Faced with a moral dilemma, an Afghan journalist says he must choose between working for Taliban-approved media, or risking his life to report independently.
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For 15 years, Mehrdad – not his real name – worked as a journalist and investigative reporter for various outlets in Afghanistan, even winning a prestigious award for his work and commitment to journalism. But in August 2021, his life took a drastic turn after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. Mehrdad now faces an uncertain future in a country where speaking the truth has become a dangerous act.
He explains to Afghan Witness (AW) that Afghanistan’s once-thriving media landscape, which tackled issues such as corruption, security, and current affairs, has been replaced by a climate of fear and censorship. Journalists are now grappling with a moral dilemma, he says: work for media outlets that the Taliban supports, or risk their lives working for independent or international media.
Mehrdad says that due to the risks involved with his job at an international media organisation, he made the difficult decision to resign after just two months.
"I could not risk the fate of my children and family – it is extremely difficult to keep fighting for your life like this.”
Since the Taliban’s return, human rights and press freedom groups have persistently flagged mounting reports of violence against journalists in the country, as well as alleged detentions of journalists and media workers.
“Many journalists in Afghanistan [face] direct threats from the Taliban, including beatings, arrests and warnings for working with certain media organisations.”
One misstep can trigger a warning from the Taliban's General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) explains Mehrdad.
“If you make another mistake, they will come and arrest you for an unknown period of time – there is also a chance of you getting killed by them.”
Misinformation and self-censorship
Aside from the physical threat to journalists in Afghanistan, Mehrdad is also afraid of the Taliban’s tightening grip on information and press freedom.
He says that journalists are barred from accessing the scenes of Taliban raids on alleged terror cells, or face arrest when reporting on women’s rights protests. He adds that journalists are prevented from accessing crucial government information, such as details of the Taliban’s contracts in the mining industry.
Several reports published in the Afghan media raise similar issues, with journalists claiming they face restrictions covering security incidents, and in some cases, are prevented from filming. Soon after their return to power, the Taliban were accused of torturing two Etilaatroz journalists for covering women’s protests in Kabul, and, in provinces such as Takhar, journalists have also stressed their lack of access to government information that would have previously been made available to them under laws established by the former government.
According to Mehrdad, Afghanistan’s once-thriving media landscape, which tackled issues such as corruption, security, and current affairs, has been replaced by a climate of fear.
“Currently, journalists are no longer able to convey the truth by reporting on current affairs – people’s phones were broken by the Taliban for simply taking a picture,” Mehrdad adds.
On the other hand, the information that journalists are given access to by the Taliban is not always reliable according to Mehrdad, who says the group “distorts the truth to suit their narrative.”
In some provinces, local media outlets have reportedly been told to only publish Taliban-approved content. The Taliban's control over the headlines has left journalists like Mehrdad unable to report the facts, while those working for pro-Taliban media channels and organisations can operate freely within the Taliban parameters, he explains.
“Reports produced by those [Taliban-approved] media channels are reviewed, filtered and then broadcasted to align with the Taliban’s policies.”
Access to information is particularly limited for international media, Mehrdad adds. This has been demonstrated by a string of restrictions the Taliban have reportedly issued on foreign media: in March 2022, BBC television news was banned from broadcasting bulletins in Pashto, Persian and Uzbek in Afghanistan, with programmes from other international broadcasters also removed. More recently, several international reporters claimed they were banned from entering the country by Taliban officials.
The shrinking information space has led to widespread mis and disinformation, especially in online spaces. AW has identified multiple cases of videos being shared out-of-context, often unintentionally, but has also found more targeted attempts to mislead, such as several false news accounts which serve to spread disinformation and undermine the opposition.
With journalists often restricted from the scene of security incidents, verifying details communicated by the Taliban has also proven difficult. Mehrdad recounts an incident in the Kart-e-Naw area of Kabul where the Taliban allegedly killed children but labelled them as members of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Similar incidents have been reported, he adds, with the Taliban justifying their actions by labelling their victims as enemies: members of ISKP, resistance forces, or even foreign spies.
Mehrdad stresses that self-censorship is also a major factor in limiting information from surfacing, particularly among journalists, who are afraid of reporting anything other than official Taliban statements. Last year, Human Rights Watch said that in many provinces outside of the capital, harassment and attacks on journalists had largely gone unreported, causing media outlets in outlying provinces to self-censor, or eventually close down altogether.
“In every media organisation and channel, the Taliban have one informant to identify journalists who pose a concern for the Taliban,” Mehrdad adds.
“People are also scared a lot, and for that reason, they don’t speak the truth.”
With many journalists afraid to report the truth, self-censorship is widespread, says Mehrdad.
The increasing threat of poverty
In the face of adversity, Merhdad and a group of Afghan journalists have secretly banded together to provide fact-checked reports to international media organisations. Mehrdad knows this is dangerous work in the current situation, but it is their only means of supporting their families and making ends meet.
"Two options are left for journalists in Afghanistan: either you die from your work or from poverty," he states solemnly.
When the Taliban returned to power, many independent media outlets reported that they were no longer able to pay workers’ salaries, with some closing down altogether. Research also shows that the closure of media outlets has had a disproportionate impact on female journalists, who face the added barrier of the Taliban’s restrictions on their work, dress and freedom of movement.
The security situation also remains volatile: a recent ISKP-claimed attack in Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh province, targeted a large group of reporters who had gathered to celebrate National Journalists’ Day.
Many Afghan journalists have left the country, with some continuing to report remotely on the situation back home. Some journalists who were given the option to leave have revealed they stayed out of dedication to journalism and their audiences. But risks are high – those who remain in the country and work for international media keep a low profile and often report under pseudonyms, Mehrdad explains.
Eighteen months after the takeover, organisations and NGOs are still working to evacuate those at risk. One such organisation is Journalists for Human Rights (JHR).
“Journalists face the same barriers that exist for all Afghans — they too need food security, access to education and opportunities for employment,” says Jordan MacInnis, Director of JHR’s Domestic Programs.
Since August 2021, the Canadian media development organisation has relocated, referred and resettled more than 500 Afghan journalists, human rights defenders and their family members, but the organisation told AW it received more than double that number of requests for help.
MacInnis adds that journalists in the country face barriers not only to their work, but to leaving the country to seek safety.
“We’ve found the number one barrier to leaving the country is the cost. Travel documents are prohibitively expensive, prices have risen sharply since 2021, and they can be difficult to access.”
Despite the work and successes of multiple organisations to relocate journalists in need, Mehrdad claims that some journalists he knows have had their applications rejected.
He says that there have also been people with fake journalist IDs evacuated based on personal connections. AW can not independently verify these claims, but various Afghan media also reported on the issue in September 2021.
Mehrdad says journalists must choose between the dangers of working for independent media, or face poverty.
With the primary barrier to relocation being cost, however, rights and humanitarian organisations have raised the alarm over intensifying poverty among Afghanistan’s population, with a recent UN report estimating that 34 million Afghans are living in poverty – a 15 million increase since 2020.
The reality of being a journalist right now is “painful”, Merhdad says, adding that many journalists who dedicated their adult lives to reporting the truth are now struggling to make ends meet.
“There are journalists who worked for 15 years and are currently driving taxis – I know of a journalist who worked in his field for 20 years but now does not have the money to pay for his transport.”
Mehrdad says Afghan journalists are dealing with poverty and hunger but also face a moral dilemma: working for Taliban-aligned media is safer and more financially secure, but it means abandoning the journalistic and democratic values they based their careers on.
On the other hand, continuing to work for international or independent media means risking not only their own lives, but their family’s.
Again, Mehrdad notes: "Two options are left for journalists in Afghanistan, either you die from your independent journalistic work or from poverty. You have to keep going – either to fight poverty or face the restrictions imposed by the Taliban."