Taliban Abuses Worsen as World Turns a Blind Eye
Empowering journalists inside Afghanistan who are brave enough to report on the Taliban’s abuses is more important now than ever.
On August 15, 2021, Sonita Soroush, a proclaimed journalist, producer, manager, and reporter for Ariana News, found herself in the midst of a crowd of her colleagues and coworkers in front of the Ariana TV station discussing the following day’s schedule and program. Little did she know what was about to happen in the next few minutes and the following weeks. As they were chatting about what to put in front of their millions of viewers the next morning on Sob-e-Zindagi (the morning show), the show she was responsible for, one of their admin managers showed up and asked why they were still standing in front of the office. Shockingly, Sonita recalls, “Our manager told us that the Taliban might enter Kabul anytime now, and to go home, pack your bags, get your passport, and we will evacuate you all to safety.” She further said, “Shockingly, I stepped outside and noticed there was heavy traffic. I was halfway to getting to my home when I got another call from the News Department Manager asking me where I was.” Sonita told her manager that she was on her way to her house to get her passport and bags as per the office’s recommendation. “He abruptly told me, don’t come back, go and hide; the Taliban have entered the city gates.”
She recalls this moment in dismay and discomfort. Remembering the days when Afghanistan had one of the most open and free media outlets and agencies providing facts and stories to millions of people reignites her feelings of grief at what the country has lost since then. “Suddenly, everything seemed dark. Even with that image carved in my mind, I still thought maybe this would not be like the last time the Taliban were here,” she said. She would later understand that she could not have been more wrong. The Taliban are the same as they always have been, and even worse in many aspects.
Media and journalism have historically been vital yet underdeveloped aspects of Afghan society. The first official newspaper in Afghanistan, known as Shams -ul- Nahar or the Morning Sun, was established in 1873 during the reign of King Sher Ali Khan. On January 11, 1906, the second official newspaper, Siraj-ul-Akhbar, or Lamp of the News, was formed. However, due to widespread illiteracy in the country, the majority of Afghans relied on oral communications to receive news and information. Newspapers primarily catered to the educated elite, both men and women, who were literate. Research indicates that even during the early 20th century and the late 19th century, when newspapers existed, the monarchy, particularly the royal families, exercised control over the content intended for public consumption. Illiteracy empowers government officials and strips the citizenry of their agency to digest and interpret information for themselves.
The introduction of radio in 1927 and television in 1978 gradually shifted the levers of control over the media. In 1978, following a coup that overthrew former President Daoud Khan, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was established, dramatically transforming the media landscape. Media became even more closely intertwined with the state apparatus. This situation persisted under the Soviet-backed regime until the Taliban's initial rise to power in 1996, which led to a complete ban on television, radio, and newspapers, resulting in a media blackout.
Following the events of 9/11 and the subsequent Northern Alliance takeover, supported by US and NATO military forces, the Republic of Afghanistan emerged. This brought about the importation of democracy, as well as media, technology, and the internet. Over the course of a few years, prominent media outlets such as Tolo, Shamshad, and a state-run TV channel were established, becoming the primary sources of information for millions of Afghans who now had access to television sets in their homes, shops, offices, and later on, their personal devices. By 2019, there were approximately 200 active local and international television channels, with 96 of them based in Kabul. These numbers only provide a glimpse of the reality, as the uncensored and liberal nature of these stations and media platforms was unprecedented in the country's history. Media was no longer heavily influenced by political figures or state agendas but instead focused on presenting the facts to the public. This newfound freedom of information led to the introduction of a wide range of political, economic, news, and entertainment shows that were made available to the Afghan people.
In August 2021, when Taliban forces entered the capital city of Kabul, it posed a significant threat to various news organizations' safety, security, and future. Following their occupation of the Presidential Palace, known as Arg Palace, the Taliban's immediate focus was on taking control of state TV and the privately owned network, Tolo TV. Consequently, numerous journalists, including those affiliated with Tolo, embarked on the evacuation process facilitated by the US military at Kabul Airport. Over the subsequent months, a large number of local, international, and globally recognized journalists from Afghanistan fled the country, making their way to the United States, Canada, and Europe.
The prevailing narrative suggests that the 'new' Taliban have undergone significant changes. They are portrayed as different from the brutal Taliban of the 1990s, who enforced strict veiling of women and carried out public beatings of musicians, individuals with short beards, and those wearing jeans. To some extent, this portrayal holds true. The Taliban of today is not portrayed as the stereotypical tyrants or warlords that many of us anticipated. They have adapted alongside the people and the Republic of Afghanistan, evolving as the dynamics of the battleground shifted. They have adapted their messaging just enough to lure countries like the US to the negotiating table due to their supposed rebranding.
It is important to acknowledge that the Taliban still adhere to their traditional practices, engaging in public beatings, humiliations, torture, killings, kidnappings, and harassment to the best of their abilities. However, the 'new' Taliban has also recognized the power of technology, the internet, and social media platforms like Twitter. They have effectively utilized these tools to mobilize their cause and draw attention away from their human rights abuses. They have gotten smarter about masking the true nature of their activities just enough for the outside world to focus their attention elsewhere.
Media has played a significant role in facilitating the Taliban's return to power, leading to a situation where the people of Afghanistan now face the prospect of accepting the Taliban as the legitimate leaders of the country. The Taliban developed a well-funded social media network and propaganda machine over the past two decades while they were still engaged in conflict with the Republic. Now that they are in control and have access to abundant resources left behind by the Americans and the international community, they possess the potential to inflict even greater harm than before.
I will refrain from discussing the current social media campaign and propaganda machine that the Taliban have implemented, as that is a topic that deserves separate attention, and many individuals have already taken notice of it and shared their views. What deeply concerns me is their strategy of using ordinary citizens as conduits for spreading their message of peace, hope, rebuilding, and reconciliation. This approach is merely a facade aimed at concealing the decades of bloodshed and the recent years of tyranny imposed upon the Afghan people.
One method they employ is leveraging YouTubers and YouTube channels. Recent events have triggered a mass exodus of Afghans to various countries, including Europe, Canada, and the United States. For most of us, this involuntary exodus has left a profound void in our hearts and minds as members of the diaspora and exiled Afghan community. Regardless of the number of passports we obtain or the countries we reside in, our memories, dreams, hopes, and the work we have dedicated to Afghanistan will forever be intertwined with our identities and consciousness. This gap creates a yearning for our homeland, our cities, and our people. In today's interconnected world, this longing can be partially quelled through social media, YouTube videos, or phone calls with our relatives who remain in the country. Exploiting this vulnerability, which many of us share, including myself, the Taliban disseminate what they perceive as a peaceful and transformed image of Afghanistan.
Youtube channels boomed from a few to a few hundred in the past two years. These creators are heavily monitored by the Taliban, sometimes even supervised by one or two members, deeply censored, and scripted to the best of their abilities. The sole purpose of these channels is to capture the hearts and minds of vulnerable Afghans both inside and abroad and compel them to accept that the Taliban have changed– they are doing good, and all is forgiven now. Domestic media is obviously under the control of the de facto regime and cannot be trusted; therefore, by censoring and using these ‘online media sources,’ they ensure that even average citizens of Afghanistan outside the country get the censored and regulated information that the Taliban wants them to see and hear. These carefully curated communications make it that much harder for anyone outside the country to know what is really happening.
What can be done to ensure that the polluted messages of the Taliban are not received around the world and that factual information from the depths of the Afghan communities is reflected in International media where the Taliban have no influence? That is where the efforts of brave journalists living inside Afghanistan in fear and secrecy come in. These journalists are responsible for uncovering the dark side of the Taliban regime, their abuses, and their massive discriminatory campaigns against other languages and ethnicities are heard and seen throughout the world. I am proud to be part of an organization that supports these journalists and, facilitates tools, equipment, logistics, training, expertise, and provides a platform for them so that they can safely and anonymously share their stories of what is truly being done under the cover of this de facto regime.
For example, we recently learned of a specific incident wherein Taliban officials neglected the abuse of a married woman in a rural province of Afghanistan by her husband because “the husband’s word had more worth than the woman’s.” She suffered constant beatings, was not allowed to visit her parents, and was threatened with death by her husband if she refused to obey his commands. Did she go to the Taliban officials to help? Yes. Did they help? No.
Among the many cruel acts which the Taliban carry out on a daily basis, incidents like these seem to fall between the cracks. This reveals their attitude towards women in a society where their status cannot go beyond a housewife and a slave in many cases.
Journalists, ex-military officers, soldiers, musicians, human rights defenders, civil rights activists, thinkers, writers, critics, and Afghan women have all been systematically tortured, beaten, unlawfully imprisoned, and abused since the Taliban’s takeover. Ideas Beyond Borders and other organizations' work is more critical now than ever. Supporting journalists and their mission plays a vital role in keeping the Taliban in check and has the power to ensure that their inhumane abuses are not forgotten or neglected by the international media.
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