One of Afghanistan's biggest achievements following the toppling of the Taliban in 2001 was the vast expansion of freedom of expression and the emergence of a vibrant free press. But just as we have seen a significant rollback of women's rights – another key achievement in the 2001-2021 period – the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover has been followed by severe repression of the media.
Ayesha Tanzeem, the director of Voice of America's South and Central Asia Division, explains how Afghanistan's media landscape has changed in the last year and a half, how media organizations are fighting back and what the international community can do to help protect media freedom in Afghanistan.
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Adam Gallagher: Let me introduce us, you're Ayesha Tanzeem, the director of Voice of America South and Central Asia Division, and a former bureau chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I'm Adam Gallagher, managing editor for usip.org. One of Afghanistan's biggest achievements following the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, was the vast expansion of freedom of expression and the emergence of a vibrant free press. I remember working as a media analyst on a contract with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2013 and being amazed by the wide array of strong, independent media organizations that we followed. But just as we have seen a significant rollback of women's rights, another key achievement in the 2001 to 2021 period, the Taliban's August 2021 takeover has been followed by severe repression of the media. Ayesha, I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about what Afghanistan's media landscape was like before the Taliban takeover and where we're at today.
Ayesha Tanzeem: Thank you for having me, Adam. So yes, before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan had a vibrant media landscape. It wasn't perfect, of course, I mean, 20 years is not enough to build a perfectly working democracy or media. So it had a lot of problems. But at the same time, it was a vibrant media, journalists felt empowered. They felt like they could ask tough questions, they felt like they could hold their government accountable. There were a lot of strong female journalists, anchors, reporters, even some camera persons, and I interacted with a lot of them in my seven to eight years of traveling in Afghanistan. And since the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan has, according to figures by Reporters Without Borders, lost 40 percent of its media houses 60 percent of its journalists overall, more than 75 percent of its female journalists. And in most of the country except capital, Kabul, female journalists have been nearly eliminated. And today, in the last year and a half, or the Taliban have issued a series of decrees most official, but many unofficial rules, that have made it almost impossible for journalists living and working inside Afghanistan to do good, independent journalism or any kind of meaningful reporting. So I haven't talked to a single Afghan journalist lately who's living in the country who's not heavily self-censoring. The decrees are so vaguely worded, that any news story can be picked up and can be deemed as in violation of a rule somewhere. So some of the rules are, you cannot criticize the Taliban, you have to call them Islamic Emirate cannot criticize their policies, or the government officials. But they're also these weird rules, like do not report on something that demoralizes the public. And how do you even define that? If I do a story on children starving is that demoralizing the public?
Adam Gallagher: You've noted that many of them have just particularly in the country are just self-censoring. But how has Afghan media sought to fight back? And I think another question that's vital connected to this is, why is their work so critical now in this period of Taliban rule?
Ayesha Tanzeem: The Afghan media is very resilient. And we see it every day, even in this environment. When we go and talk to people, they want to speak up, and they want to be heard. That's Afghan nature. So Afghan media has fought back in three ways. One is even within countries, the media that's working there is still trying to give people news, what happened, how many people are dying of cold or hunger, what percentage of the population is facing poverty, when is aid coming, etc. But when it gets to more critical coverage, that journalists sitting outside the country, they still have their sources. They have family and friends inside the country, even sources in the old bureaucracy, in the government infrastructure, some of which are still surviving and the Taliban are keeping the old people. So they have their sources, so they're getting information. A lot of people have started on YouTube channels, and I'm talking about Afghan journalists, these well-trained journalists who were forced to flee the country, post the Taliban takeover. A lot of them have started their own websites, social YouTube channels, social media pages, and a lot of robust journalism is happening that way. And the third element is international media organizations like VOA, and others like BBC, Deutsche Welle, RFE/RL. They have now shifted to modes of delivery that are outside the control of Taliban. So for example, when the Taliban shut down our TV program on local Afghan channels, VOA started a 24/7 satellite TV channel in Dari and Pashto going to Afghanistan. And we have indications that it has really good reception among the Afghan population. Same with the radio shows, when Taliban shut down our FM stations inside Afghanistan, we move to shortwave and medium wave from, you know, boosters and transmitters in Central Asia. And social media is where a lot of good journalism is happening vis-a-vis Afghanistan because the Taliban don't have the resources or means right now to shut down social media unless they shut down the internet. And a lot of people are posting a lot of things on social media.
Adam Gallagher: Can you talk a little bit about how the international community can help to protect media freedom, particularly the United States? And maybe talk a little bit if there's any examples that you can think of from other contexts of what's worked and helping protect media freedom in such an oppressive environment.
Ayesha Tanzeem: International media organizations like mine VOA, and others, BBC, Deutsche Welle, RFE/RL, we have decades of experience of working in dictatorship of oppressive regimes, places where journalism is censored. And we're using that experience to work in Afghanistan. But also in terms of content, wherever we see a vacuum. So Afghan media used to hold the government accountable. The current media cannot do so as forcefully under the Taliban regime, we try to do it. So we invite Taliban officials on our TV shows, for example, this one show comes to mind on women's rights and the girls' rights to go to school. We have Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid and countering him we had strong Afghan female politician Shukria Barakzai. And you know, they were arguing with each other. Similarly, all the other voices that have been eliminated in local Afghan media, so women, activists, musicians, artists, everybody who's lost their voices there, we are trying to give them a platform.
Adam Gallagher: One follow-up question, I think, to close on that I think your point about bringing Taliban spokesman on to have conversations and essentially arguments with Afghan politicians, you know, do you see any daylight with the Taliban in terms of opening up the media landscape at all, if they're willing to do something like this? Or, you know, even them being convinced of the value of having a more freedom of open media, even in terms of what it means for their international perception?
Ayesha Tanzeem: Two things. One is that the Taliban recently told NGOs not to allow women to work and a lot of NGOs said, OK, fine, and we are wrapping up, we're not going to work. And then in the last day or two, apparently enough international pressure was brought upon the Taliban that they've backed out. And I was reading that a couple of NGOs have said that they've received assurances from Taliban, that their female workers will be allowed to work, therefore, they're going back into Afghanistan. So what that indicates is that if everybody joins hands, no single country, no single international organization or NGO can do it. But if everybody joins hands, the Taliban need the international community. They need financial support, they need humanitarian aid. So if everybody holds hands, they can push back and the Taliban will listen. The other thing is that we recently saw OIC, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, do a session on Afghanistan and issue statements condemning the Taliban decision to ban women in NGOs and ban women from universities. And the Taliban are drawing their power and support from Islamic Sharia. In particular, Sunni Hanafi Sharia. So when a Muslim majority countries join hand and issue a statement, it's extremely powerful.
Adam Gallagher: I really appreciate you joining us today and talking about this dire situation, but also providing a little bit of a glimmer of hope as well. Thank you so much for joining us today, Ayesha.
Ayesha Tanzeem: Thank you for having me.
Watch the original event Protecting Independent Media in the Taliban’s Afghanistan.