Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the surge in threats, summonses for interrogation, and arbitrary arrests to which journalists and media outlets have been subjected for the past two months in Afghanistan. The Taliban intelligence agency is known as the “Istikhbarat” and the Ministry for Promoting Virtue and Suppressing Vice are directly implicated in this harassment, which violates Afghanistan’s press law.
The latest of the many journalists to be detained include Aslam Hijab, a business reporter for the privately-owned Ariana News TV channel, who was arrested outside his place of work on 31 January. When his colleague, Waris Hassra, tried to protest, he was also arrested. Both were taken away by intelligence officers to an unknown destination and were held for 48 hours before being released.
These two cases of arbitrary arrest are far from isolated. Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on 15 August 2021, at least 50 journalists and media workers have been detained briefly or arrested by the police or Istikhbarat. These arrests, which are often accompanied by violence, have lasted from several hours to nearly a week. They usually occur when journalists are covering street demonstrations by women in the capital, Kabul, and show the increasingly important role that the Istikhbarat is playing in the harassment of the media.
Headed by Abolhag Wasiq, this intelligence service is playing a key role in the Taliban government and is directly overseen by the interim prime minister. It has replaced the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), itself the heir of the KHAD (State Intelligence Agency), a local branch of the KGB during the 1980s.
The Istikhbarat is not just directly involved in arresting journalists. RSF has learned that several media outlets have received threatening phone calls and summonses for questioning from Istikhbarat officials. Javad Sargar, the senior Istikhbarat official in charge of Department 53, which handles the media, recently horrified journalists by “inviting” them to stop covering certain subjects and stop asking certain journalists to participate in TV discussions, “if you don’t want me to rip your tongue out.”
“Threatening to rip out journalists’ tongues in order to prevent them from covering certain subjects is completely unacceptable,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran-Afghanistan desk. “Journalists must be able to practice their profession without being under a permanent threat of arrest and torture. These unlawful threats, which violate Afghanistan’s media legislation, are all the more horrifying for coming at a time of growing harassment and increasingly restrictive rules for the right to news and information.”
More and more harassment
As well as the threat posed by the Istikhbarat, Afghan journalists must now also deal with the Ministry for Promoting Virtue and Suppressing Vice, which is responsible for ensuring respect for the Sharia in the public domain and enforcing the Koranic doctrine of “enjoining good and forbidding wrong.” It was this ministry that issued a decree on 22 November defining certain rules governing press freedom in Afghanistan. Inter alia, journalists were asked not to interview commentators who might criticise the government, or invite them to take part in TV studio discussions. And women journalists were told they must wear full Hijab.
The heads of four privately-owned TV channels – Tolo TV, TV1, Ariana News and Shemshad – were summoned to the Ministry of Information and Culture a few weeks later, on 16 and 22 December. The purpose of these meetings, held with representatives from the Istikhbarat and the Ministry for Promoting Virtue and Suppressing Vice in attendance, was to warn them to adhere strictly to the 22 November decree. The TV channel bosses were forced, under pressure, to agree to implement the decree.
This decree violates the media law that was promulgated in March 2015 and is still officially in effect. When questioned by RSF, government spokesman and deputy information and culture minister Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that this law is still in effect, that it does not prevent women from working as journalists, and that no ministry or entity should intervene in journalists’ activities. He nonetheless also announced the imminent creation of a “Commission for Verifying Media Offences.”
The situation is all the more confusing for journalists because the directives concerning them are coming from a variety of sources. As well has being pressured by various ministries and the Istikhbarat, the media must also follow orders from the Government Media and Information Centre. On 29 January, the GMIC issued recommendations for “all media in Afghanistan” that in essence confirm the 11 rules for the media announced on 19 September. These announcements have helped to further weaken the Ministry of Information and Culture’s role with regard to the media, which are nevertheless officially placed under its authority.
Afghanistan is ranked 122nd out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index which RSF issued in April 2021.