During the 20-year break from Taliban rule after the US invasion, the growth of journalism and creative media was one of Afghanistan’s only success stories. After the years of Taliban rule in the 1990s – when TV was banned completely – the country saw the birth on an independent media, as well a rise in education levels, in particular for girls. The sector boomed in the years that Kabul was run by a US-backed government.
Despite constant security concerns and other setbacks, the arts, private media and entertainment businesses managed to grow considerably over the years, creating vibrant cultural circles in Kabul and other major cities. Musicians and singers put out new releases and videos in a race for a share of the growing audience among the 38 million Afghans.
For many young people, this meant the opportunity to forge a career in the tens of publicly and privately-owned television and radio stations and media outlets that gathered momentum over the past decade, with more than 96 TV channels, and hundreds of more radio stations operating by 2020. A wide range of cultural shows were broadcast on TV screens, captivating millions in the country. Afghan Star – the local version of American Idol – aired on Tolo TV, while Hollywood and Bollywood movies, as well as Korean and Turkish soap operas, were shown round the clock.
Since August and the return of the Taliban, there is no more music on TV, and the majority of shows have been stopped. Many are unlikely ever to air again if the Taliban are here to stay. Many artists – such as pop star Aryana Sayeed – have fled.
The cultural industries are suffering a “slow death”, a media worker from Kabul told VICE World News. Afghan Star – or any other show with a slight western touch – can be easily labelled "Haram" under the Taliban’s ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.
According to a report by the International Federation of Journalists published in mid-September, at least 153 Afghan media organisations have already been forced to cease operations.
“From day one, it was clear for people who worked in the media. Almost everybody knew what they had to do: have a second look at anything that was put out,” the media worker said.
“As if it was almost a natural reflex, the next step was to get into a period of reckoning and recalibrating of what was put out, and it wasn’t that hard to spot what content the Mullahs don’t like. This is the reality of Afghanistan,” he said.
Two days after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August, the group’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid announced in a press conference that the militants would leave the media to be “free and independent”.
The group appeared to be trying to show that it would rule in a less hardline way than it had in the past, in the hope of maintaining international diplomatic relations and keeping aid to the country flowing in.
But in September, the group unveiled a new code of conduct for journalists; 11 vaguely worded rules that don’t allow the publication of anything “contrary to Islam.” The new rules also require journalists to “ensure that their reporting is balanced” and prohibit reports that “could have a negative impact on the public’s attitude.”
Human Rights Watch criticised the guidelines set by the Taliban, saying they were designed to restrict freedom of media and that they are aimed "to prohibit virtually any critical reporting about the Taliban.”
Despite assurances from the Taliban’s top brass that journalists could continue their work freely, gruesome pictures of beaten journalists arrested for covering women-led demonstrations showed the other face of the Islamists, familiar from their rule in the 1990s. Since then, demonstrations for the protection of women’s rights have died down following a ban on all gatherings that don’t have the Taliban’s permission.
“The Taliban wanted everyone to see those pictures of beaten journalists, just to give a clear message to everyone out there,” an Afghan female journalist told VICE World News from her new home in Europe, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Things were never that perfect in Afghanistan, but before we dared to speak out about problems and we enjoyed relative freedom. Now I fear that any day the Taliban will pull the plug on everything,” she said.
Last week, Masorro Lutfi, the head of the Afghanistan National Journalists Union, held a press conference in Kabul, announcing the watchdog’s new report that recorded more than 30 cases of threats and violence against journalists in the past two months alone, with 90 percent of the assaults coming from Taliban militants.
Taliban officials have consistently dodged acknowledging any wrongdoing regarding journalists and media workers in the country.
“The Taliban in the past two decades has only learned how to put on a good show for the cameras,” said an Afghan media worker from Kabul.
“There is another reality today on the streets of Kabul, which is that the Taliban members patrolling the streets don't have a basic understanding of what their leaders say during press conferences, so the ones on the streets will follow the same strict rules that they used to follow, and would lash anyone publicly for anything they find inappropriate.”
For Afghanistan's media workers, the outlook is bleak, and they need only turn on their televisions to see why.
“Only a few days into the Taliban take over, I remember scrolling through the channels every day, and a few of the channels had stopped broadcasting entirely, and the rest were airing religious programs. All the music and entertainment shows were gone for good,” said a media worker from Kabul.
“The chances of a free media surviving very long in Afghanistan are very slim."