban took over, there were 11,857 journalists and media workers, and now only 4,759 people have remained. Women journalists have been the first victims of these power changes. About 19.76% of them have lost their jobs.
The prospect of media activity in Afghanistan on the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the Republic is not only dark and agonising but also hopeless for the situation to improve. Taliban intelligence has made the working space for journalists and media constricted and scary. There are no pro-music, entertainment, and political media programs, and female TV anchors now appear in front of the camera wearing masks.