Afghanistan’s thriving media scene has been hailed as one of the biggest achievements of the past 20 years, following the Taliban’s ban of independent media during its brutal former regime that was ousted in 2001.
But the resurgent Taliban is rapidly reversing those gains by stamping out the free press in the swaths of territory it has seized from government forces in recent months.
The militant group has forcibly shut down dozens of local radio stations, newspapers, and broadcasters in the scores of districts it has captured since the start of the U.S.-led foreign military withdrawal on May 1.
Other media outlets have closed in fear of Taliban reprisals, with many of their journalists fleeing their homes or going underground. The Taliban has been blamed for killing dozens of reporters and media workers in recent years.
The few outlets allowed to operate have been forced to broadcast Taliban propaganda. They have been banned from airing music or women’s voices. News reports have been replaced by Taliban-approved bulletins, recitations from the Koran, and Islamic sermons.
‘Forced To Work For The Taliban’
Nawbahar Balkh Radio, a commercial station based in Balkh, a district in the northern province of the same name, shut its doors last month when the Taliban seized control of the area.
Many of its 18 employees, including four women, fled or went underground. Only two technicians remained behind.
Within days, the station was broadcasting again. But this time the Taliban was in charge.
“Those who stayed were forced to work and broadcast for the Taliban,” said a former employee of the station who fled to the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif.
The ex-employee, who spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity, said the station has become a mouthpiece for the Taliban.
“The Taliban uses the radio station to spread propaganda against the government,” the former employee said. “It also broadcasts religious sermons. Music and entertainment shows are banned.”
In other areas it has captured, the Taliban has permitted radio stations to operate but have imposed restrictions on their content.
Sedaye Kokcha Radio, a private station in the Jurm district of the northern province of Badakhshan, was banned from broadcasting some of its shows. The insurgents also barred female employees from coming to work.
"We are currently broadcasting agricultural, health, and literary programs, but we are censoring music programs,” says Nasir Ahmad Akhgar, the director of the station. “Only men are working at the station now.”
Looted And Destroyed
For the past seven years, Radio Dehrawud broadcast news and current affairs programs as well as cultural and entertainment shows.
But when Taliban militants captured the Dehrawud district in the southern province of Uruzgan last month, the radio station fell silent.
“At first, the Taliban didn’t allow us to enter the radio station,” says Mohammad Omar Waziri, the director of Radio Dehrawud who had since fled the district. “Then the equipment at the station was looted. A few days later, the radio station was destroyed.”
The Taliban claimed the station was ransacked before the militant group captured the district. But Afghan media advocacy group NAI contradicted that claim, saying that the Taliban looted and destroyed the station after it captured the Dehrawud district.
Ehsanullah Wolesmal, the managing director of Shama, a private radio station in Tarin Kowt, the capital of Uruzgan, said media outlets feared a possible Taliban takeover of the city.
“Media outlets in Tarin Kowt will be destroyed with the Taliban’s arrival,” he said. “We urge the Taliban to understand that local and private radio stations are neutral and should not be treated in this way."
In areas under its control, the Taliban has also banned smart phones and social media to prevent people from gaining access to independent information.
Some Afghans have said they were beaten by the Taliban for posting critical comments on Facebook. Members of civil society groups in Taliban areas have been intimidated and detained.
The Taliban has also killed dozens of journalists and targeted independent media outlets that report critically about them. At least 12 Afghan journalists and media workers have been murdered this year, with many of the killings blamed on the Taliban.
In May, the Taliban accused independent media outlets of "one-sided propaganda" and threatened journalists with “consequences.”
Dozens Of Media Outlets Shuttered
At least 35 media outlets have shut down since the Taliban launched its blistering military offensive on May 1, according to Afghanistan’s Information and Culture Ministry. It was not clear how many of the closures were self-imposed or forced by the Taliban.
Six other private media outlets have been seized and are now being run by the Taliban, the ministry said on August 3.
The NAI said its data showed that 51 media outlets have shut down since April: 44 radio stations, five television stations, one media center, and a news agency.
Most of the closures have occurred in provinces that have been the target of Taliban attacks, including the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand as well as the northern provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, Baghlan, Samangan, Balkh, Sar-e Pul, Jawzjan, Faryab, and Badghis.
More than 1,000 journalists and media workers, including 150 women, have lost or left their jobs since April, according to the NAI.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that led to the downfall of the Taliban's five-year reign over the country, the media scene has flourished.
Afghanistan now has an estimated 170 radio stations, more than 100 newspapers, and dozens of TV stations.
Under the Taliban regime there was only state-owned radio, the Taliban's Voice of Shari'a, which was dominated by calls to prayer and religious teachings.
Taliban Reimposes Repressive Laws
The Taliban’s crushing of press freedom comes as the extremist group has reimposed many of the repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its extremist 1996-2001 rule.
When it controlled Afghanistan, the Taliban forced women to cover themselves from head to toe, banned them from working outside the home, severely limited girls’ education, and required women to be accompanied by a male relative if they left their homes.
Meanwhile, men were banned from trimming or shaving their beards. They were also forced to pray five times a day. Listening to music and watching television was also outlawed.
Many of those policies have returned in areas now under Taliban control, say residents. That is despite repeated claims by the Taliban that it has changed and that it would not bring back its notorious, restrictive strictures.
Based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.