Afghan university professor Faizullah Jalal has appeared in debates on Afghanistan’s most popular television channels for years, earning a reputation as an outspoken critic of the country’s leaders.
But there are fears that Jalal’s most recent media appearance, during which he lambasted the new Taliban regime, could make him a target of retribution.
Since seizing power in August, the militant group has waged a deadly crackdown on dissent, violently dispersing peaceful protesters and detaining and beating journalists.
During a live television debate on the popular Tolo News channel on November 20, Jalal accused the Taliban of monopolizing power and stifling free speech.
“I feel pain because of the current situation in Kabul,” said Jalal, a professor of law and political science at Kabul University. “People do not have anything to eat. What is the security like? No one can say anything.”
He also called Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem, who also took part in the debate, a “calf,” an insult in Afghanistan that means stupid. That came after Naeem questioned Jalal’s sanity and alleged he was a communist.
Clips of Jalal’s comments went viral on social media, where many Afghans applauded him for his bravery. In a symbolic show of solidarity, some Afghans displayed his picture on their social media profiles.
But Taliban supporters denounced both Jalal and Tolo News. Some Taliban members tweeted that the professor should be punished for insulting the Taliban spokesman.
“Jalal is a biased person and mentally ill,” tweeted Zakir Jalali, a Taliban Foreign Ministry official. “Officials should seriously question Jalal and Tolo News.”
Calls for Jalal to be punished have raised fears that the professor could be the target of Taliban retaliation.
Amid speculation on social media that Jalal had been attacked following his comments, the Taliban issued a statement in which it denied any harm had been inflicted on the professor.
"Rumors of an attack on Kabul University lecturer Faizullah Jalal are untrue,” tweeted Ahmadullah Wasiq, a Taliban spokesman and deputy information minister. “Professor Jalal denied the allegations in a telephone call.”
RFE/RL attempted to reach Jalal by telephone for comment. But he said he could not talk about the issue because of “where I am at the moment." He did not respond to written questions.
In a move that was widely criticized on social media, Tolo News edited out some of Jalal's comments when it posted the debate on its YouTube channel.
Taliban Transforms Media Scene
Afghanistan's vibrant media scene has changed drastically since the Taliban took over the country on August 15.
State television now airs Taliban announcements and Islamic sermons while private TV networks have removed many entertainment shows and replaced most female presenters with male colleagues.
Hundreds of Afghans journalists have fled the country, and scores of radio stations, newspapers, and television stations have closed due to fear of Taliban retribution and the ongoing economic crisis.
The Taliban has violently cracked down on the independent media, threatening, detaining, and beating local reporters and photographers.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on October 1 that the Taliban had imposed “wide-ranging restrictions on media and free speech.”
In late September, the new regime introduced 11 new “journalism rules” for Afghan journalists that critics said opened the door to censorship and persecution.
On November 21, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued a new eight-point set of “religious guidelines” for Afghan media, in a further blow to the country’s diminishing free press.
Among the guidelines is a ban on television channels airing dramas and soap operas that feature female actors. Female journalists and presenters have also been ordered to wear headscarves onscreen.