Sadiqa Shirazi knew what the Taliban thought about her journalism well before their takeover of Afghanistan. From 2008, as Shirazi, then running a TV and radio station in Kunduz, focussed on stories about domestic violence, women’s rights and their education, she and her husband started getting death threats. In 2015, during the five brief days that Taliban entered Kunduz, her television and radio station was destroyed, and stripped of all equipment.
Shirazi, who had fled to the Afghanistan capital at the time, decided to fight back. With funding help from donors, and a mostly women team of 15, she restarted Roshani radio, broadcasting programmes from 6 am to 2 am, including live Q&As with listeners.
In 2021, Shirazi, her husband and eight-year-old daughter had already left for Kabul when the Taliban took over Kunduz. “They were calling my husband repeatedly, asking us to return, saying that they would not harm us,” she said. But this time, Shirazi said, she knew there was no going back.
“They always accused us of pushing an American agenda… There is no way to work as a journalist in Kunduz now,” Shirazi told The Indian Express from Canada, where she is now trying to start life anew with her family. Her female team members have dispersed too, to Canada and Pakistan.
The handful of men who were in Shirazi’s team are still operating the radio station. “They have to go by the Taliban agenda. They have only Islamic programmes now,” she said.
According to a report by the International Federation of Journalists which partners with the Afghan National Journalists Union, in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover, of 400 media organisations, over 160 have had to shut down, of which nearly 100 are radio stations. For those that are open, the ground rules of what can and cannot be broadcast are laid down by the new rulers. Two TV channels run by women for female audiences are among those that have shut down.
From 2003 to 2021, as Afghanistan tried to find its democratic centre even as foreign forces and Taliban fought for control, other than the education of women, the explosion of media was one of the more noticeable achievements. Many women joined journalism as it was considered respectable work.
Since last year, with so many media houses no longer functional, more than 2,000 journalists are out of work, 70 per cent of them women, according to surveys by journalist associations, amid draconian rules for women at work. Many of these women were the only earning members of their family. A targeted attack in July 2021 against three women television journalists, killing them on the spot, set the stage for women to quit their jobs en masse when the Taliban took over in August.
There have been 120 detentions of journalists, 48 of them in Kabul alone. Newspapers are no longer printed and have all gone online.
“Afghans have no access to information on their own. We are mostly following our news through western media,” said a journalist. “The national media is doing self-censorship and the Taliban are monitoring everything.”
He said that under the Constitution that was in operation until the Taliban took over, there was freedom of speech. “Based on that, there was a media law, and our own access to information law, and an oversight body to monitor access to information. It was the best in this region. But the Taliban scrapped all that as soon as they came. Now there is no law. Only a lot of restrictions,” the journalist said.
Hundreds of journalists have fled to neighbouring Pakistan, hoping to get a visa to any third country from there, as most embassies in Kabul are still shut.
Tolo News of the Moby group, Afghanistan’s most well-known channel, is one of the few media organisations that has stayed afloat. Khpolwak Sapai, director of the channel, said it had not been stopped from doing any stories.
“The Taliban have said they support free media with some conditions, such as not to do any stories against Islamic values, or national values. These can have wide interpretations, and it is creating a lot of confusion. We have conveyed to them that we need to have a media law, otherwise it will be difficult to define the boundaries,” said Sapai.
On the day of the Taliban takeover on August 15, 2021, Sapai recalled that he had no anchors in the studio by 4 pm as everyone had left in panic. For most of the day, the TV channel put out repackaged versions of the previous day’s news.
“Around 3 pm, we learnt (President) Ashraf Ghani had left the country. I had to be every careful with my editorial decision because of the panic that had already taken over Kabul due to the presence of Taliban in the western part of the city, and the fear of armed criminals in Kabul,” said Sapai, who studied journalism in Kabul University in the 1960s, and described the last 20 years as the best years for journalism in Afghanistan.
A male presenter finally agreed to come to office, and the station broke the news that the President had fled. The channel got Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid to speak live and reassure the people that it would be a peaceful transition and no criminal elements would be allowed to take advantage of the confusion.
But over the next few days, Tolo lost 90 per cent of its staff as both male and female employees quit, some of them to go abroad, some because their family members did not allow them to leave home. “As the only person here, I had to keep the channel on, and I had to hire new colleagues,” he said.
It was an opportunity to inject fresh blood, Sapai said. The channel has recruited more women than it had earlier. It has 20 provincial correspondents, of whom eight are women, and 20 women in Kabul, working as reporters, presenters and camerapersons.
Looking back, Sapai said the first few weeks under the Taliban were perhaps easier. One Taliban spokesman even agreed to go on television with woman presenter Beheshta Arghand, which Sapai said had made him hopeful. The image made waves across the world. But then the Taliban imposed a strict dress code, including a face cover for women presenters. For a few days, Tolo’s male presenters also wore a face mask on air as a mark of protest.
Waheeda Hassan, a reporter at the news channel who was hired in Tolo’s recent recruitment drive, said she works in order to motivate other women to do the same. “The Taliban want to remove women from society. Going on television is a way to give the message that Afghan women still exist, and to give women the confidence that they can also come out of their homes,” Hassan said.
Still, said Hassan, life had become unpredictable under the Taliban, especially for women. Being a journalist who needs to be out and about, was to run the gauntlet every day.
“We don’t know what firmaan they are going to come up with next. If you are by yourself in a car, they ask where’s your mehram? If you are with a male colleague, how are you related to him? Each day, a different rule. One day, they might say a woman’s voice is not halal,” said Hassan.
“My family tells me it’s a dangerous job, they don’t want me to do this. But who will raise a voice for women if all women stay at home and become silent,” she said.
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At a provincial radio station, an innovative young broadcaster, who did not want to be identified, said she had found a way to talk about women’s rights by invoking religion at the beginning of each programme.
Despite the fightback, the senior journalist said Afghan journalism was now suffering from a triple whammy — financial insecurity, physical security, and lack of capacity. “Many of the leaders in Afghan journalism have left the country. Those who are left behind are in panic, and are feeling demotivated,” he said.