Afghanistan: Taliban Target Journalists, Women in Media

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Afghan journalists film at the site of a bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. 
© 2021 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

(New York) – Taliban forces are deliberately targeting journalists and other media workers, including women, in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Threats and attacks against journalists across the country have increased sharply since talks began between the Afghan government and the Taliban, heightening concerns about preserving freedom of expression and the media in any peace settlement.

Human Rights Watch found that Taliban commanders and fighters have engaged in a pattern of threats, intimidation, and violence against members of the media in areas where the Taliban have significant influence, as well as in Kabul. Those making the threats often have an intimate knowledge of a journalist’s work, family, and movements and use this information to either compel them to self-censor, leave their work altogether, or face violent consequences. Provincial and district-level Taliban commanders and fighters also make oral and written threats against journalists beyond the areas they control. Journalists say that the widespread nature of the threats has meant that no media workers feel safe.

“A wave of threats and killings has sent a chilling message to the Afghan media at a precarious moment as Afghans on all sides get set to negotiate free speech protections in a future Afghanistan,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “By silencing critics through threats and violence, the Taliban have undermined hopes for preserving an open society in Afghanistan.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 46 members of the Afghan media between November 2020 and March 2021, seeking information on the conditions under which they work, including threats of physical harm. Those interviewed included 42 journalists in Badghis, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, Wardak, and Zabul provinces and four who had left Afghanistan due to threats.

In a number of cases that Human Rights Watch documented, Taliban forces detained journalists for a few hours or overnight. In several cases they or their colleagues were able to contact senior Taliban officials to intercede with provincial and district-level commanders to secure their release, indicating that local commanders are able to take decisions to target journalists on their own without approval from senior Taliban military or political officials.

Taliban officials at their political office in Doha, Qatar, have denied that their forces threaten the media and say that they require only that journalists respect Islamic values. But Taliban commanders throughout Afghanistan have threatened journalists specifically for their reporting. The commanders have considerable autonomy to carry out punishments, including targeted killings.

Women journalists, especially those appearing on television and radio, face particular threats. The recent wave of violent attacks has driven several prominent women journalists to give up their profession or leave Afghanistan altogether. Female reporters may be targeted not only for issues they cover but also for challenging perceived social norms prohibiting women from being in a public role and working outside the home.

Journalists outside the country’s main cities are especially vulnerable to attacks because they are more exposed and lack even the minimal protection that a larger Afghan media, government, and international presence provides. However, as the fighting has increasingly encroached on major cities, these have offered decreasing protection to journalists seeking safety from the violence in their home districts.

A journalist covering the fighting in Helmand province said that one of his sources told him the Taliban were looking for him and he should lie low. “The majority of Afghan journalists feel intimidated and threatened,” he said. “All the journalists are scared because everyone feels like they could be next.”

Residents of Taliban-held areas have long expressed fear of retaliation if they complain about the way Taliban forces carry out military operations or enforce restrictions. In a June 2020 report, Human Rights Watch documented severe restrictions in areas under Taliban control, including limits on freedom of expression and the media.

The Taliban leadership should immediately cease intimidation, threats, and attacks against journalists and other media workers, Human Rights Watch said. They should urgently provide clear, public directives to all Taliban members to end all forms of violence against journalists and other media workers, and intimidation, harassment, and punishment of Afghans who have criticized Taliban policies. The Taliban leadership should also explicitly reject violence against women in the media.

The United Nations and governments supporting the Intra-Afghan Negotiations should publicly press the Taliban leadership to adopt these recommendations, and provide increased support, including protection, to independent media organizations and journalists in Afghanistan, especially those facing threats.

“It’s not enough for Taliban officials in Doha to issue blanket denials that they’re targeting journalists when Taliban forces on the ground continue to intimidate, harass, and attack reporters for doing their jobs,” Gossman said. “Countries supporting the peace process should press for firm commitments from all parties to protect journalists, including women, and uphold the right to free expression in Afghanistan.”

Taliban Threats to Afghan Media

Although the Taliban routinely deny responsibility for attacks on journalists, the Afghan Journalists Security Committee (AJSC) has said:

Since the beginning of the spike in targeted killings in early November [2020], supporters of the group [Taliban] have welcomed the killings of journalists on social media, calling these killings in many cases a religious duty. Taliban supporters accuse journalists of being agents of Western countries, and corrupted by Western values, thereby legitimizing any violence against journalists and the media as not only being permissible but a key part of their war.

Taliban Threats Related to Reporting on the War

Taliban commanders and fighters have long targeted the media, accusing them of being aligned with the Afghan government or international military forces. If journalists report unfavorably about Taliban actions or military operations, the Taliban often accuse them of being spies. District and provincial-level Taliban commanders have also criticized journalists for not reporting incidents such as civilian casualties from government airstrikes. Journalists have said that the role some of them play as influential and prominent figures in many communities has made them targets of the Taliban. By attacking them the Taliban effectively threaten all local media. A journalist in Helmand said:

If the more prominent journalists are targeted first, the other journalists, who might be less influential or prominent, are automatically intimidated and fear for their lives .… Pro- Taliban accounts on social media … explicitly issue warnings to other journalists, along the lines of “learn something from the death of this journalist”—you can be next.

The effect on Afghan media has been profound. The killings and threats have generated fear among journalists and media workers, many of whom have altered their work patterns in an effort to mitigate the danger or try to be less visible.

Taliban pressure on the media is an apparent part of an effort to shape public debate about the war at a time of heightened political tensions surrounding the peace talks. Local journalists said Taliban commanders and fighters call them to complain about published reports, questioning why a certain issue was covered in a certain way. A journalist in Kandahar said:

The Taliban warned me about reporting on casualties related to a suicide attack. They wanted me to say that a lot of people got killed but I just reported the attacker dying … The Taliban threatened a couple of journalists over the last couple years for not reporting on assassinations. They say, ‘Why don’t you report the actual number?’ When we argue with them that it is the correct number, they threaten us.

When one journalist reported a Taliban attack on a civilian facility in Kandahar, he said that within minutes he received death threats and other warnings on his phone. The Taliban called him to say that they had not targeted civilians but a nearby government checkpost. The journalist said that he lives in fear that the Taliban might still come after him. Other journalists in Kandahar have reported being followed by Taliban fighters. Because of such confrontations, journalists often self-censor their stories.

In Helmand, Taliban commanders targeted journalists who reported on military operations during a Taliban offensive in October. Taliban forces attacked the outskirts of Lashkargah city, overrunning Afghan government checkpoints until US airstrikes drove them back. In the months before he was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) on November 11, Elyas Dayee, a journalist, had received multiple threats from Taliban commanders in Helmand, warning him to stop his reporting on their military operations. Another reporter covering the fighting said that the morning after his report came out, a Taliban commander called and accused him of publishing reports against the Islamic Emirates and warned that he would face consequences.

The Nature of the Threats

In Taliban-controlled provinces, threats often come from local commanders with knowledge of the journalist’s family, work habits, and movements. These commanders maintain individual contact with journalists and editors, and usually communicate these threats by phone or through social media.

A radio presenter in Zabul province said that he and his colleagues routinely receive threats from the Taliban accusing them of giving the government publicity. The callers always know details about the journalists they call, including their jobs, family members’ names, and often their addresses. One caller told him that he should either leave the area or work for the Taliban. When he refused the caller told him he should “count down to his death.” He said his relatives also receive these threats and are told to communicate them to him.

In Ghazni province, reporters say that they have been threatened and intimidated by various groups and do not know who is behind every attack. However, despite official denials from the Taliban leadership, comments by Taliban commanders and fighters on social media have led journalists to suspect that the Taliban are responsible for many attacks. These commanders generally have considerable autonomy to plan and carry out military operations independently.

The Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee said that in Ghazni province, the Taliban had instructed the majority of the local media outlets that they would only be permitted to continue media activities if they followed Taliban directives. Another journalist in Ghazni said that the Taliban commanders in the province object to any content that is negative or critical about them. Journalists whose reporting is perceived as favorable to the Afghan government may immediately become a target. Leaving their jobs is often their only recourse.

On December 21, Rahmatullah Nekzad, head of the Ghazni journalists’ union, was fatally shot as he walked from his home to a local mosque. Although the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied that the group was responsible for the attack, Nekzad had been receiving threats from local Taliban commanders since at least 2019. He said in early December, that the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country’s intelligence agency, informed him that he and 15 other journalists in Ghazni were at risk of a Taliban attack. He described the threats he received:

I use a social media account to upload daily news. Some local Taliban called me to accuse me of running social media pages that post anti-Taliban news. … Their argument was that every time you post something on your wall, these … are also your accounts. They also threatened people who commented on the post.

In another case in mid-December, Taliban forces stopped the vehicle in which a local journalist was traveling. He called a contact, who then contacted a Taliban official. As a result of this intervention, the local Taliban released him. While he was in their custody, the Taliban accused him of working for the government’s intelligence agency and for “foreigners.”

Journalists have also been threatened for reporting on Taliban abuses. A radio correspondent from Badghis province said that after he and his colleagues broadcast a report about the Taliban extorting payments from highway drivers, the journalists began to receive threats: 

In addition to the radio, we have a Facebook page where we publish the news of the day. After I posted this story, one of the comments read: “The martyrs of the Islamic Emirate will soon kill the employees of this media station.” The same message came in [Facebook] Messenger. Since then, we report less news on Facebook now. Badghis’s capital is a very small city. Everyone knows each other and I have no doubt that they also know the address of our office.

Another journalist from Badghis said that in November, as he was traveling from Herat to Badghis province, Taliban fighters stopped him and forced him out of his car. They interrogated him about whether he had cooperated with government security forces and threatened to kill him. He said that his family was aware that he was on the road. He was finally released after local and ethnic Taliban elders who knew them mediated his release. “I am still in fear and … shock from this incident,” he said. “Now I publish less news of the war. Whenever I go to a press conference, I am fearful and cautious. I only cover news from the capital now.”

Local Taliban fighters have assaulted journalists who have traveled into Taliban-controlled districts. A journalist from Wardak province said that a group of Taliban fighters stopped and beat him and another reporter, accusing them of spying and “going around without the Taliban’s permission to take pictures, record videos, and talk to people.” The journalists showed their press identification but were not released until after they called a contact, who then informed senior Taliban officials, who ordered them released.

Threats also come in writing. A journalist in Ghazni said that a letter was dropped by his house ordering him to meet with the local Taliban because his reports were not “neutral.” It warned him that if he did not change, his death was “close.” After the warning, he left his home district and stayed in Kabul for a few months. Eventually he returned home but avoided his office out of fear.

The Taliban also send cell phone text messages to comment on media coverage, often chiding reporters that they should have included the Taliban point of view. While criticism of media reporting is not in itself problematic, when it comes from an armed group with a history of killing journalists, the messages are intimidating and create fear. “Being a journalist is something that can put your life in danger without even doing anything specific to antagonize the Taliban,” one journalist in Ghazni said.

Journalists also receive threats when they share their political views on social media. Taliban commanders also use Facebook to issue threats. A journalist in Ghazni said that shortly after he posted a government statement on a military offensive that resulted in Taliban casualties, he received a message from a Taliban commander demanding to speak with him:

He told me not to listen to what [government officials] say and ordered me to come see him. I had to comply. He came with his men in a Toyota vehicle. He threatened me and told me not to post anything more on Facebook.

Another journalist in Ghazni had a similar experience after using Facebook to post his report on the police killing a suspected Taliban bomber. He received a call from a man who said he was with the Taliban and asked him why he was publishing inaccurate information. The man warned him that they would watch out for what he published and that he should not publish such reports anymore.

Local Taliban commanders issue warnings about radio and television stations airing music programs, which they consider prohibited, and blame journalists for this practice. One journalist described the threats he received:

Whenever the Taliban hears about music on local radio channels, they immediately start calling you, threatening to kill you. They told me many times that they held court sessions about me, proving that I am guilty of broadcasting music. They threatened to kill me. I left this job because of these threats.

The journalist said that local Taliban officials had also told him not to broadcast election-related news because elections were “US-instigated.” He said: “I argued with them for a couple of months that this is not my personal choice but the station’s editorial decision. Then the Taliban asked for my boss’ number and threatened him until he left.” Another Ghazni reporter said he had received at least six threats in which callers warned him of vague consequences if he did not remove music or make other changes to the programs.

Threatening to harm relatives is a common tactic to spread fear. A journalist in Khost said that he received threatening calls from unknown numbers, some accusing him of working for Christians, others accusing him of being a foreign spy. Some specifically warn him that they know his relatives and where he lives:

I am terrified but cannot do anything about it … One of my relatives said that I should leave [journalism] because he is scared … I cannot carry on with my work. I cannot go outside freely. A caller shared a lot of information about me as proof that they have been watching me – he told me my name, my father’s name, where I work, and the address of my house … after a few days, I got a message saying “the path you have chosen is not the right path, so you should move on from it or else we will decide what to do with you.”

For the time being, the journalist has changed his phone hoping to prevent further threats.

Taliban Threats to Women in the Media

The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee reported that 14 women working for media outlets in Afghanistan were threatened or violently attacked in 2020. An increasing number of Afghan women in journalism have left the profession because of worsening security and threats, a trend that emerged after 2015 and has accelerated.

The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), an armed group affiliated with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), took responsibility for killing four women journalists and media workers, including Malala Maiwand, the first woman TV presenter for Enikass News, on December 10, and the March 2 killings of Mursal Waheedi, Saadia Sadat, and Shahnaz Raufi, who worked at Enikass News dubbing foreign language news reports. 

It is often not clear whether the ISKP, the Taliban, or other groups are responsible for some threats and attacks against women. In Ghazni province, the Taliban have instructed media outlets that the hosts of entertainment programs should not be women, and that no music should be broadcasted.

Farahnaz Forotan, one of Afghanistan’s best-known journalists noted for her hard-hitting interviews on Tolo News, left the country in November after hearing that she was on a Taliban blacklist and would soon be killed.

She said that the Taliban:

do not accept free media, and, in many events, they had rejected being interviewed by women. The reason they wanted to kill me, was because as a woman I am not accepted according to their values … The situation in Kabul is very scary. I know four journalists in Kandahar who left their jobs. The local media does not reflect it because they cannot. They are being threatened and the government cannot provide protection … Every morning I check messages to make sure that everyone is safe. I live with fear – it is very difficult to live with the fear of losing a loved one.

Another Kabul-based journalist had worked as a producer for a television news outlet but left her job in mid-2020 after receiving threats. She said:

The Taliban threatened me a couple of times on the phone, and they told me to leave my job. I also found a letter from the Taliban in a hole in our door. The letter repeated that I must not work anymore for news agencies because this job doesn’t suit me morally. If you continue, then you have no right to complain [about the consequences].