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'Open Fear': Taliban Cracks Down On Afghan Media By Decree


Despite arriving in Kabul on July 17 with a valid visa and media accreditation, Australian journalist and longtime Afghanistan correspondent Lynne O'Donnell was almost immediately harassed and eventually detained.

When longtime Afghanistan correspondent Lynne O'Donnell returned to Kabul on a reporting trip nearly a year after the Taliban seized power, she knew she was taking a risk.

The extremist group had taken particular exception to two stories the Australian national had written for Foreign Policy magazine during her last reporting trip, which ended just hours before Taliban fighters captured the capital on August 15, 2021, and declared her a high-value target.

Despite arriving in Kabul on July 17 with a valid visa, media accreditation, and a formal invitation to stay, and registering with the proper authorities as a foreign journalist, she was almost immediately harassed and eventually detained. The former AP and AFP bureau chief in Kabul was also threatened and ordered to publicly retract her previous reporting and to record a video confession saying her statements had not been coerced.

The experience led her to leave Afghanistan after only three days, wary of ever returning again even if she was allowed, out of concerns for the safety of the people she might come in contact with while reporting.

"They followed me. Once the security apparatus had picked up on my phone they monitored my phone," O'Donnell told RFE/RL from neighboring Pakistan.

O'Donnell reporting in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2021
O'Donnell reporting in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2021

After she was detained on July 19, Taliban officials grilled her about two articles she published in 2021 that they said had offended Afghan culture: one about the forced marriages of women and girls to Taliban fighters, and another on LGBT people in Afghanistan.

"They stood around me when it got to the point of 'If you don't publicly apologize you will go to jail,' so it was pretty clear that that was what I had to do," O'Donnell said.

The officials dictated what they wanted her to retract, and she posted it on Twitter. After consulting a superior, they tweaked the tweet multiple times and consulted their boss again. O'Donnell was then asked to delete the thread, and after some re-editing it was posted again.

"I apologize for 3 or 4 reports written by me accusing the present authorities of forcefully marrying teenage girls and using teenage girls as sexual slaves by Taliban commanders," one oddly formatted post reads. "This was a premeditated attempt at character assassination and an affront to Afghan culture."

A follow-up post said: "These stories were written without any solid proof or basis, and without any effort to verify instances through on-site investigation or face to face meetings with alleged victims."

"After it was online, they told me to make a video recording of a confession to say specifically that I don't know anything about Afghanistan, or Afghan people, or Afghan culture. I make up all my stories, and all of my sources are fake, and I haven't been coerced into making this confession," O'Donnell told RFE/RL.

As one of the few foreign correspondents to have returned to Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power, she experienced firsthand the extremist group's crackdown on journalists despite its claims to uphold constitutionally protected media freedoms.

In its latest report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) repeated its concerns about the Taliban's mistreatment of the media.

"In the 10 months since they took control of Afghanistan, the de facto authorities have made clear their position on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of opinion," the report issued on July 20 said. "They have limited dissent by cracking down on protests and curbing media freedoms, including by arbitrarily arresting journalists, protestors, and civil society activists and issuing restrictions on media outlets."

UNAMA directly attributed 163 human-rights violations against journalists and rights workers to the Taliban, including arbitrary arrests and detention, threats, and intimidation. The UN agency also cited the killing of six journalists by the rival Islamic State (IS) militant group.

A female presenter for TOLOnews, Thamina Usmani, covers her face in a live broadcast at the TOLO TV station in Kabul.
A female presenter for TOLOnews, Thamina Usmani, covers her face in a live broadcast at the TOLO TV station in Kabul.

Media watchdogs such as the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the South Asian Journalists Association, among others, have consistently called on the Taliban to stop the rising number of assaults against media workers in Afghanistan.

In the most recent incident involving a local journalist, Salgai Hess was beaten and shot at on July 22 while reporting in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province.

"My cell phone fell, and when I tried to pick it up, [the Taliban] hit me on the shoulder and I fell. A second [Taliban] hit me, and I lost consciousness," the independent reporter told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

Before fainting, she said, she overheard the Taliban gunmen saying she had met her fate because she had ignored their warnings to stop working and stay home.

The Taliban declined to respond to questions from Radio Azadi about the most recent incidents involving ill-treatment of journalists. But both the attack on Hess and the detention of O'Donnell came as the Taliban issued its latest in a long list of controversial restrictions on how reporters should conduct their work.

On July 21, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted a new decree that, citing "Islamic guidelines" approved by religious scholars, effectively barred criticism of Taliban leaders.

"It is not permissible to make false accusations against officials or to criticize them," read the decree signed by Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. The decree did not explain what the possible punishments would be for violating the order and has been criticized by media watchdogs as an attempt to silence free speech.

The decree joins the "11 rules for journalists" -- issued shortly after the Taliban promised upon regaining power to allow free media -- that prohibit the publication or broadcasting of reports that are "contrary to Islam" and which discourage reporting of news that has not been confirmed by Taliban officials.

Those rules were criticized by Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the time as being "so broad and vague as to prohibit virtually any critical reporting about the Taliban."

In addition, the Taliban in May ordered female television presenters to cover their faces and hair while on air, in keeping with Akhundzada's decree ordering all women to cover up fully in public, ideally with the all-encompassing burqa.

The extremist group had taken particular exception to two stories the Australian national had written for Foreign Policy magazine during her last reporting trip, which ended just hours before Taliban fighters captured the capital on August 15, 2021, and declared her a high-value target.
The extremist group had taken particular exception to two stories the Australian national had written for Foreign Policy magazine during her last reporting trip, which ended just hours before Taliban fighters captured the capital on August 15, 2021, and declared her a high-value target.

The Taliban does not have a constitution of its own, although it is rumored to abide by the 1964 constitution adopted under the country's monarchy. That constitution protects the rights to free speech, as does the 2004 constitution adopted by the Western-backed government that preceded the Taliban's return to power.

O'Donnell said that she was unable to get her Taliban questioners to clarify what media laws she had allegedly violated.

"I asked them to show me the law as written. What laws were broken, show me. They like to say that they are adhering to the previous media law, and the previous constitution guaranteed a free media, so everything that comes out of their mouths is lies," she said.

"Their story about me changed constantly over the course of three days," O'Donnell added. "I went from being invited to stay, leaving of my own free will, to being branded a spy and deported to never return again."

Heather Barr, associate director of the women's rights division of HRW, said that the treatment of O’Donnell indicates that the Taliban's "hidden fear" of criticism has turned into "open fear."

"It's clear that the Taliban are fed up," Barr told Radio Azadi. "They have very little against foreign journalists. It is becoming difficult for everyone to provide real news from Afghanistan because the Taliban are not ready to tolerate what is published in the free media."

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    Michael Scollon

    Michael Scollon is a senior correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague.

  • 16x9 Image

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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