Sadaf Siddiqi, a pseudonym for a young Afghan journalist, began her career with great hopes five years ago. She freelanced for local and national media outlets in the northeastern Afghan city of Kunduz, where she soon became a known face after becoming a presenter at a local television station.
But rising insecurity and personal threats forced Siddiqi to give up her television appearances. She turned to local and national radio stations, where she hosted shows on social issues and presented news programs. But as the Taliban advanced across Kunduz, the surrounding province known by the same name as its capital, she stopped presenting and now ekes out a living by writing radio scripts.
In its advances in Kunduz and other parts of northern Afghanistan, the hard-line group imposes its ultra-conservative and often harsh ideology on residents. In many regions, Afghans feel that the Taliban is taking them back to its so-called emirate, when women were mostly barred from work and public life.
“The space for women to work in Kunduz has shrunk,” Siddiqi told Gandhara. “Many women have stopped working altogether. Many families have stopped letting women work for the media because they live on the frontlines or other restive areas,” she added. “Even our male colleagues now spend most of their time at the office to avoid going home” to face concerns or criticism.
Siddiqi says that as a conservative region, Kunduz was always a difficult place for women journalists. “Very few women now work as journalists but all of them now do so by concealing their real names and identity,” she noted. “They work in secret.”
In nearby Mazar-e Sharif, the biggest city in northern Afghanistan, Shakiba Saeedi, a young journalist, covers the region for Hasht-e Subh, a leading daily in Afghanistan.
“Journalism is my passion and it is a major responsibility, so I am continuing working despite the major changes in our environment,” she told Gandhara. “Our major challenge is security as fighting continues in many provinces.”
Saeedi says while the government often has complaints about the work of journalists, Taliban control would be devastating.
“The ideology of the Taliban is clear to everyone,” she said. “The Taliban is the same as it was in power two decades ago when it deprived women of key liberties,” she said. “It deprived women of the right to choose, education, employment, and even the right to go out of their houses,” she added. “We are now seeing that the Taliban is again imposing the same restrictions on women in the areas they control.”
The Taliban denies threatening or pressuring journalists and accuses the Afghan government of using the media against it. But in May Zabihullah Mujahid, a purported Taliban spokesman, warned those Afghan journalists whom he accused of giving one-sided coverage favoring the Afghan government to stop or “face the consequences.”
Mahbuba Muhammadi, a correspondent for Salam Watandar Radio in Mazar-e Sharif, however, quit her job and left Afghanistan in April after what she described as incessant threats from the Taliban.
“I received threats from many [social media] IDs and other forums,” she told Radio Azadi. “I had no option but to flee my homeland,” she added. “Every time I attempted to report the threats to [the Afghan government’s] security officials, they paid little attention and even accused me of looking for making an excuse to leave Afghanistan.”
Crumbling Press Freedom
While Saeedi and Siddiqi are among the handful of women journalists still living in Afghan cities virtually surrounded by the advancing Taliban, scores have left the profession as dozens like Muhammadi have moved abroad in search of security and new opportunities.
Press freedom and security for journalists took a nosedive in Afghanistan after the militants began targeting journalists and civil society leaders late last year. Women journalists were particularly singled out as several were killed in attacks across the country while others were forced to abandon their profession for their safety.
WATCH: For Radio Azadi Reporter, Covering Afghan Women's Rights Is Worth The Risk
Afghan media watchdogs are already accusing the Taliban of imposing restrictions on journalists. The hard-line Islamist movement has banned 20 radio stations in the rural districts it has recently overrun, according to Nai, a local press freedom watchdog. Other stations in the region now find themselves forced to broadcast Taliban chants and antigovernment propaganda.
In a major recent report on threats to Afghan journalists -- women in particular -- Human Rights Watch, the global media watchdog, established that the Taliban has engaged in violence, threats, and intimidation in areas it controls as well as in cities still ruled by the Afghan government.
“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,” the report noted. “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.”
Najib Sharifi, president of Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, says some 50 journalists have either stopped working or have left areas now under Taliban control. “We have at least five media stations, private media outlets, that have been taken over by the Taliban, and through these five stations, Taliban broadcast their propaganda,” he told VOA. “They have also stopped broadcasting music and voices of women.”
The Afghan government attracted criticism this week when its intelligence agency arrested four Afghan journalists upon their return from Spin Boldak, a border district recently overrun by the Taliban. The authorities accuse them of spreading enemy propaganda after they interviewed Taliban members in the district, which serves as one of Afghanistan’s main border crossings with Pakistan.
“Illegal detentions of journalists will prevent them from going to war zones and reporting on the situation of those trapped in conflict areas,” Nai said in a July 27 press release. “This is against the principles of freedom of expression and human rights.”
Insecurity in Kandahar has already prompted scores of women journalists to give up their jobs. Months before the Taliban began a major offensive to retake its former stronghold, at least 10 of the province’s 40 journalists had abandoned their profession. They were spurred by the killing of women journalists in the eastern city of Jalalabad where at least four women journalists were killed in targeted attacks in December and March.
“If a female journalist works for radio or television, she faces a lot of abuse and pressure as people call them bad names,” Arya Rehmat, producer of social issues shows for an independent Kandahar radio station, told Radio Azadi. “We are also accused of corrupting society’s thinking.”
Najiba, another Kandahar journalist who goes by one name only, says that working as journalist is increasingly difficult. “The lack of security is the major problem our sisters face,” she told Radio Azadi. “We used to face economic problems because women journalists were not empowered and are prevented from rising up in the hierarchy.”
Marina Fanahi, another journalist in Kandahar, says that for almost all women journalists in the region getting permission to work in the news media is a major hurdle. “They face pressure from society and have to put up with negative behavior from their colleagues,” she told Radio Azadi.
In Mazar-e Sharif, Saeedi hopes that she will not be compelled to leave Afghanistan even if the Taliban returns to power.
“Our homeland is like our mother. No one is able to abandon their mother,” she said. “I hope that I don’t have to see the day when I or another journalist or a common citizen has to abandon our homeland.”
The names of RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan are being withheld for their protection.