Under the Taliban, it's harder than ever to be an Afghan journalist
ISLAMABAD — The nightmares come easy and often for Afghan journalist Taqi Daryabi.
When they do, the 22-year-old reporter for the Afghan newspaper Etilaatroz is instantly transported back to a dank room in a Taliban-run police station, where a group of former fighters brutally beat him and his colleague Nematullah Naqdi last month for covering a women's protest in Kabul.
"All of them started beating me with whatever they had in their hands — with whips, batons, with rubber, with wood," says Daryabi, who is still in and out of the hospital for treatment of his lacerations. "With whatever torturing tool they had, they beat me until I passed out."
Naqdi, his colleague, has partially lost his vision from the beating he endured that day.
About 500 miles away, in the western city of Herat, it's not the past that haunts 26-year-old journalist Atefa. It's the fear of the future.
Atefa, who wants to use only her first name to protect her safety, used to write critically about the Taliban's attitudes and treatment of women for various Afghan news outlets. Now she's in hiding.
Ever since the group recaptured Herat in mid-August, her neighbors have been telling her the Taliban have been looking for her. In recent weeks, she's received text messages from unknown numbers, containing grisly video clips. She presumes they're from the Taliban, warning her of what's to come.
"One recent video I got shows the Taliban torturing a man to death," she says. "I am ready to be killed by a bullet, but I do not want to fall into the hands of the Taliban. I don't want to be cut up into pieces."
There's a disconnect between what Taliban officials say and what their foot soldiers do
Reporting has long been a dangerous and even deadly business for Afghan journalists. They have been targeted with attacks and kidnappings, some of which have been claimed by the Taliban. Now, with the Taliban in power, the mix of threats, detentions and vague media rules, plus a shattered economy, have set the clock back on Afghan media progress.
More than 150 media companies and radio stations across the country have shut down, according to TOLO News, Afghanistan's most prominent broadcast news outlet. Hundreds of Afghan journalists have fled the country since Taliban forces took control of Kabul in August.
Those who have stayed, like Daryabi and Atefa, say they don't know where the Taliban's red lines are. Many have stopped working for fear of retribution, violent assaults and inexplicable detentions.
"The Taliban doesn't have full control over the way its people operate," says Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
He has been following the cases of Afghan journalists and says there appears to be a disconnect between Taliban leaders, who insist publicly that they support press freedoms, and its foot soldiers who mete out harsh punishments.
Taliban leaders argue that those now patrolling the streets have spent the last 20 years fighting, not policing or engaging with civic society. Some lower-level Taliban admit they're struggling to adjust to their new lives and miss the battle.
Taliban officials use this as justification for media restrictions.
"We have repeatedly said that we believe in the freedom of speech in the media," Taliban spokesman Inamullah Samangani tells NPR. "Of course, because the situation is not normal yet and is not fully under control, we want to prevent some irregular and disorderly scenarios and assure the security and safety of journalists ... to prepare the ground for them to report. Right now, in places like military centers or places that are still contested and combative and not yet fully in our control — we advise journalists not to report from there."
Adding to the confusion, Samangani denies the existence of 11 harsh rules for the press that were announced by Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi, the Taliban's interim director of the Government Media and Information Center, at a Sept. 19 press conference.
For now, Samangani specifies two general prohibitions: "There are two issues we won't tolerate — when our religious rights are attacked, and second, when there's an obvious agenda against our national interest," he says. "Apart from these two items, I told you we are open to accepting criticism and we can be held accountable. But the problem is that the regime is not formed well yet. It is in the process of forming and it is our view that all institutions should start their affairs first, and that will allow for better cooperation and dissemination of information. That's when we will be ready to have long investigative stories and we will cooperate with them."
When asked about the violent detention of Daryabi and his colleague, Samangani expresses regret but deflects blame.
"We believe that the journalists turned into the victims of an illegal protest. The protest was not run in cooperation with the government and legal systems," he says. "Unfortunately, the mujahideen who were there for security were not aware and were not prepared to deal with that."
The Taliban are unlikely to promote press freedom
Even the most ardent critics of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan regard the flowering of Afghan media as one of the country's greatest success stories of the last 20 years. Few could have imagined that TVs — largely banned during Taliban rule in the 1990s — or radios, which only carried propaganda and Islamic programming back then, would eventually offer a vibrant array of news, programming and entertainment. By this year, the country had roughly 70 television stations, more than 170 FM radio stations and 175 newspapers.
Butler fears Afghanistan is likely headed toward a system in which the Taliban control what journalists write. "Journalists who step over a line will get into trouble one way or another," he warns.
As foreign correspondents are called to cover other crises and conflicts, the world's attention will inevitably turn away from Afghanistan. It is at that moment that the story of Afghanistan will fall squarely on the shoulders of Afghan journalists — and that, Butler says, is when the Taliban's true positions on a free press will come into focus.
"You have to ask yourself, is this a government that is willing to accept criticism, you know, sharp criticism that a free press normally would deliver?" says Butler. "I think it's unlikely."
Fazelminallah Qazizai reported from Kabul.