The Taliban have seized control of Afghanistan, and now many Afghans are desperately seeking to flee the country, while others staying behind worry for their lives. Among them are journalists, who fear retribution for their reporting and a crackdown on independent media.
During our online panel, titled Journalists in Afghanistan: An Urgent Crisis, ICFJ Vice President of Content and Community Patrick Butler sat down with former ICFJ Knight International Journalism Award winner and recent Afghanistan bureau chief for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Samiullah Mahdi to discuss the role international media outlets can play to shed light on Taliban rule, the hardships women journalists there now face and the future of the free press in the country. Mahdi also shares advice for how international journalists can help.
Below are key takeaways from the discussion.
The power international media outlets hold
Pointing to the Taliban’s history of violating basic human rights, many believe that the militant group has not reformed its ways since losing power in the country 20 years ago.
“There is only one change in [the] Taliban: they are more familiar with technology now. They know how to spread their PR and their messages across international media, but the content of the message is the same,” said Mahdi.
As the Taliban seek global recognition, Afghan media workers believe that international news outlets can exercise critical oversight through their reporting.
“The international community has leverage that can push the Taliban to show more concessions for these basic rights. Otherwise, Taliban will reinstall the kind of regime that Afghanistan has experienced under the Taliban in the 1990s,” said Mahdi.
Historically, the Taliban have targeted specific groups, in particular Afghanistan’s Hazara community, and women.
“The Taliban have a history of being misogynists, being against women's rights and suppressing any freedom. We remember the 1990s and we knew what was happening in the areas controlled by the Taliban in the past two decades. The same kind of draconian laws and orders will come back to Afghanistan and women will suffer the most,” said Mahdi.
Already, the Taliban have forced women journalists off the air. Others are staying home, fearfully destroying identifying documentation. The Taliban have also begun discriminating based on gender in the country’s classrooms.
“One of my colleagues told me that the Taliban have ordered all universities in the western provinces to segregate students based on gender. Unfortunately, one can foresee that we are going to have another generation of young girls who will not have the opportunity to go to school, to study, and to work outside of their homes,” said Mahdi.
The future of media in Afghanistan
Over the past 20 years, many independent media outlets have launched in Afghanistan, establishing a semblance of free press. With Afghan journalists now fleeing their country, there is significant, growing fear that the country’s media landscape will be fundamentally altered.
“Since the Taliban took over Kabul, independent media editors, reporters and investors are trying to get out of the country,” said Mahdi. “That means that in a few months we will only have Taliban-run media outlets in Afghanistan. Other media workers will accept whatever Taliban is saying and become their mouthpiece, or just leave the country and quit.”
How you can help
Globally, media professionals are searching for ways to assist Afghan journalists. Here are some ways you can help:
Spread the word
Raise awareness about what is occurring in Afghanistan, and the actions the Taliban take now that they are in control. This is important for ensuring that human rights will be considered.
“We have this vibrant media environment and it is under attack and pressure. We should keep it going, we should keep this environment alive,” said Mahdi.
Collaborate with Afghan media outlets
Work with Afghan media outlets to report on what is happening on the inside. This is an effective way to shed light on the practices of the Taliban and the violence they may perpetrate against citizens.
“Given the fact that there is still access to the internet and the international media, international NGOs could support Afghan media to continue working even from abroad,” said Mahdi.
Help journalists seek refuge
Assist Afghan journalists who fear they will be targeted, as they try to flee Afghanistan, without placing them in further harm’s way. Here is advice for how you can provide support responsibly.
“[For] Afghan journalists whose lives are at risk, international NGOs should help them to get out of the country and go somewhere safe and allow them to continue working there,” said Mahdi.