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Afghanistan: alarm grows for women journalists under Taliban rule

People read front page news of Taliban taking over Kabul, at a newspaper stall in Karachi, Pakistan, 16 August 2021. Credit:Keystone/ EPA/Shazaib Akber)

Every week, reports emerge of new assaults on press freedom and concerns for the safety of journalists in Afghanistan. The country's women journalists are especially at risk and their presence in the deteriorating media landscape is disappearing fast.

Journalists and media workers have been in a grave situation since the Taliban took control of the country on 15 August.

Already considered by the United Nations as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the press, a survey by the Afghanistan National Journalists Union (ANJU) released last week confirms that there have been increased attacks on their safety since the fall of Kabul.  

This is especially the case for women who make up 67 per cent of the media workers in the survey that reported their lives being at risk.

In a traditional society like Afghanistan, as a woman, you must be strong enough and brave to work as a journalist. Cultural barriers and security concerns have been the key factors that have made this field a challenge for Afghan women. But, with the rise of the Taliban regime and a renewed crackdown on the country’s free press, journalism and working in the media have become more difficult and dangerous for women.

After initially promising to respect women’s rights to work, the Taliban has since instructed media houses to cease women-led programming and removed female journalists from their posts. Most female journalists have either left the country or are afraid and have been hidden.

An investigation conducted at the end of August by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists (CPAWJ) found that fewer than 100 women were still working in privately-owned radio and TV stations in Kabul.

In 2020, Kabul’s 108 media outlets had 1,080 female employees, roughly a fifth of their total staff, of which 700 of them were journalists.

Of the 510 women who used to work for the eight biggest private media organisations, only 76 of them including 39 journalists were still working in the media as of 15 August, according to RSF.

At a journalist gathering in Kabul held on 27 September, some female journalists described how they were suffering financially since the falling of the former government and the shutting down of many media outlets. They called on the new government to provide them job opportunities where they can work again as journalists.

“A former female journalist called me and told me that if you know any organisation that needs a cook or a cleaner, let me know. I am in a bad economic situation,” Frozan Khalilyar, one of the women speaking at the protest, said.

Members of the Taliban have barred two female journalists from their jobs at Radio Television Afghanistan, and have attacked at least two press workers while they covered a protest in the eastern Nangarhar province since they took power.

Based on the reports, the Taliban have started targeting certain journalists and civil and human rights defenders in the different regions of Afghanistan. They are using house-to-house searches, or they are asking people in the neighborhood mosque about the targeted journalists and activists.

There have been reports of the group confiscating the equipment of media workers, detaining journalists, and even physical torture of reporters. As the situation becomes more precarious, human rights advocates have appealed to the country’s rulers to respect the freedom of the press.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a statement on 10 September calling on the Taliban “to immediately cease the use of force toward, and the arbitrary detention of, those exercising their right to peaceful assembly and the journalists covering the protests”.

“Media freedom and safety of journalists are essential aspects of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. It is an individual right but also a collective right because it empowers society as a whole by facilitating access to information and participation in peaceful dialogue to advance democracy and sustainable development,” the statement said.

This article was written by Tooba Neda Safi, an Afghan journalist, poet and women’s rights activist now living in Switzerland after being forced to leave her country in 2014. Every week she will share the profiles of other women in her home country whose lives have been upturned since the Taliban took control, as well as an account of the evolving situation for women.