Afghan journalists lament ‘bleak’ future for media beneath Taliban

Shabir Ahmadi began his job at TOLO TV, Afghanistan’s largest personal broadcaster, throughout one of many darkest days for the media within the war-torn nation: January 21, 2016.

The night earlier than, a Taliban suicide bomber had killed a graphic designer, video editor, set decorator, three dubbing artists and a driver who labored for TOLO’s leisure wing.

When he arrived on the TOLO workplace the subsequent morning, the guards on the door have been confused and nonetheless grief-stricken. They had no thought what to do with Ahmadi. They regarded on the then 24-year-old, who had simply ended his job with TOLO’s most important rival, 1TV, and requested him if he was “crazy” to start out work at a community that had come beneath direct assault solely hours in the past.

Because the information by no means stops, not even when your organisation turns into the information, Ahmadi began his job lower than every week later.

Everything modified on August 15

After that, reporting on the deaths of their colleagues by suicide bombers, unidentified gunmen and improvised explosive gadgets (IEDs) grew to become a routine because the Taliban, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-Okay) and unknown armed teams continued to focus on journalists over the subsequent 5 years.

Still, Ahmadi and hundreds of different media employees throughout Afghanistan, most of them of their 20s and 30s, continued their work undeterred. Newsrooms and manufacturing homes stuffed with younger women and men labored collectively to make the nation’s media the freest within the area, in line with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) watchdog.

An Afghan journalist movies the location the place gunmen fired in Kabul, Afghanistan [File: Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

But all that modified on August 15.

First got here the information that former President Ashraf Ghani and high cupboard officers had fled the nation. Then got here experiences that the Taliban, which had simply entered the districts of Kabul province early that morning, was heading into the capital metropolis.

Suddenly, the reminiscences of the bombings and killings got here flooding again. Ahmadi, who was then deputy head of reports at TOLO, met the community’s high administration and instantly got here to 2 choices.

“The first thing we did was send all the female staff home,” Ahmadi instructed Al Jazeera over the cellphone from Europe.

The different choice they made was controversial however obligatory, he mentioned. They instantly stopped broadcasting music and leisure programmes. The Turkish serials, sport exhibits, singing competitions, speak exhibits and sketch comedy exhibits that hundreds of thousands of individuals tuned into each night got here to a sudden finish.

Though the Taliban had made no official declarations on programming on the time, Ahmadi mentioned the choice was a preemptive one.

“If you understood the fear that night, you would see why we came to such a decision,” he instructed Al Jazeera.

Ahmadi mentioned he now regrets that call, however that on the time, it appeared like a obligatory one. “We wanted to be the ones to cut them off, not the Taliban,” he mentioned.

Ahmadi mentioned he tried to work as a journalist within the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, nevertheless it rapidly grew to become clear that may be too troublesome. There have been experiences of the Taliban torturing journalists, confiscating their tools, beating them on the streets of most important cities, jailing them for weeks at a time and instituting new restrictive media legal guidelines.

By September, Ahmadi was amongst a whole bunch of different Afghan journalists and media employees, together with his TOLO colleagues, who had fled the nation.

The exodus of journalists has led to severe questions on the way forward for the media in Afghanistan, the place a free press was one of many few actual positive factors to return out of 20 years of Western occupation.

Myanmar-like state of affairs

Steven Butler, the Asia programme coordinator on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), says the present media state of affairs in Afghanistan resembles that of Myanmar.

Like Afghanistan, Myanmar additionally skilled a current political upheaval that noticed the top of a controversial semi-democratic Western-supported authorities and led to a direct flight of the nation’s media employees.

Butler fears that, like Myanmar, the way forward for Afghanistan’s media is “bleak”, however he understands why so many journalists left each the international locations, working in exile.

“[It] is not ideal, but it is better than being in jail or killed,” he instructed Al Jazeera by phone.

Though some Afghans have already resumed their work from overseas, Butler mentioned Afghans could have a way more troublesome time than the folks of Myanmar in the case of restarting their work in exile.

“In Myanmar, there was already much more of a precedent and infrastructure for journalists to operate in exile,” he mentioned.

For Ahmadi, the flight of journalists is particularly troublesome to bear as a result of the media was one trade the place hundreds of younger folks felt heard and challenged on the identical time.

Ahmadi describes his years at TOLO and 1TV as a time when he “felt free and supported”.

“Whenever we would present an idea to them, they would say, ‘Great, go do it.’ There really wasn’t anything we were discouraged from trying,” he says, reminiscing about his days at two of the nation’s top-ranked TV stations.

Butler says CPJ is making an attempt to determine contacts with the Taliban to advocate for the rights of the Afghan reporters, however that has confirmed troublesome to this point. He says the Islamic Emirate guarantees it’ll examine issues, however has but to current any precise findings.

Abdullah Khenjani, the previous director of reports at 1TV, the nation’s second-largest personal broadcaster, says if the Taliban actually believes within the free media, because it mentioned shortly after taking energy, then they have to show it with their actions.

“So far, the Taliban has not been able to buy public confidence and secure a safe environment for critical journalism in particular,” he mentioned.

Journalists crushed and tortured

That dedication to free media got here beneath renewed scrutiny on Thursday, when CPJ reported the Taliban beat three journalists overlaying a small girls’s protest in one of many busiest areas of Kabul.

Once once more, the organisation mentioned the Taliban didn’t reply to their requests for touch upon the incident, which got here only a month after the group detained, beat and flogged journalists overlaying an analogous demonstration.

Afghan journalists present their wounds after being crushed by the Taliban in Kabul [File: Etilaatroz via Reuters]

Other journalists Al Jazeera spoke to agreed with Khenjani’s evaluation, saying they’ve confronted pushback whereas making an attempt to report on a number of points over the past two months.

Journalists who have been crushed and tortured for reporting on protests in Kabul final month instructed Al Jazeera they’ve been warned by Taliban officers to not cowl such occasions.

Likewise, journalists additionally recalled being stopped by the Taliban from reporting from the northern province of Panjshir the place an armed resistance towards the group began after it took over Kabul.

Abdul Farid Ahmad, the previous deputy director for operations at TOLO News, references all of those occasions when talking about his efforts to proceed working in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

“They have beaten journalists many times. They didn’t let journalists cover the women’s protests. They didn’t let journalists go to Panjshir when it was not under their control. We have so many examples that the Taliban didn’t and still don’t want journalists to work freely,” he instructed Al Jazeera.

In a current report, the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) described the killing of a journalist by unknown gunmen and seizures of two media shops within the east and the north as examples of the Islamic Emirate failing to make sure security of the media.

Like CPJ, the AJSC additionally says the Taliban has failed to offer particulars of promised investigations into abuses towards journalists.

“I don’t know any journalist who is willing to work with the Taliban, but I do know a lot of journalists who left the country and many others who want to leave the country. Journalists don’t feel safe in Afghanistan,” mentioned Ahmad.

The exodus has enormously affected the standard of reporting within the nation. In a current assertion, the AJSC mentioned, “Media reporting quality has reached to its lowest level in the last 20 years.”

Journalists Al Jazeera spoke to over the past two months say they’ve confronted nice problem in getting sources starting from hospital officers to different media employees and even common residents in distant areas to go on the file for his or her experiences.

Khenjani, the previous information director at 1TV, says the fears are because of the Taliban’s “rudimentary government structure” which is sorely missing in certified professionals and “incoherent policies” which differ from province to province. This, he says, has affected the connection between media and even their most stellar sources.

Lack of international support

The AJSC went on to say that 70 % of the media shops throughout the nation have closed within the two months for the reason that Taliban got here to energy.

It is not only bodily hazard that’s main to those closures. Foreign governments and donor organisations have slashed funding to the nation for the reason that Taliban’s takeover. The media was one of many industries most reliant on international support.

Large shops reminiscent of TOLO declare to be self-sufficient based mostly on commercial gross sales, a privilege Ahmadi acknowledges few others take pleasure in.

“For years, we charged some of the highest ad fees. At the time, we could do that.”

Ahmadi says these reserves could assist TOLO outlast the present monetary disaster, however smaller organisations should not so well-placed to cope with the state of affairs.

Butler from CPJ agrees. “When an economy collapses, so too does the market for ads,” he instructed Al Jazeera, including that will probably be very troublesome for a lot of shops to proceed operations beneath the present monetary constraints.

The overarching unease doesn’t bode nicely for the Afghan media going ahead, mentioned the journalists Al Jazeera spoke to.

“I don’t know how much longer the private media can afford to go on,” mentioned Ahmad.

Khenjani lamented the continued shrinking of the Afghan media. “In Afghanistan, the media works best when it can try to speak truth to power and hold the powerful to account,” he mentioned.

Khenjani mentioned whereas they “often faltered” with the previous Islamic republic, they no less than had the prospect “to try and challenge the government narrative”.

Today, he says, that’s not potential. “The Taliban will never accept the kinds of scrutiny and investigations that were conducted during the republic.”