On Wednesday, when Sultana went to work at one of Afghanistan’s state-owned TV news channels, she was blocked from entering her office.
“We were told that the situation is not good, and that they want us to be safe,” the 28-year-old, who had worked as a journalist for 4 years, told VICE World News. The names and identifying details of Sultana and other Afghan journalists in this piece have been changed or withheld to protect them from potential retaliation.
“‘Just for a few days,’ they said, while sending us back,” Sultana said.
Sultana and her female colleagues were worried that the Taliban would stop them from working once they took over Kabul. Now, it seems, her fears are being confirmed.
The Taliban’s apparent assault on civil liberties is not limited to women’s rights to work. On Thursday, German news outlet Deutsche Welles reported that Taliban fighters have been raiding homes and looking for their reporters. One such raid by the Taliban killed one family member of a reporter and seriously injured another relative. The rest of the journalist’s family are currently on the run, the outlet reported.
In the chaotic immediate aftermath of the Taliban’s effective control of Afghanistan on Sunday, there were uncertainties over how the extremist group would rule the country, and to what extent they would change the modernised way of life Afghans adapted under U.S. occupation.
Initially, there were signs of women reclaiming spaces that were infamously denied to them during the Taliban’s first rule between 1996 and 2001. On social media, photos and videos of women journalists reporting from TV news studios and on the ground went viral.
As clamour around women’s right to work in Afghanistan grew, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in a press conference – the first in the re-established Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – that women’s rights will be honoured, albeit only within the norms of Sharia law.
But as the week went on, stories like Sultana’s – of women journalists being sent back home from their offices – started surfacing.
So far, Sultana said, seven other women journalists were also told to go home. “I met the officials,” she said. “They said they will call us on Saturday to tell us when we can come.” Their male colleagues, in the meantime, were allowed to work as usual, she said.
In an alarming indication that the Taliban could reverse two decades of gains in women’s rights, Farzana, a presenter who works in the same news channel as Sultana’s, said the group barred her from going to work.
“Despite wearing a hijab and carrying the correct ID, I was told by the Taliban: ‘The regime has changed. Go home,’” Farzana said in a video that has since gone viral on social media.
Farzana turned down an interview request with VICE World News, citing stress and mental health impact from the dismissal. Previously, she told another news outlet that the Taliban soldiers told her, “You’re a woman, go sit at home.” When she asked why they let a male colleague enter their office building, she was told, “He’s a man, you’re a woman. Women are not allowed to work anymore,” she said.
In another incident, a journalist reportedly said a Taliban official disapproved of what she was wearing.
The journalist was wearing a pair of pants, a long coat and a headscarf, according to reports. A bit of her hair was visible, she said. But he allegedly told her, “You need to fully cover yourself. Even your face should not be seen.”
“The senior Taliban official then told me that the Taliban had no problem with women working, like me speaking to them. They just wanted women to cover themselves,” she said in the interview.
On Thursday, six other women journalists of Sultana’s news outlet – mostly presenters – reportedly said they were denied entry to their offices, too.
Sultana said they have nothing to do but “wait and watch.” But, she added, if she and other women colleagues don’t hear back on Saturday, they will openly oppose the restrictions. “I have told them if they’re not the same old Taliban from 20 years ago, they will allow us to present, and report,” she said.
On the ground, journalists have pointed out the vast differences between the Taliban’s statements to the world and the realities on the ground.
Ruhaani, a journalist with another state-owned news outlet, said on social media that there is a “gap between action and words.” She said that while covering news in Kabul, Taliban soldiers allegedly took her camera. One of the soldiers hit her, she said.
Violence against journalists was also reported during the anti-Taliban protests that erupted in at least three cities in Afghanistan. In Jalalabad, male journalists were seen crying in a video after being beaten up allegedly by Taliban fighters.
One TV reporter recounted his ordeal to the local press while covering Afghanistan’s Independence Day celebrations in Kabul on Thursday. He alleged that the Taliban soldiers took his camera and assaulted him. In the same interview, another reporter claimed that a Taliban soldier told him, “There is no freedom of speech,” as he took away his camera.
A journalist told VICE World News that two of his colleagues had been beaten up by the Taliban for filming at the Kabul airport, and were only released after deleting their footage.
In this week’s press conference, Taliban spokesperson Mujahid said that privately-owned news outlets will “remain independent” but also that journalists “should not work against national values.”
A 2021 Human Rights Watch report released in April, before the Taliban’s march across the country, found sharply rising threats and attacks targeting journalists and other media workers, particularly women.
On August 8, Taliban fighters shot dead Afghan journalist Toofan Omar, who was the manager of privately-owned Paktia Ghag Radio, while another journalist Nematullah Hemat was kidnapped.
It is not clear as to how many journalists have been attacked or killed since the Taliban took control of Kabul on Sunday.
Peter Limbourg, director-general of Deutsche Welles, said, “It is evident that the Taliban are already carrying out organized searches for journalists, both in Kabul and in the provinces. We are running out of time.”
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