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 , 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: