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The Pen vs the AK-47: the Future of Afghan Media Under the Taliban

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Samiullah Mahdi, 2021 Spring Joan Shorenstein Fellow
Written just prior to the Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan, this new report from Shorenstein Center Fellow Samiullah Mahdi provides an overview of the media landscape in Afghanistan, and the threats to and opportunities for press freedom in the region.

By Samiullah Mahdi, 2021 Spring Joan Shorenstein Fellow


The views expressed in Shorenstein Center Discussion Papers are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Kennedy School or of Harvard University.

Discussion Papers have not undergone formal review and approval. Such papers are included in this series to elicit feedback and to encourage debate on important issues and challenges in media, politics and public policy. These papers are published under the Center’s Open Access Policy. Papers may be downloaded and shared for personal use.


Forward by Charles Sennott

The photographs of horrific red and blue welts on the backs of journalists really say all one needs to know about where the resurgent Taliban stands on freedom of expression.

There are mounting reports from at least a half dozen Afghan journalists who have been flogged by the Taliban for defying restrictions on covering an outbreak of protests, led by women against Taliban rule, in the last week, and some of the journalists were also detained and have since been released.

After the Taliban seized power in a stunning advance on Kabul in mid August and the collapse of the Afghan government, it seems to be wasting very little time in showing what the country and the international community that has supported it can expect in terms of human rights and freedom of expression. If you dare to challenge the Taliban’s understanding of how the right to girls’ education or a free press “fits within the framework of Islam,” as the Taliban leadership put it in vague terms in its extraordinary first press conference since taking power on August 24, you will be beaten and threatened.

Welcome to Afghanistan under the Taliban.

“There are journalists who are standing up,” said Samiullah Mahdi, a prominent Afghan journalist who has written an extraordinary research paper for Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy on how the landscape of media in Afghanistan has been transformed over the last 20 years.

“Look at those who were beaten, very severely beaten. They are operating in an atmosphere of fear and terror. That attack was intentional, an attempt to break their courage,” Mahdi said.

“I don’t think it will work,” Mahdi hastened to add.

The journalists are not only courageous but they know first-hand just how far a free press has come in Afghanistan and they will not be willing to give it up easily, he said, adding, “They are our last best hope. And the media should not start self censoring, but consider shutting down in protest. It is better to be silent, than to lie. If we can’t put out the truth, than it is better to shut down the news organization and open it again when we can state the truth.”

For now, the situation seems bleak for Afghanistan’s vibrant free press and media industry, which was one of the country’s proudest accomplishments in the 20 years since the last Taliban regime was toppled through the U.S.-led military invasion that came in response to the 9-11 attacks authored by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

As America’s longest war came to a chaotic and at times shameful end with a full drawdown of troops in the end of August, the Taliban is once again in power and the hard-fought gains for women’s rights and press freedoms are very much in peril.

The lightning speed of events unfolding in Afghanistan make this impressive body of work by Mahdi, who has been named a Shorenstein fellow, all that much more urgent. His 50-page research paper on the landscape of a free press in Afghanistan was produced over the spring and summer of 2021, as the Taliban’s advance was taking shape, and now it provides a critical, forensic picture of the landscape of Afghanistan’s free press just as the Taliban came to power. It will long stand as a baseline of just how much there is to lose for anyone who cares about freedom of expression and who regard trusted, fact-based journalism to be a cornerstone of any participatory form of government.

Working closely with Shorenstein Center Senior Fellow Richard Parker, Mahdi has produced a ground-breaking and prescient body of work on the state of a “media revolution” in Afghanistan that was achieved through the support of the international community with the United States alone contributing $150 million for media development since 2001, yielding an array of television, radio and newspapers across the country. Now, Mahdi believes Afghanistan’s nascent free press will face extreme peril with the sudden rise of the Taliban government already seeking to restrict freedom of expression and, if history is a judge, to continue to brutally repress a free press.

In his conclusion Mahdi, who says he plans to continue his research and update his findings, offers a worrisome forecast for the future as the Taliban was steadily advancing through the provinces this summer, forcing local newsrooms in these more remote corners to shut down in their wake so there were no eyes on their military push.

He writes, “This is a glimpse of what may very well happen nationwide once the Taliban reach Kabul—but that depends on how they reach it. The first way is grim: it foresees a Taliban military takeover, in which case foreign influence will be limited to China, Pakistan, and some Gulf states which have provided military or political support to the Taliban for years. If that happens, Afghanistan will lose most of what it has gained in terms of rights– and many observers have prophesied a full-scale new civil war and re-collapse of state institutions.”

It is hard to say now how this will all play out.

But announcing an interim government on September 7th that is dominated by hardliners from the old guard, the Taliban made it clear from the start that protests would not be permitted and that only approved slogans would be allowed.

Despite the decree, protests have erupted across the country with demonstrators calling for freedom and opposing early signs that the government will curtail the rights of women and the rights of a free press. Journalists covering these protests were beaten and some were detained, several of them from the fiercely independent news organization Etilaat Roz.

The United Nations has condemned the Taliban for its violent crackdown using live ammunition, whips and batons and killing at least four protesters. Disturbing photographs of journalists with deep red welts across their backs and legs from flogging are surfacing and have been obtained by The GroundTruth Project and have carried around the world on wire services.

“We call on the Taliban to immediately cease the use of force towards, and the arbitrary detention of those exercising their right to peaceful assembly and the journalists covering the protests,” Ravina Shamdasani, UN rights spokeswoman, told a briefing in Geneva on September 10, adding that reports show house-to-house searches for those who participated in the protests. Shamdasani also said journalists have faced intimidation.

“One journalist was reported to have been told, as he was being kicked in the head that you are lucky you have not been beheaded,” she said.

As the world watches the Taliban tighten its grip on power, it seems the investment in a free press is already starting to face Taliban attempts to beat the spirit out of it.

Mahdi warns the United States that it also stands to lose, writing, “If these achievements are lost, civil war in my country will follow—and in yours, global groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others will revive, inspired by the Taliban’s “success”. They will revive and expand in South Asia, in Central Asia, in the greater Middle East and North Africa. The West, by ignoring Afghanistan once its troops are gone, will rediscover them soon enough because they will, once again, come after your country as they have done to so many parts of mine.”

Charles Sennott, founder of The Ground Truth Project and Report for America and veteran foreign correspondent

September 13, 2021


Introduction

“You are dangerous, that’s our definition of media.”

That’s how the Taliban’s negotiator last fall began an unprecedented meeting between Taliban leaders and Afghan media executives in Doha. Mullah Khairullah Khairkhah—a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner—then added, “You are like a pen which could turn into a shovel and destroy things.”

His sarcasm was unmistakable and listening to him, I felt I had to say something; silence wasn’t an option. “If you are so afraid of us because of our pens, you can only guess how much we fear you,” I shot back.

None of what we said was taken lightly by those listening. Too much was at stake. The Mullah’s fear of journalists’ pens speaks volumes about the relationship between the Taliban and the media in Afghanistan—a history scarred by the Taliban’s repeated bloody attacks and the deliberate targeting of journalists and their news organizations. Given that history, if a pen is something men like Mullah Khairullah fears, you can only imagine what hundreds of Afghan journalists like me feel about the Taliban.

Our exchange, during Doha’s “peace talks” last October, underscored a grim reality: the Taliban have good reasons to fear media. We’ve been one of the main, if not the main force for bringing what we truly believe is liberating social change to Afghanistan over the past two decades.

A month after that meeting, a new wave of terror began taking its toll on civilians in my country, most especially journalists and civil society activists. Over the next five months, more than a dozen of my colleagues were murdered, and scores more received life-threatening messages. Many, fearing for their lives and their families, have since left the country. While the Taliban have so far refused to accept blame for these so-called “soft killings,” the Afghan government, like the U.S. and its NATO allies, firmly believes the Taliban are behind the killings.[i]

This latest wave of assassinations and terror has created an environment of constant fear in Kabul and other large cities.[ii] It’s also brought front and center the question of free expression’s future in my country, once the last American troops leave this fall. What most Americans don’t realize is that the U.S. and its NATO allies have pledged to continue financing and training Afghan media and other civil society organizations for several more years—and how that money is spent will be more important than bullets and bombs.

Creating a (mostly) free press in Afghanistan is something the international community has long taken deserved pride in supporting—and as the West withdraws its troops, its protection should be at the front and center in negotiations with the Taliban in Doha right now. Yet many Afghans are wondering what the fate of our nascent free press will be, once the Taliban are back in Kabul as early as next year.

Amid our uncertainties about the Doha talks— including what the Biden administration’s policy will really be after the last troops leave—the prestigious inside-the-Beltway Afghanistan Study Group published a seminal report in February. It affirms respect for human rights and civil society—but is alarmingly vague about what that even means, let alone how to effectively preserve it.[iii] So while the report touts the “crucial role the civil society has played in securing critical development gains to date and can play during both the negotiating process and the implementation of an eventual peace agreement,”[iv] it offers neither vision nor road map for the role Afghan media will have to play in fostering a democratic future for my country— and says almost nothing about Western governments’ ongoing help in guaranteeing a vibrant and free press.

Most concerning to us journalists in Kabul is that the report offers no concrete action plan to safeguard a free press once the impending political settlement with the Taliban is in place.

This isn’t a problem in just one report, however. Major agreements and declarations already signed by the U.S as part of the “Afghanistan peace process” also make no mention of preserving free expression in post-settlement Afghanistan. There is no mention of it, for example, in the formal peace agreement the United States and the Taliban signed in February 2020—and nothing about it in the “Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” announced the same day.

Instead, there is only this one anodyne phrase in the Joint Declaration: “The two countries are committed to their longstanding relationship and their investments in building the Afghan institutions necessary to establish democratic norms, protect and preserve the unity of the country, and promote social and economic advancements and the rights of citizens.”[v]

Like these key transition documents, U.S. officials have been silent whenever they’re asked how they are pressuring the Taliban to preserve what many of us count as our country’s most significant achievements. Asked about the future of human rights, freedom of expression, minorities’ rights, and women’s rights, all they will say is that all that “must be negotiated by Afghans.” For example, John Bass, the former U.S. ambassador, asked recently about how the U.S plans to support human rights and free expression, would say only that “I have heard from many ambassadors in Kabul that their respective governments’ support for any future government in Afghanistan will depend on whether these rights are respected or not.”[vi] For Afghan journalists attuned to diplomatic niceties, the fact is that U.S diplomats consistently refuse to say directly that the U.S will maintain pressure on the Taliban to preserve press freedom. The result so far is that the Taliban have made no direct mention or commitment about these rights in any of the official documents signed between them and the U.S.

America’s neglect is all the more alarming because U.S. officials know Taliban ideology has been incompatible for decades with the concept of freedom of expression. Meanwhile, however, a free Afghan media has flourished in the past 20 years to become a critical and visible ally of the international community and the central government in Kabul — something that has given the Taliban yet another reason to perceive a free press as its foe. Zabihullah Mujahed, the military spokesperson of the Taliban, was quite frank about this when we spoke earlier this year. “Media,” he told me, “has been a tool to propagandize against the mujahedin and call them Pakistanis and Punjabis[1] in order to serve the interests of occupiers.”[vii]

So with a political settlement now seemingly possible for the first time in decades, how will the nation’s media survive to help preserve human rights and freedom of expression? What lessons can be learned from the experiences of media in other “post-conflict” countries such as Egypt, Kosovo, and Macedonia? What role will international organizations and countries that promote a free press play in my country’s future?

This paper aims to provide an overview of the media in Afghanistan and explain the threats to and opportunities for it. It will also examine the role media can play after the political settlement. Besides utilizing existing research on media in other post-conflict societies, the paper will use a number of interviews I conducted with current stakeholders for the paper including Afghan journalists, media executives, government officials, and members of the peace negotiating team in Doha, as well as with U.S. and NATO officials—and leaders of the Taliban. It will suggest several potential policy actions at the end.  

 

Overview of Afghan Media Landscape

Afghanistan was a strikingly “nonvisual” country from 1996 to 2002 because all forms of TV and video were outlawed by the Taliban regime, as was music and even kite flying. The voices and images of women were also explicitly prohibited as part of the Taliban’s overall “women policy.” That meant they were not allowed to go to school or work, or even go outside their homes without a male family member accompanying them. In the words of Kathy Gannon, the AP’s Kabul bureau chief, who has covered the country since 1988, “The Taliban didn’t allow relaxation because that helped them to rule the country with military force.”[viii]

Today, two decades after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent ousting of the Taliban regime by the U.S and its allies, Afghanistan has one of most vibrant media industries in the region. In fact, it has seen a “media revolution” since the Taliban regime collapsed — though few Americans know anything about it.

That Afghan “media revolution” occurred thanks to the financial as well as political support from the U.S. and its allies. According to Ross Wilson, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Kabul, the United States alone has provided over $150 million for media development since 2001.[ix] Besides financial support, the U.S. has also played a crucial role in convincing a succession of post-Taliban governments not to crack down on the free press. While those post-Taliban governments consequently have generally been mostly supportive of free expression, it hasn’t been without resistance from cultural and religious conservatives as well as some technocrats inside government itself. The conservatives particularly opposed the presence of women in media and promotion of social change that favored more liberal values. As Kathy Gannon told me, she believes “those conservative elements allowed media freedom only because of the foreigners’ pressure. Otherwise they were as much against media and the appearance of women in public as the Taliban.”[x]

The second group, comprised mostly of technocrats who had returned from exile in the West, were first of all in favor of what they called “strong government,” and so were highly critical of a free press which too often exposed their misuses of power as well as their corruption. So besides security threats from the Taliban and other extremist groups, the country’s press since 2002 has always had to face challenging forces within the government.

This dual opposition, from conservative leaders and technocrats, meant practically that for some time after the Taliban’s 2002 expulsion, women singers still couldn’t appear on TV and radio.[2] Although officials of the new government (some of whom were Mujahedin leaders themselves) allowed female anchors at Radio Afghanistan to read the news, songs sung by women were firmly banned until two years later, after a major controversy erupted when TV Afghanistan rebelliously broadcast a song sung by the celebrated traditional singer, Salma Jahani.

At the time, the Islamic Clerics Council had immediately condemned the broadcast, even though Sediqullah Tawhidi, a veteran media activist who was then deputy director of Bakhtar News Agency, told me that most Mujahedin leaders—who dominated the new government—didn’t seem to object despite the Clerics Council’s opposition.[xi]

Prior to broadcasting Jahani, some producers at RTA had tried to broadcast another woman singer—but in the middle of the song, senior officials had ordered RTA to stop the broadcast. What had changed by the time Jahani’s singing was broadcast, Mr. Tawhidi underscored, was that “the international community, especially the European Union, had conditioned their financial and technical support to RTA on broadcasting women singers and on making the network independent of government control.”[xii] Gannon agrees, and in fact believes the conservatives only accepted the change because of that international pressure.[xiii]

Despite these pockets of opposition, in the years after the Taliban regime fell, the country changed. Afghanistan entered a new phase of its history, one in which no matter how conservative the leadership, an authentic media revolution had started to take place. Late in 2002, Radio Arman FM became the country’s first privately-owned radio station (and the first media venture of Moby Group, about which more shortly), established with the help of US AID.[xiv] When it started broadcasting, mobile phones had barely arrived—and were very expensive. But most young Afghans had small, cheap Chinese-made transistor radios and so Arman FM had quickly become very popular. A key feature that attracted more and more listeners (compared to state-owned RTA) was the friendly and informal language that the anchors used—a first in the country. Just hearing those young female and male anchors, who cracked jokes and seemed so independent in their views, was another reason why a lot of youngsters who’d lived under the Taliban regime flocked to Arman FM. However, the station’s style (which other private broadcasters soon copied) brought a predictable torrent of criticism from conservatives who claimed that “Westerners are polluting our culture with music.” A debate which progressive forces thought they had won by broadcasting Jahani thus gradually became a continuous back-and-forth struggle with fundamentalist groups.

Today, nonetheless, there are 33 TV stations operating from Kabul, 35 more local TV stations around the country—and more than 170 FM radio stations.  Hundreds of small newspapers and magazines are active as well. According to an Asia Foundation survey, the media are now one of the most trusted institutions in Afghanistan, with a 67% approval rating—second only to this traditional society’s respect for its religious leaders.[xv]

Most of these media outlets broadcast or publish in one or both of the country’s two main languages, Farsi and Pashto, but together they represent all the various cultural and political groups in the country. That said, there are important variations as well—and for the purposes of this paper, Afghan media outlets can be categorized into at least five main groups, which I want to quickly explain next.

Independent Media

The most popular broadcasters are the privately-owned TV channels such as Tolo TV, Tolownews, Ariana TV, Ariana News, Shamshad TV, 1TV, Lemar TV, and Khurshid TV. They broadcast nationwide—and most have FM radio affiliates which are equally popular. Popular privately-owned national publications include 8am, Etilaate Roz, and Weesa, all of which are pro-democratic and therefore actively involved in supporting human rights, women’s rights, and representative democracy.

One reason for the success of stations such as Tolo TV/Tolonews, Ariana TV, and 1TV is their non-ethnic and non-sectarian approach to news and entertainment programing, especially when compared to the “strongmen” media (which I’ll discuss in a moment). These channels have consequently also become the most credible ones at the national level, an achievement that has attracted both local advertising and Western financial support.[xvi] They all broadcast a combination of news and entertainment that typically includes music shows, satires, comedies, and educational and family dramas. While these channels also often air dubbed Turkish and Indian (and in some cases Latin American and Western) soap operas, they are very careful not to broadcast programming from either Iran or Pakistan, the country’s two most controversial neighbors.

A balance between Farsi and Pashto, the country’s two main languages, is visible in their news hours, while their entertainment shows generally favor Farsi. While Tolonews, for example, has almost as many Pashto news and current affairs programs as Farsi, Tolo TV is more Farsi-oriented. The same is true about Ariana TV and 1TV, while Shamshad and Lemar are the most popular Pashto stations.[xvii]

The stations’ popularity, plus their connections to the international community, have proved crucial whenever the government or strongmen tried to shut them down. In 2007, for example, the country’s powerful attorney general, Abdul Jabar Sabet—ironically a former Voice of America journalist himself— got into a feud with Tolo TV. In fact, he wanted to imprison one of Tolo’s journalists on charges of “distorting” one of Sabet’s speeches in a TV report. Mawlana Mohamad Abdullah, Tolo TV’s legal adviser at the time, told me that the Attorney General also clearly wanted to shape future reporting by other media by making an example of Tolo and its reporters. So when Sabet sent police to arrest the reporter, Tolo’s managers refused to hand him over.

More police were then sent to arrest a group of editors, including Mr. Abdullah.[xviii] As its senior editors were dragged out of the station, Tolo TV responded by broadcasting the scene live— and Abdullah recounted to me how this stirred immediate public outrage. Civil society activists and free press advocates rushed to the Tolo TV compound in support—and senior government officials soon began pressing the attorney general to release the Tolo personnel in custody. It was for all of us an extraordinary moment.  This was the first time in Afghanistan’s history that a privately-owned media outlet had stood its ground against the state—and won. Shafiq Gawhari, the country director of Moby Group, told me that “it was a pivotal moment” not just for Tolo but the Afghan press in general.[xix]

No state official has tried the same methods since, but blocking the use of police to control the press hasn’t guaranteed press freedom. When intimidation by police didn’t pay off in this situation, Mawlana Abdullah says that the Attorney General’s office, the Ministry of Culture and Information, and the Islamic Clerics Council together demanded that broadcast of all Indian TV serials must stop—a move, according to Abdullah, meant to squeeze the independent channels financially.

After months of quarrels, Tolo TV and Ariana TV agreed to modest restrictions: they would blur any alleged “nude scenes” as well as any images of Hindu idols— but they never stopped running the Indian soap operas themselves.[xx] The international community’s support for a free press was decisive in many of these disputes. As Kathy Gannon puts it, “without that international support for free media and women’s and minorities’ rights, many of the country’s leaders wouldn’t have allowed the current level of press freedom.”[xxi]

The government’s attitude toward the press is still complex. Although government officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, prefer to appear on the unchallenging talk shows of the government’s RTA network, RTA has a limited audience–and so officials have to look beyond state-owned media to get their messages to the public. Because it’s the privately-owned channels (and the international channels, which I’ll describe) that provide more credible platforms, officials often deliver strategic messages there, knowing that audiences watch and listen because government officials can be challenged by journalists who aren’t on the government’s payroll.

It of course also helps, politically and psychologically, that Western diplomats also frequently choose to appear on those private TV channels too—and make sure that U.S. and NATO-funded public service announcements (PSAs) show up on them as well. What’s also very important is that the private channels are covertly watched by audiences in areas controlled or contested by the Taliban precisely because these stations champion democratic values, human rights, women’s rights, minorities’ rights and representative government.

None of these values, needless to say, are celebrated by the Taliban, who believe they are byproducts of “foreign occupation”—and in strong contradiction to their interpretation of Islam. In this, they’re probably right in one way: researchers have found that more than four out of five Afghans who rely on the Internet, TV, or radio for their news are far more supportive of equal educational opportunities for women.[3]  In other words, the Taliban are right to worry about the impact independent media have, especially on the minds of those young Afghans who the Taliban most want to recruit. When members of the Taliban’s negotiating team in Doha were asked about their definition of media, Mullah Khairullah KhairKhah, the former Guantanamo detainee I confronted there, had admitted that “we are afraid of you” because “you have enormous power over people’s mentality and you can make good things look bad and vice versa.”

International Media Outlets in Afghanistan

Radio Azadi (the Afghan service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), Radio BBC Dari and Pashto, and the Voice of America are the most listened-to international radio stations in Afghanistan. Aljazeera in English is also available to Kabul’s English-speaking elite, who carefully follow the news on this channel—but because it doesn’t broadcast in any local languages, it doesn’t have a broad-based audience.

Foreign media have long played a key role in Afghanistan, especially when domestic circulation of news was dominated by governments in Kabul or different factions of forces fighting against it. For example, the BBC, VOA and Deutsche Welle often provided the population with much more reliable and objective reporting from around the country compared to the state-owned or factional media.

International media are still today more trusted by much of the public, compared to the Afghan government’s broadcasters and even many private media.[xxii] Trust, however, isn’t the only reason.  Afghans are inescapably aware of the West’s military, financial, and administrative/advisory role—and so articles and editorials in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Guardian and other western press not only make headlines in Afghanistan, but heavily influence key policy and opinion circles. Because English-speaking urban-based elites are keenly alert to what the international press is saying, Afghan leaders such as President Ashraf Ghani have often focused more on them than on Afghan media. For Afghan journalists and the public alike, this is a bitter-sweet (and to be honest, often bitter) reminder that the governments in Kabul have been more attentive to winning over Western, especially American, elite and public opinion than that of their own people.

The process has made not just many in the public but Afghan leaders—former president Hamid Karzai in particular—cynical about Western media as well. According to one researcher, Karzai “believed that journalists reporting for the American press were agents of the U.S. government” and that ultimately “he was more concerned with what elite Western news media, especially the New York Times and Washington Post, thought about him than what the Afghan press did.”[xxiii]

In addition to western media, I should note that the Russians and Chinese have become more active in the Afghan media in recent years. The Russians broadcast a daily one-hour news and current affairs program on Radio Killid and China Global Television Network (CGTN) broadcasts a regular TV program in Pashto, by partnering with Shamshad TV, the country’s most popular Pashto TV channel.[xxiv] Their programing, needless to say, closely reflects their governments’ watchful policies towards Afghanistan.

Strongmen Media

Strongmen who fought against the Taliban regime understand the power of media, and so lauched their own channels after the Taliban fell to advance their agendas. primarily with their own ethnic groups. The most prominent of these strongman broadcasters are Aina TV (owned by Marshal Abdurashid Dostum, the former vice president); Rahe Farda TV (owned by Mohammad Moqiq, the leader of Hizbe Wahdat Mardome Afghanistan, a mainly Hazara-dominated political party); Noor TV (founded and owned by Burhanuddin Rabani,,the former president of Afghanistan); Negah TV (owned by Karim Khalili a former vice president); and Dawat TV (owned by Abdurab Rasul Sayaf, a conservative Mujahedin leader).

Westerners often fail to appreciate that Afghanistan is a deeply diverse country in terms of regions, ethnicity, language, and religion even though these divisions are at the heart of its historic ungovernability—and the reason why strongmen and strongmen media exist. For Afghans, these enduring divides are everyday facts of life in all sectors of the society—and the media are no exception. While it is commonly believed in the West that Pashtuns are the majority ethnic group in the country and mainly reside in the eastern and southern regions of the country, there is no credible census to validate that assumption. The last census was taken before the Soviet Union invaded 42 years ago and since then, many credible scholars have challenged this “Pashtun majority” assumption, arguing that Afghanistan is a country of minorities with no ethnic group comprising more than a third of the population.[4]

Afghanistan is also of course a predominantly Muslim country, about 85% Sunni and 15% Shia. (Most Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks are Sunnis while most Hazaras are Shia). While Afghanistan hasn’t historically seen major conflicts between these two main groups, the Hazara Shia have found themselves under near-constant terrorist attacks in recent years, aimed against their neighborhoods in Kabul, their schools, hospitals, places of worship, gyms and even their weddings. Although the Taliban were responsible for many of these attacks in the past, ISSK—the Afghan branch of ISIS, which considers all Shias non-Muslims—has claimed responsibility for most of these recent atrocities. [5]

Despite these enduring divisions, overall the strongmen and their TV and radio stations have a surprisingly small audience share—and some studies suggest that many of them were only established with the help of funding from neighboring countries including Pakistan, Iran, China, and Turkey.[xxv]

For their specific audiences, these channels offer a mixture of news plus (depending on the channel) Iranian, Turkish, Egyptian and South Korean soap operas, dramas, music— and of course videos and speeches that prominently feature their owners and—unsurprisingly—usually lead as their news hours’ top stories. During election campaigns or political turmoil, what’s important is that these channels predictably become the primary source of strategic communication for their owners and their parties.

Aina TV, for example, is predominantly an Uzbek channel (with Farsi its second language and Pashtu third)— and its broadcasts are chock full of videos of Marshal Dostum.[6] Noor TV meanwhile is predominantly a Farsi channel, reliably broadcasting the viewpoints of Rabani’s faction within the Jamiat-e-Islami party. Rahe Farda TV, Negah TV, and Tamadun TV are largely Farsi channels that showcase the viewpoints of their owners, who are Hazara/Shia Jihadi leaders. Kabul News, which belongs to Abdul Karim Khuram (President Karzai’s former chief of staff, who maintains a very close relationship with the ex-president) is a current affairs channel which generally reflects the Karzai camp’s political views.

The fact that these channels are political platforms for their owners and emphasize the particular language of an ethnic group or political factions helps explain why they have such small viewership compared to independent media. However, because their income doesn’t come from commercial advertising or international NGOs, once the Americans leave, strongmen media will keep broadcasting as long their owners and backers provide financial support.

State-Owned Media

Although Radio Television of Afghanistan (RTA) is the most important state-owned broadcaster, several studies suggest that it also is among the least popular, with a nationwide audience share of about 2%. That said, RTA has gone through several reforms in the past few years and has become more effective at broadcasting live government news events such as high-profile conferences and events. The government also owns 34 low-power TV stations around the country, basically local versions of RTA–and also owns several newspapers such as Anis and Hewad, which are the oldest newspapers in the country. However, the papers’ history and experience have also not translated into wider audiences for their government owners.

Having mentioned Anis and Hewad, I should say a few words here about Afghanistan’s state-owned media history which goes all the way back to the 1860s, when Amir Shir Ali Khan commissioned publication of Shams-al-Nahar,“Sun of the Morning.” But after Shir Ali’s demise, no print publications were allowed by his successor, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1880 to 1901. In 1906, Saraj-al-Akhbar, “Torch of the News,” was launched under Amir Habibullah Khan, the nation’s king from 1901 to 1919. In 1923, when the country’s first constitution was introduced by Habibullah’s son, the principle of free speech was made part of that constitution. But while the number of newspapers then grew for several years, all of them were strictly controlled by the state, as was the first radio station introduced with the technical help of the German government.[xxvi]

After King Mohamad Zahir approved a new constitution in 1964, in an attempt to transform the totalitarian monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, some features of democratic governance were introduced. Over the next few years, for example, two dozen new privately-owned publications started circulating.[xxvii] It marked the beginning of a crucial era in the country’s history of free speech and democracy, which although it proved short-lived, is considered “the decade of democracy” by historians.[xxviii]

The period’s (relative) tolerance of the press and political parties, however, also opened the space for radical journalists and politicians who preached communist or Islamist ideologies.[xxix] This all ended in the 1973 coup led by Mohamad Daoud, the king’s first cousin, who had the support of elements within the Army who were aligned with the People’s Democratic Party (PDPA). Daoud then revoked both the constitution and media laws, banned most publications, and replaced the constitutional monarchy with an authoritarian republic. In his first address to the nation via Radio Afghanistan, to justify the coup, he said that “I had no other choice but to enact a real democracy which is based on serving the majority of people of Afghanistan and is compatible with the real meaning of Islam.” He went on to praise the country’s “patriotic army” and other “patriot comrades,” and insisted that the threat of “recessive forces” (meaning Islamists) was why “the patriotic army” had toppled the government in order to save the country.  Daoud then promised “security, economic tranquility, and scientific progress” to the nation—but by cutting short the country’s first real steps towards a constitutional democracy, it turned out that he had started Afghanistan on a nightmarish descent into its current unending conflicts.

Five years later, in 1978, Daoud himself was killed along with most members of his family, ironically by the same PDPA which had helped him overthrow his cousin. The PDPA then changed the country’s name to “the Democratic People’s Republic of Afghanistan” and declared their own revolution, broadcasting its arrival nationwide using the RTA which Daoud had established. This new Moscow-dependent communist government abolished freedom of expression and the tiny independent press all over again; only publications with close ties to the new regime survived.[xxx]

RTA, as the nation’s sole TV and radio broadcaster, took on an almost totemic role. Controlling it signaled to Afghans which regime was then in power during the kaleidoscopic two decades that followed, as eight more regime changes were announced by each’s capture of RTA.

Since 2002 when America and NATO forces overthrew the Taliban regime, RTA has gone through a modernizing transformation technologically, with Japan and the United States as its major financial supporters. But the government in Kabul has repeatedly refused attempts to transform RTA into a network similar to the BBC by declining to grant it editorial independence and instead strictly controlling it.[xxxi] Thus, RTA, which was established on an authoritarian-regime media model, has remained so even in this age of “media revolution.” Broadcasting songs endlessly sung in praise of the President—as just one example among many—means RTA, for most of us, most resembles state-run channels in post-Soviet Central Asia.  As a consequence, despite vast technical assets and a large number of employees across, RTA has only a 2-3% audience share among broadcasters.[xxxii]

Citizen Journalists

Online and social media platforms are my fifth category here. Today, online has become—more than any other medium—the battleground of Afghanistan’s ideological differences because there are now 8.64 million internet users in Afghanistan (that’s 22% of the population) and 4.4 million Afghans are regular social-media users.[xxxiii] They’re a powerful modernizing network: as I noted earlier, these millions online strongly support democracy as well as equal opportunities in education and work outside the home for women.[xxxiv]

Private citizens with social media handles also play a reporting role: they usually are the first to break news of security-related incidents, well before TV and radio. Besides breaking news, social media activists also regularly launch advocacy campaigns to oppose or support certain government policies.  For example, a major social media campaign (popularly known as “ATRA Kojast?”, “Where’s ATRA?”) was launched in 2019 by activists who were angrily demanding transparency about public spending financed by a new 10% tax on individuals’ mobile networks.  Mirwais Arya, who spearheaded the popular campaign, targeted the poor services, high tariffs and non-transparency of both ATRA (Afghanistan Telecommunication Regulatory Authority) and the private telecom companies.[xxxv] 

Taliban Media

I want to note that the Taliban are also quite adept at media usage, with several websites such as alemara.com and nun.asia as well as numerous YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, as well as the “bike radio” broadcasts of Radio Shariat.[7] The Taliban also publish an endless stream of anti-government and anti-“occupation” articles, and produce video and audio updates of battlefield news as well as the latest developments in the Doha “peace talks.” Recently, they’ve also been actively showing up on non-Taliban TV and radio shows to provide their points of views on the peace process as well as the ongoing conflict.

The Taliban have also become notably more proactive in sharing information about the peace process, including about their meetings with high-level American officials. Besides their chief military spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, they now have in their Doha political office Mohamad Naim as their principal spokesperson and Sohail Shaheen as English Media spokesman. During the direct negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. last year, they routinely shared more information with the media than the Americans (or the Afghan government, which didn’t have much information anyway).

The Taliban’s strategic focus is of course always meant to justify their jihad by showing how Afghans’ religion and values have come under constant attack from “infidels” led by the U.S. and those who work for the Afghan government, who are cast as “slaves of the occupiers.” The Taliban consider themselves the only mujaheds (holy fighters) who will stand up against these “apostate invaders,” and supporting them means helping to evict the invaders and their slaves and re-establishing the Sharia law they enforced when they ran the country.[xxxvi]

Their media materials include Shabnamah, “night letters”[8] and other print publications as well as videos and audio files of inspirational music and poetry that are posted to their websites and social media platforms.[xxxvii] They use these tools to legitimize their war, garner logistical and financial support, recruit youngsters to fight against the government and its international allies—and of course glorify those insurgents who’ve participated in suicide attacks as “martyrs” for the cause.

Their media campaigns are not just aimed against the infidel U.S. and NATO forces or their slaves in the Afghan government. They also consider the media, civil society and NGOs part of the hated “cultural invasion” by foreigners, and have filled their supporters with a steadily-growing animosity toward all non-Taliban journalists and media workers—with predictable consequences.   The poetry they broadcast in Pashto, for example, openly derides journalists as “spies of infidel occupiers” while senior members of the Taliban Political Office in Doha—including Anas Haqqani, brother of Serajuddin Haqqani, the head of notorious Haqqani Network—regularly portray the press as part of the hated “cultural invasion.”[xxxviii]  

 

Challenges Ahead

Three female employees of Enikas TV were killed in Jalalabad and a fourth injured as I was drafting this paper, in two separate but coordinated attacks in early March.[xxxix] Two days later, a group of senior editors traveled to Jalalabad to pay their respects and offer condolences to the families of the women. On their return to Kabul they posted this on Twitter: “In Jalalabad to express our condolences to grieving relatives of Mursal, Shahnaz and Saadia — the three female media colleagues killed on Tuesday. Explored ways with the management of Enikas TV to help them continue their important job. We are together in this.”

Within days, four of the editors had received this message on their cellphones: “You …[9] and other friends of you went to Jalalabad to express condolences with that TV’s three prostitutes. You are the promoters of prostitution and supporters of the U.S. propaganda game. You and your closed ones are now military targets for the Mujahedin.”

The editors never made this message public— the only reason I know about it is because I was meant to go with them but didn’t because I’d been locked down in Kabul due to earlier direct threats on my own life.

Officially, the source of the message still remains unknown, but one of the threatened editors told me that they decided not to make the threat public because, while they don’t know precisely who was behind this threat, they are afraid that “certain circles” will use this kind of threats for their own interests. (Meanwhile senior U.S. officials will say, off-the-record, that they’re sure the Taliban are behind most of the killings—even though there are other groups out there too who are just as murderous).

Security consequently remains the number one challenge for journalists in Afghanistan today. Since last November alone, as I’ve explained, nearly a dozen journalists and media workers have been murdered by terrorist groups[10] and more than 65 have been killed since 2001.[xl]

Of the dozen-plus journalists I interviewed for this paper, most said they firmly believe that the Taliban were behind these recent killings and threats. Abdul Mujib Khalwatgar, head of Nai Media Support, noted that “simultaneous with the beginning of the peace negotiations in Doha, we witnessed a surge in targeted killings and decrease in the number of media outlets” and says that he is sure that “the Taliban are behind the killings.  It is visible from their tactics. They want to revive their old image and benefit from it.”[xli]

But many of my interviewees expressed concern about other groups such as ISIS-Khorasan, the local branch of ISIS I mentioned earlier for attacking Hazari Shia, also wanting to benefit from the current situation. Many are also concerned about threats from more than insurgent groups.  Zaki Daryabi, the founder and editor of the daily Etelaate Roz, told me that he thinks “some elements inside the government would be just as happy as the Taliban if I were killed.”[xlii] Lotfullah Najafizada, head of Tolonews, is more cautious than Daryabi about naming names in the government but obliquely told me in frustration, knowing that I knew what he meant, that “we hear that the Taliban are behind this wave of killings, but we do not have evidence.”[xliii]

Whatever the source or sources of the killings and threats, Afghanistan’s media community has been affected as never before.  Given the uncertainties ahead, Najiba Ayubi, head of Killid Group, the umbrella organization for Radio Killid, openly fears that the recent surge of targeted killings is creating “a wave of self-censorship” and believes that despite what they say in negotiations at Doha, “the Taliban want to impose certain limitations on the media even before they arrive in Kabul…they want to set the tone for news reporting, and by these threats, they want to limit the space for free expression.”[xliv]

Reflecting this growing insecurity, news outlets such as Tolonews have reduced both their coverage and their staff, and routinely now focus first on personnel safety rather than on-scene news coverage itself. Some of their reporters and technical staff now live in their well-guarded offices or in safe houses day and night—and understandably a number of them have chosen to resign. Parwiz Kawa, co-founder of the daily 8am told me that now the “safety of our colleagues is our main concern. It has replaced the news as the number one priority.”[xlv]

Meanwhile, Tolonews’ Najafizada is absolutely clear that “these killings are related to the peace process. They want to terrify us.” But he then adds defiantly, “numbers killed will not kill the cause.”[xlvi] Parwiz Kawa of 8am agrees about the killers’ motives: “the Taliban had targeted a number of journalists” he says, “as a strategy to pressure the government at the negotiations table.”[xlvii]

Journalists have good reasons to think the Taliban are most likely behind most of these killings. Thanks to the Taliban’s deep-rooted suspicions of the media, they have repeatedly and openly been willing to shed journalists’ blood. In one notorious instance in 2015, they struck back when Wali Arian of Tolonews reported that “military officials in northern Kunduz province have accused Taliban militants of raping girls at a hostel after attacking the Kunduz city …but the Taliban has rejected these rape claims.” (Tolonews, 19 October 2015). Arian’s report came just weeks after the Taliban had captured Kunduz and Amnesty International was already documenting their atrocities:

According to local activists, Taliban fighters also raped female relatives and killed family members, including children, of police commanders and soldiers, especially those working for Afghan Local Police (ALP). The Taliban also burnt down the families’ houses and looted their belongings. The relative of a woman who worked as a midwife in Kunduz’s maternity hospital told Amnesty International how Taliban fighters gang-raped and then killed her and another midwife because they accused them of providing reproductive health services to women in the city.[xlviii]

Back in the 1990s, when the Taliban were first capturing city after city, there had been no independent media to report on their atrocities or their victims. But by 2015, when the Taliban re-captured Kunduz, dozens of local and international reporters, including Arian, had been there. Saad Mohseni, chairman of Moby Group (which owns Tolonews), told NPR, “We had three correspondents going live every single hour. And when they entered the city, they obviously reported on atrocities committed by the Taliban. So the Taliban saw that whatever they had committed was getting reported live. And from a PR perspective, they probably felt that this was unacceptable.”[xlix]

In response to these reports, the Taliban declared journalists of Tolonews and 1TV “enemy personnel” and the channels as “military targets.”[l] Soon afterward they attacked a minibus carrying Tolo TV employees home at the end of a normal work day.  Seven were killed and over a dozen critically injured. Most were studio technicians; none were from the news division.[li] The Taliban accepted responsibility for the attack.

When early this year I asked Zabihullah Mujahid about that attack, he said that “after they didn’t listen to our complaints and warnings, we had told Tolo TV that they are military target for us…so we carried that attack against them, and we took the responsibility for it.”  I then asked him if they will repeat similar attacks in the future if the media don’t “listen” to them. His response was, “in the future, when the new government is established, such kind of incidents won’t happen, because laws will control media.”[lii]

Some observers have told me that one reason why violence against journalists has increased in the wake of the Americans’ withdrawal is that the Taliban want journalists to evacuate the cities so that when they capture these areas, no independent eyes are there to report about their atrocities. Wali Arian, who had to leave the country in 2016 after constant threats against his life, told me that “at least 12 reporters left Helmand province after Elyas Dayee, Radio Azadi’s reporter, was killed in November 2020.”  He then added, “Helmand is now a dark area for reporters. We really don’t know what is happening there—and this is exactly what the Taliban wants.”[liii] 

New Economic Challenges

After the Americans arrived in late 2001, Afghanistan’s newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations as well as the new online media were suddenly being helped with grants from Western countries, especially the U.S., and have also since benefited from project-based support from those governments and several western NGOs. (As noted earlier, according to the U.S Embassy, over $150 million has been spent by Washington on media development in Afghanistan over the past two decades.)

Now that support is being cut to the bone.

Muqadessa Yorish[11], head of Lapis Strategic Communications, a branch of Moby Group, told me that “Institution-building projects have declined by 40 to 50%” just in 2020.”[liv] For large companies such as Moby Group, these international sources had brought in 25-30% of their income, so any further reduction poses the risk of bankruptcy before the Taliban arrive in Kabul.[lv]

Ariana TV is the second most popular network after Tolo, and according to Sharif Hassanyar, head of Ariana News, over 50% of their income was paid for by the international community. Public service announcements (PSAs), funded by the U.S. and directed against al-Qaeda and Daesh as well as the Taliban, were another big source of income which has also been drastically cut back.[lvi]

Media outlets have thus been left to survive with the income they get from the private advertising market, their main clients historically energy drink companies, banks, and telecoms.[lvii] Telecoms used to be the single biggest advertisers but have reduced their expenditures, according to Mr. Hassanyar, because the Taliban punishes telecoms for such advertising by forcing them to pay higher “taxes” in order to operate in areas the Taliban control.

Withdrawal of the West’s military forces has shrunk the market even further. According to Danish Karokhel, the founder of Pazhwak News Agency, the country’s largest news agency, provincial and district level media are paying an especially high price. Pazhwak used to have 63 local radio stations that each paid $100 a month; now, it has only seven. Danish told me that before President Obama’s 2012 announcement of the initial withdrawal of U.S forces, Pazhwak was self-reliant financially but that once the actual US withdrawal began, it lost 30% of revenue—and by March 2020 had lost 80%. As a result, the number of staff has dropped from 120 to 30, and to keep its remaining employees, Pazhwak has had to cut their salaries by 20%.

Newspapers face even greater challenge because in-depth features and investigative reporting are expensive, and readership has always been comparatively low. According to Zaki Daryabi, chief editor of the daily Etelaate Roz, only 20% of their revenue now comes from advertisers and readers in their print edition and related social media platforms. That leaves project-based payments to provide 70-80% of their income— but as I explained, that has been drastically cut back.[lviii]

Private radio stations are facing a similar threat. Najiba Ayubi, director of Killid group, which has over a hundred small local stations, said that about 20 of these stations have already closed because of project-based cutbacks, and she is concerned that this trend will only continue.[lix]

On the other hand, some leading media executives such as Moby Group’s Shafiq Gawhari, believe that if a peace deal with the Taliban is reached—and produces a comprehensive ceasefire and a halt to the bombings and killings—the economy will start to grow quickly, creating a growth environment for media that survive until then. However, he too fears that harsh coverage restrictions will be imposed on news and current affairs programs.[lx] 

Legal and Political Challenges

Those media survivors then will face enormous ongoing and new challenges. “What kind of media reforms do the Taliban want if the peace process succeeds and you come to Kabul?” I asked Zabihullah Mujahid, a military spokesperson for the Taliban, in a recent phone interview. He told me the Taliban believe that “several dimensions of media should be reformed. Their broadcasts and publications should be based on the belief system of our people and should respect national unity and national interests.”   He continued, “while the media are necessities in today’s life and have expanded dramatically over the past 20 years, they have been used in the interest of Afghanistan’s occupiers—and frankly they have called mujahedin Pakistanis and Punjabis.[12] The media have been a propaganda tool for the occupation of our country.”[lxi] When I asked him why he thought media had worked against national unity, he replied, “media outlets of Shias, day and night, keep talking about how Hazaras are oppressed and discriminated against, while the reality is that one of them has become the vice president of the country.” He continued, “General Dostum’s TV is the same about Uzbeks and maybe some Pashtu channels also talk about ethnocentric issues all the time… this is against the national unity and should stop.”

The Taliban’s views about music and satire shows are equally limiting. Mujahed told me that music and certain entertainment shows are viewed as “spoiling our culture.” When I asked him if they intend to ban all music, as did during their regime from 1996-2001, he replied that “Islamic clerics would make a decision about what kind of music should be allowed and what kinds are haram and should be prohibited.”  We both knew what he meant; cleric councils are traditionally against broadcasting music, and most especially songs sung by women.

Another very popular genre in Afghan media has been political satire shows. These shows are widely loved because they dare to make fun of the country’s leaders, including impersonating the president and other top officials. When I asked Mujahed what would happen to such shows under their watch—and whether they could continue impersonating leaders, including Mullah Haibatullah, the supreme leader of the Taliban, his answer was clear: there will be no room for such things.  “It is the duty of every Muslim according to the fate to respect the leader of Muslims,” he told me, and “ridiculing the supreme leader is an unforgivable sin and cannot be broadcast.”[lxii]

Thus, the Taliban see much of current media’s content either as violating their interpretation of Islamic law and beliefs of the people, or as a threat to national unity. A major fear for journalists— and much of civil society— is thus not surprisingly that the Taliban will seek to crush the current free press environment.[lxiii] Even more concerning is that Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, a member of the government’s negotiating team, frankly explained to me that the Taliban won’t be acting alone: “some members of the Republic’s team will stand with the Taliban to abolish free media, especially the entertainment programs like songs and dances of women.”[13][lxiv]

Most media executives I spoke to already anticipate that tough new limits will be placed on entertainment programing—and say they are ready to compromise at least on this. For instance, Shafiq Gawhari told me that “if stopping The Afghan Star”—the Afghan version of “American Idol”— “will help to bring peace and stop the bleeding, we are ready to do that.” But, he continued, “while we don’t have redlines on entertainment shows—and we could make concessions there—we cannot make concessions on the news. If necessary, we may even consider stopping Tolonews or stop broadcasting any kind of news at all on our channels, because it is better to be silent than lying.”[lxv]

The AP’s Kathy Gannon, after three decades in the country, can’t see much difference between the Taliban and the fundamentalist religious groups supporting the current government. That said, she doesn’t think the Taliban will simply decimate media in total. Instead, she anticipates that “they will bring a model closer to Saudi Arabia’s media environment, but it won’t look like Kabul’s pre-2001 era” when there was no TV, no music and no women’s presence in media.[lxvi]  

 

Lessons from Other Post-Conflict Societies

Thus, since the Taliban seem determined to abolish much of what has become a largely free press in the past two decades, and since so many in the government seem unwilling to offer any serious opposition to them, the hope many of us in journalism now have for the preservation of free expression, women’s rights, minorities’ rights and other basic rights is the international community—which could still make the funds it has pledged for postwar assistance absolutely conditional on support for those rights.

Post-conflict situations are generally defined by academics who study the field as beginning when “…open warfare has come to an end. Such situations remain tense for years—or decades— and can easily relapse into large-scale violence.”[lxvii] Based on this definition, Afghanistan became a post-conflict society after the U.S’s and NATO’s intervention overthrew the Taliban government in response to 9/11. The economy recovered, violence fell, disarmament took place and, based on the agreement signed in Bonn, a new government was installed.[lxviii]

However, this post-conflict transition didn’t last. The level of violence increased once again as the Taliban re-mobilized, gaining confidence and momentum. As a result, features of both post-conflict and in-conflict societies appeared in news coverage (and in media more generally) at the same time. In in-conflict societies, news production for media—even when they’re independent from the warring parties—is often heavily shaped by affiliation with one of the parties or by direct physical threats from them.[lxix] At first, after the Taliban government fell, Afghanistan had begun to look like other post-conflict societies such as Kosovo and Macedonia. All three countries had moved from their state-owned media system and established a Western-style pluralistic media environment. As a result, there are about 100 radio and TV stations in Kosovo and close to 100 stations in Macedonia.[lxx] Yet even so, despite constitutional guarantees in all these countries for freedom of expression, journalists could still be threatened or forced into self-censorship by the elites.

I need to be clear here: although Afghan media are highly critical of government officials and regularly criticize misuse of power by authorities (including those in security forces), they nonetheless have an underlying sympathy for the military and security forces in their fight against the Taliban and other terrorist groups, and so broadcast and publish reports, programs, and songs which clearly show those sympathies. I should add that this attitude more often shows up as support for ordinary soldiers than for their commanders –and frequently uncovers corruption and abuse by high-ranking officials in the security apparatus. Nonetheless, I should say, as Baker and O’Neal (2001) argue, that coverage of media in conflict zones such as Afghanistan for the past two decades has been influenced “by an affiliation with one of the conflict parties,” which is important to understand.

Let me give some examples of what this means in practice. News coverage has been increasingly influenced by presumable risks imposed on media by the warring parties. A source in Pazhwak News Agency recently told me that the agency had obtained documents about a series of new marriages of a senior Taliban official—and that the agency had decided not to publish them because of the security risks. The backstory here is that while traditional Islam approves of polygamy, the Taliban leadership had prohibited “costly polygamy” by its supporters.  Arrogant senior officials were ignoring the order,[lxxi] but if Pazhwak had reported the marriages, it would have faced retribution by both sides of the Taliban—from top Taliban leaders for exposing the violation of its own rules, and from the violators for exposing their hypocrisy, since the rule against such multiple marriages was being strictly enforced further down the Taliban ranks.

Similarly, sources in Tolonews have told me that they avoid tough, critical reporting about certain war-era figures to avoid both the figures’ anger—and hurting the feelings of their supporters. With the Taliban’s inclusion in the Afghan state now pending (assuming agreement can be reached between the government and the Taliban, which is a separate open question), the number of topics and individuals that will be placed off-limits will only increase. For instance, as my source said, “I can imagine that we will not be able to produce critical reports on Taliban leadership—and will have no choice but to cover events such as the anniversary of the death of Mullah Omar” (Omar was the founder of the Taliban movement, and high-profile ceremonies routinely recognize the anniversaries of other leaders’ deaths).

“Diverse and pluralistic outlets” are meant to be another signal feature of a post-conflict media environment. While, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States identified media as crucial to Afghanistan’s democratic future and quickly became Afghan media’s major backer,[lxxii] the presence of the European Union in particular made the donor community very diverse. Several international NGOs, such as Internews, Open Society, the National Endowment for Democracy, Reporters without Borders, and others have also contributed to that diversity by independently supporting institutional capacity-building, especially for small-to-medium-scale broadcasters and publishers. (It’s worth noting however that many of the most influential newspapers, such as 8amdaily and Etilaat-e-Roz, receive little or no funding from USAID or the U.S. Embassy directly, for reasons I will explain in a moment).[lxxiii]

According to Bratic (2008), pre-war elites who become forces in post-conflict societies can often impose new forms of censorship in the post-conflict era—which has frequently been true in Afghanistan. So, despite a wide diversity of media views about how to cover “the war elites,” media with a national reputation have generally avoided tough, critical reporting about some of them. In contrast, smaller outlets, often with specific ethnic and political agendas, have produced quite a lot of tough but also politically-loaded coverage about elites who are not affiliated to their ethnic or political groups. For instance, Zhwandoon, a predominantly Pashto station, has never shied away from attacking Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik (and an anti-Soviet, then anti-Taliban commander who won the title of “National Hero” from the first post-Taliban government). Meanwhile, Noorin TV, a predominantly Tajik station, regularly broadcasts harsh reports aimed at Pashtun leaders revered by Zhwandoon TV.

While journalistic self-censorship certainly exists on some issues, the extent and severity of it also depends on which media company the journalist works for, and what kind of topics make that company sensitive. Yet, although this is similar to the situation journalists face in the Balkans, because Afghan journalists face all the same types of self-censorship demands (professional, procedural, organizational, economic, political and ideological), nonetheless, there is generally less fear about confronting those in power.

The diversity of media content, the flow of information, and reduced barriers for audience access to information are all considered benchmarks of “democratic media societies” which our journalists have struggled to achieve.[lxxiv] But now, that is changing, as I’ve explained: Afghan independent and commercial media are under immanent threat of losing their major sources of income and the political and legislative protections which would allow them to keep operating freely and independently. Going forward, the fear is that the government’s and the strongmen’s media will prevail, and that they will deliberately limit access to credible and objective sources of information for the public— which would shrink the space for public debate even further.

So, for many of us, Afghanistan stands now at another critical juncture in its fraught history, half a century after its first constitutional democracy fell in a coup led by Daoud Khan in 1973. Afghanistan lost its semi-democratic order and semi-free press and started a five-decade-long downward slide into perpetual conflict and bloodshed. When this all started, the so-called “Free World” didn’t have a presence in the country—and Daoud’s closest ally was the Soviet Union, which didn’t care about liberal and human rights. Therefore, the “Free World” then didn’t have an interest in helping—or the means to help—Afghans preserve any of the gains the country had made in the last ten years of King Mohamad Zahir’s reign. The result was that Daoud destroyed the roots of Afghanistan’s budding democratic institutions fifty years ago and replaced them with self-centered extractive ones. What journalists like me fear is that the Taliban and elements in the Kabul government will do much worse if these institutions are not preserved.

In the past two decades, the international community has helped Afghans take critical new steps towards freedom of expression, women’s rights, human rights, minorities’ rights and universal suffrage. The international community still today has the chance and the tools to leverage the government that will emerge from the current peace process, to support that freedom and those rights.

If they don’t help now, the only surviving media will be those of the authoritarian state and the strongmen, with no space for independent and objective reporting on the ways that the Taliban and their government allies deal with the population, especially women and minorities. Could that sort of darkness lead to another global wave of religious extremism that makes Afghanistan a terrorist safe haven again? What would stop that?  How exactly?  

 

The Importance of Preserving Media in Post-Peace-Settlement Afghanistan

Three decades ago, another superpower was negotiating its withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving behind most of country’s infrastructures destroyed, two million killed, and over five million refugees in the neighboring countries and scattered across the globe.

For a “face-saving” exit by the Red Army, and for the sake of the so-called “United Nations peace process,” the people of Afghanistan were kept almost completely in the dark during the negotiations of the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and the U.S. Abdullah Ahmadzai, the representative of the Asia Foundation in Afghanistan, told me that “when the UN was leading the peace process, we would only hear that a meeting or conference happened here or there. Basically there was no access to information about the process, and the entire process happened in the absence of the people.” As he reminded me, “that situation led to a fragile process which resulted in a bloody civil war in the 1990s.”[lxxv]

By contrast, the current peace process has been scrutinized by Afghan media in detail—and thus by millions of Afghans. Journalists like me have had access to negotiating parties, including the U.S., the rest of the international community, and key neighboring countries. We’ve conducted persistent in-depth interviews with Afghan government officials, the Taliban political office in Doha, U.S. authorities such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad, General Scott Miller and so on. More importantly, the ordinary people of Afghanistan—who are the real stakeholders in this peace process— have also found their own points of views presented by the same media.

As I explained earlier, while national-level independent media take a more holistic approach in covering people’s varying perspectives on peace, there are lots and lots of smaller and local outlets that reflect specific ethnic and cultural interests in relation to the peace process. International media such as Azadi Radio, the BBC, DWE, VOA, and others additionally provide their own perspective. Meanwhile, in this digital age, millions of citizens have the means to reflect on and debate issues important for them. This incredibly rich information environment is unprecedented in our country—and is going to play a continuing crucial role in shaping public debate over the peace process and over the future of our country.

Domestic media’s detailed coverage of the peace process, in other words, has played and is playing a critical role in shaping the future—something few Americans, used to thinking in terms of troops and combat, and victory only in military terms, have paused to consider. At every stage, reporters have interviewed stakeholders, analyzed events, and given ordinary people, including the families of victims of war, a chance to raise their concerns and/or hopes about the process. Whenever I go out to do interviews, it’s no surprise to see that ordinary citizens, men and women, old and young, from every ethnic background, are keenly aware of the role the media play in the process. That’s why an Asia Foundation survey found that 79 % of respondents believe that “freedom of press is highly important for protecting the peace agreement in Afghanistan.”[lxxvi]

Yet I can’t overemphasize this too: our media are under tremendous pressure and threat now. Journalists face targeted killings and an unmatched number of threats. A sense of insecurity has overtaken the men and women I work with, not just on the battlefield but in the office as well as at home and on the streets—and this could lead all too soon to a collapse of the country’s pro-democratic media entirely.

People’s Participation in the Peace Process

The people of Afghanistan have been the real victims of this conflict for five decades now— and their lives will be enormously affected by the outcome of this peace process.  It is vitally important to make sure people have an opportunity to share their views about the process now and going forward. Our free press is the only medium which can bring the debates and the process to the public domain.

Giving Voice to the Victims

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in my country in the past two decades and millions more around the country suffer daily because of this ongoing conflict. There are millions of refugees abroad, hundreds of thousands of internal refugees, countless orphans and widows on all sides of the conflict. Media have given voice to those victims by transforming statistics into people and giving those people names and families and villages and dreams. Throughout the peace process, media has provided the opportunity for the victims of this cancerous violence to raise their concerns and expectations about the process and where it will lead.

Representing the Youth

Afghanistan is one of the world’s youngest nations with nearly 2/3 of its population—27 million people–under 25 and half its population under 15 (UNFPA, 2018). Most of these youngsters were less than five years old when the twin towers fell in New York on 9/11 and America then invaded the country and overthrew the Taliban. They’ve known no other life.

The majority of this new generation of Afghans, however, have grown up living in our new wave of press freedom–and the values of the young are being defined by this era. As I mentioned above, more access and exposure to media have created a more liberal and pro-democracy mindset among millions, especially women and the young. Therefore, this paper will close by arguing that only a free press in Afghanistan can ensure its people’s continued involvement in the peace process, give voice to victims of war, represent the values of the new generation, and ensure sustainability of a peace settlement.

Afghanistan’s experience with freedom of expression in the past two decades is unparalleled in the region. It has given the most vulnerable and overlooked members of the society a voice in the national arena. It has kept a close watch on government and officials by exposing their misuses of power and corruption. Because the country lacks a meaningful, legitimate and institutionalized political opposition, however, the oversight role played by media has proved vitally important time and again. Although “advocacy media” is often an unpopular term in the West, soon after 9/11 and the military intervention of the U.S. and NATO, Afghan journalists found themselves in a position where they could advocate for certain values such as the rule of law, human rights, women’s rights, a free press and so on. Kathy Gannon once told me that “journalists shouldn’t be advocating for anything,” and referring to my colleagues, continued, “if today they are advocating for something, tomorrow they will be doing so for something else. Our job is to report about the news. That’s it.”[lxxvii] Contrary to Gannon’s views, Afghan journalists and media became prominent forces for social and political change in the country—and in the absence of strong democratic institutions, they have played the double role of watchdogs as well as opposition against those in power since 2002.  I still don’t think we had a choice—journalists who want a free press must advocate for a free press, and for the institutions that will protect that freedom and the freedom of its citizen audience.  

 

The Policy Actions We Need

This section of the paper briefly offers policy actions that I believe Afghan media, the Afghan government, international NGOs and foreign governments should take to support and preserve a free press in Afghanistan. I will draw on lessons learned from other post-conflict countries, from the interviews I’ve done with stakeholders in Afghanistan for this paper, and from my own experience as a journalist.

What the International Community Can Still Do

The international community should condition its future financial support on the post-peace government’s ability and willingness to preserve basic rights. Afghanistan’s economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid—although the level of aid has declined from 100% of GDP in 2009, according to the World Bank, about 75% of country’s GDP last year is still being financed by foreign governments and NGOs.[lxxviii] The donor community committed to continuing support, on a declining year-to-year basis, through 2024 at the Geneva aid conference in November 2020.  Encouragingly, many of the major donors have already conditioned their support on the Kabul government’s ability to combat corruption, reduce poverty and make progress at the still-ongoing peace talks.[lxxix]

For those who think all this irrelevant—and are convinced the Taliban is poised for outright military victory, here’s what is most important to understand: the Taliban are keenly aware of the country’s financial needs—and have already allowed international humanitarian NGOs into areas controlled by the group.[lxxx] More important, Taliban leaders clearly are counting on that foreign financing after the peace deal is signed. Therefore, the West’s humanitarian and economic support for Kabul’s next coalition government can be a tool to bend the Taliban’s attitude towards basic rights. In short, the U.S. and other donor countries should, first of all, make absolutely clear they’ll provide assistance only when they see proven support for freedom of press, human rights, and especially women’s rights (including women’s meaningful participation in government and social and political life).

While the Geneva conference participants officially did “recognize” the crucial role of media and expressed “full support” on paper for freedom of expression, and “stressed the importance of the safety” of journalists, their general “recognitions” and their vague language leave room for maneuver by those who would oppress basic rights. Therefore, the international community must base their support on:

  1. Halting assassinations, intimidations, and criminalizing of journalists, media workers, and civil society activists;
  2. Making sure that freedom of the press is explicitly addressed in the peace agreement between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban;
  3. Continuing international financial support for independent media;
  4. Assuring the independence of the press based on the current Mass Media and Access to Information laws;
  5. Ensuring the presence of women in news, current affairs, and educational and entertainment programming;
  6. Guaranteeing that any claims against media of libel, slander, distortion of facts, or so-called “fake news” will be dealt with based on the current Mass Media law;
  7. Ensuring internet and social media are not censored by government.

What International NGOs Can Do

International non-governmental organizations have played a significant role in birthing a free media and civil society in Afghanistan. Besides providing financial support, they’ve played a major advocacy role for more free-speech-friendly laws in Afghanistan.

The continued presence of groups such as Internews, the Open Society Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and others that worked in Afghanistan over the past two decades, will help safeguard local media and assure continued financial support as well. Therefore, keeping these international organizations operating in Afghanistan has vital importance for the future of free expression.

The continued presence of these NGOs requires keeping current laws which allow such NGOs activities in the country. Countries such as post-Arab Spring Egypt are constant reminders that governments can quickly and easily move to limit the presence of such groups order to repress domestic civil society and free speech. So international NGOs must do the following:

  1. Maintain their presence and support for Afghan media;
  2. Carefully and frequently report on the situation in Afghanistan to their respective home countries. press, and governments–and advocate for the support of Afghan media freedom;
  3. Stand ready to extend support to Afghan media if the domestic space for a free press is curtailed and they have to operate from abroad.

What Afghan Media Meanwhile Must Do

  1. Find new ways to finance production and broadcast (such as by going more heavily digital, merging companies, and cutting costs);
  2. Fundraise from their audiences, especially diaspora communities in Western countries;
  3. Embolden press and journalists’ associations;
  4. Provide more platforms for constructive debates between the Taliban, government, civil society, and independent and pro-democratic clerics, especially public debates that challenge the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic laws and traditions;
  5. Prepare to operate from abroad instead of planning a full stop to media operations because of pressures from the Taliban or other groups.

 

Conclusion

As I finalize this paper, the Taliban have taken control of almost half of Afghanistan’s 400 districts. In addition to imposing restrictions on all sorts of daily activities, especially of women, the Taliban have forced local radio stations in many of these districts to broadcast “Radio Sharia”[lxxxi] and to stop broadcasting any kind of music or even women’s voices. Several media support organizations, including Afghanistan Free Speech Hub, NAI, and many others have raised concerns about the Taliban’s attitude towards independent press across recently fallen districts. In reaction to these reports, Ross Wilson, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Kabul, posted this to his official Twitter account: “I am disturbed by reports that the Taliban is shutting down media organizations in the districts they assault, attempting to conceal their violence in a press blackout. It seems they seek to silence media to hide their destruction of public infrastructure, looting, and killings of Afghan civilians and soldiers. -IM #ProtectJournalists #DefendMediaFreedom.”[lxxxii]

The Taliban quickly issued a statement denying Wilson’s allegations, claiming that the “press can continue broadcasting independently and unbiasedly based on the Sharia.” The statement called Wilson’s allegations part of the “enemies’” propaganda. But several independent observers, including local reporters, have already told me that at least two dozen radio stations have in fact been silenced or, in order to survive, have begun broadcasting what the local Taliban authorities dictate.

This is a glimpse of what may very well happen nationwide once the Taliban reach Kabul—but that depends on how they reach it.

The first way is grim: it foresees a Taliban military takeover, in which case foreign influence will be limited to China, Pakistan, and some Gulf states which have provided military or political support to the Taliban for years. If that happens, Afghanistan will lose most of what it has gained in terms of rights—and many observers have prophesied a full-scale new civil war and re-collapse of state institutions.

The second way is through a peace settlement that still can in fact be reached between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—which is something the Taliban still insist they want. That peace agreement would give the international community the room to force Kabul to prove it’s protecting not just the country’s free press but other basic rights.

As far as I’m concerned, the remarkable achievements of Afghanistan’s “media revolution”– and the fact that so many of my journalists and media workers have refused to leave our country in the face of all these threats, show how deeply rooted this achievement now is.  I absolutely believe there is enough interest, passion and talent to keep the light of our free press alive in what I know personally is one of most difficult places in the world to be a journalist. Contrary to what the Taliban and other conservative groups believe about a free press and free expression as prongs of the West’s “cultural invasion,” there is an original and homegrown Afghan interest in those things.  It will be a disastrous setback if Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq or some other autocratic press prototypes are imposed in the name of Allah after a century-long struggle for a free press in my country—and the “media revolution” it has engendered.

If these achievements are lost, civil war in my country will follow—and in yours, global groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others will revive, inspired by the Taliban’s “success.” They will revive and expand in South Asia, in Central Asia, in the greater Middle East and North Africa. The West, by ignoring Afghanistan once its troops are gone, will rediscover them soon enough because they will, once again, come after your country as they have done to so many parts of mine.  


Appendix

[1] Labeling the Taliban as “Pakistani” or “Punjabi” underscores the fact that the Taliban maintain safe havens in Pakistan and have close relationships with the Pakistani intelligence and army–but given the historical animosity in Afghanistan towards the Pakistani establishment, this is a very serious allegation.

[2] No song sung by female singer was broadcast on RTA during the period of Mujahedin regime from 1992 to 1996.

[3]  89% of Internet users, 87% of TV viewers, and 82% of radio listeners support women’s education and over three-quarters support women’s right to work outside the home (Jargalmaa Amarsanaa, Anthea Mulakala, & Brandon, 2019).

[4] The 2004 constitution recognizes 14 ethnic groups in the country, with Pashtuns and Tajiks the two largest, followed by the Hazaras and Uzbeks. While there is no clear ethnic majority group, it is true that Pashtuns have for complex reasons dominated Afghanistan over the past three centuries. Although over a dozen different languages spoken in the country, the 2004 constitution recognizes Dari and Pashto as official national languages while recognizing Uzbeki as the third official language in areas where the majority speaks it.

[5]  A Human Rights Watch report of 1998, for example, notoriously found that the Taliban killed thousands of Hazara men and boys after the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif fell into their hands. As HRW reported, “The Hazaras… were particularly targeted, in part because of their religious identity. During the house—to—house searches, scores and perhaps hundreds of Hazara men and boys were summarily executed, apparently to ensure that they would be unable to mount any resistance to the Taliban”. (Human Rights Watch, 10 November 1998). This ??? of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict is why strongmen and their media are still prevalent today.

[6] Mr. Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, is the founder of Junbish Mili Islami Afghanistan, a predominantly Uzbek party.

[7] These low power FM channels are called “bike radios” because they are constantly, clandestinely being moved to escape government detection.

[8] Insurgent and outlawed groups used to distribute their printed messages and pamphlets under the cover of the night, hence the term.

[10] What is worth noting is that a group called ISIS—Khorasan (the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch) has claimed responsibility for many of the recent killings, while the Taliban have limited themselves, with Doha negotiations ongoing, to blanket warnings that “reporters and staff members will not remain safe” (Kabul Times, June 29, 2019).

[11] Muqadessa is one of few Afghan women who are among a handful executives in the private sector of the country.

[12] Calling Taliban’s members “Pakistanis” or “Punjabis” is to call them “foreigners” or “apostates”—a grave insult, even a capital offense.

[13] Mr. Mansoor believes that the “Taliban are generally not very well educated and do not understand most modern concepts such as freedom of expression and human rights… They genuinely believe that what they want for the country is the best for it”.

 

References

[i] U.S. Embassy in Kabul | 7 December, 2. (2020, December 07). Statement on targeted attacks on media representatives, civil society and civilians. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://af.usembassy.gov/statement—on—targeted—attacks—on—media—representatives—civil—society—and—civilians/

[ii] Smith, S., & Mengli, A. (2021, January 25). Wave of killings TARGETS Afghan FEMALE judges, Journalists, intellectuals. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/wave—killings—targets—afghan—female—judges—journalists—intellectuals—n1255302

[iii] Afghanistan Study Group Final Report: A Pathway for Peace in Afghanistan. (2021, February 03). Retrieved from https://www.usip.org/publications/2021/02/afghanistan—study—group—final—report—pathway—peace—afghanistan

[iv] Afghanistan Study Group Final Report: A Pathway for Peace in Afghanistan. (2021, February 03). Retrieved from https://www.usip.org/publications/2021/02/afghanistan—study—group—final—report—pathway—peace—afghanistan

[v] Joint Declaration between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan . (2021, April 13). Retrieved from https://qa.usembassy.gov/joint—declaration—between—the—islamic—republic—of—afghanistan—and—the—united—states—of—america—for—bringing—peace—to—afghanistan/

[vi] Ambassador J. Bass, 15 May 2019

[vii] Z. Mujahed, personal communication, 24 March 2021

[viii] K. Gannon, personal communication, 29 March 2021

[ix] R.W. (@USAmbKabul) 2021, May 3

[x] K. Gannon personal communication, 29 March 2021

[xi] S. Tawhidi, personal communication, 31 March 2021

[xii] S. Tawhidi, personal communication, 31 March 2021

[xiii] K. Gannon, personal communication, 29 March 2021

[xiv] Brown, K. A. (2019). Your country, our war: The press and diplomacy in Afghanistan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[xv] Jargalmaa Amarsanaa, T., Anthea Mulakala, J., & Brandon, J. (2019, December 03). Afghanistan in 2019: A survey of the Afghan people. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://asiafoundation.org/publication/afghanistan—in—2019—a—survey—of—the—afghan—people/

[xvi] Osman, W. (2019). Between the White House and the Kremlin: A Comparative Analysis of Afghan and Tajik Media. International Journal of Communication,13, 619—641.

[xvii] Jargalmaa Amarsanaa, T., Anthea Mulakala, J., & Brandon, J. (2019, December 03). Afghanistan in 2019: A survey of the Afghan people. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://asiafoundation.org/publication/afghanistan—in—2019—a—survey—of—the—afghan—people/

[xviii] M. Abdullah, personal communication, 28 March 2021

[xix] S. Gawhari, personal communication, 30 March 2021

[xx] M. Abdullah, personal communication, 28 March 2021

[xxi] K. Gannon, personal communication, 29 March 2021

[xxii] Brown, K. A. (2019). Your country, our war: The press and diplomacy in Afghanistan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[xxiii] Brown, K. A. (2019). Your country, our war: The press and diplomacy in Afghanistan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[xxiv] Afghan Pashto TV channel launches China-related news service. Xinhua. (n.d.). http://www.xinhuanet.com//english/2017-10/15/c_136681565.htm.

[xxv] Brown, K. A. (2019). Your country, our war: The press and diplomacy in Afghanistan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[xxvi] Brown, K. A. (2019). Your country, our war: The press and diplomacy in Afghanistan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[xxvii] Brown, K. A. (2019). Your country, our war: The press and diplomacy in Afghanistan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[xxviii] Emran, April 26, 2021

[xxix] Brown, K. A. (2019). Your country, our war: The press and diplomacy in Afghanistan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[xxx] Brown, K. A. (2019). Your country, our war: The press and diplomacy in Afghanistan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[xxxi] S. Tawhidi, personal communication, 31 March 2021

[xxxii] Jargalmaa Amarsanaa, T., Anthea Mulakala, J., & Brandon, J. (2019, December 03). Afghanistan in 2019: A survey of the Afghan people. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://asiafoundation.org/publication/afghanistan—in—2019—a—survey—of—the—afghan—people/

[xxxiii] Kemp, 2021

[xxxiv] Jargalmaa Amarsanaa, T., Anthea Mulakala, J., & Brandon, J. (2019, December 03). Afghanistan in 2019: A survey of the Afghan people. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://asiafoundation.org/publication/afghanistan—in—2019—a—survey—of—the—afghan—people/

[xxxv] Arya, M. (2019, July 16). Op—Ed: Telecommunication Companies are looting the national wealth of Afghanistan. Retrieved from https://www.khaama.com/telecommunication—companies—are—looting—the—national—wealth—of—afghanistan—98876/

[xxxvi] Johnson, T. H., DuPee, M., & Shaaker, W. (2017). Taliban narratives: The use and power of stories in the Afghanistan conflict. London: Hurst & Company.

[xxxvii] Johnson, T. H., DuPee, M., & Shaaker, W. (2017). Taliban narratives: The use and power of stories in the Afghanistan conflict. London: Hurst & Company.

[xxxviii] Haqqani, A. (2020, December 28). https://twitter.com/AnasHaqqani313/status/1343583142008020993

[xxxix] BBC News. (2021, March 03). Afghan war: Female TV workers ‘shot dead by IS’ in Jalalabad. Retrieved from https://bbc.in/3sNuOGn)

[xl] Jargalmaa Amarsanaa, T., Anthea Mulakala, J., & Brandon, J. (2019, December 03). Afghanistan in 2019: A survey of the Afghan people. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://asiafoundation.org/publication/afghanistan—in—2019—a—survey—of—the—afghan—people/

[xli] M. Khalwatgar personal communication, 24 March 2021

[xlii] Z. Daryabi, personal communication, 16 March 2021

[xliii] L. Najafizada, personal communication, 18 March 2021

[xliv] N. Ayubi, personal communication, 17 March 2021

[xlv] P. Kawa, personal communication, 18 March 2021

[xlvi] L. Najafizada, personal communication, 18 March 2021

[xlvii] P. Kawa, personal communication, 18 March 2021

[xlviii] Amnesty International, October 1, 2015

[xlix] S. Mohseni, 14 October 2015

[l] DW, 12 October 2015

[li] Gossman, P. (2020, October 28). Afghanistan: Attack on Journalists Threatens Media Freedom. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3sO1I9N

[lii] Z. Mujahid, personal communication, 24 March 2021

[liii] W. Arian, personal communication, 28 March 2021

[liv] M. Yorish, personal communication, 13 March 2021

[lv] S. Gawhari, personal communication, 30 March 2021

[lvi] S. Hassanyar, personal communication, 13 March 2021

[lvii] S. Hassanyar, personal communication, 13 March 2021

[lviii] Z. Daryabi, personal communication, March 2021

[lix] N. Ayubi, personal communication, 17 March 2021

[lx] S. Gawhari, personal communication, 30 March 2021

[lxi] Z. Mujahid, personal communication, 24 March 2021

[lxii] Z. Mujahid, personal communication, 24 March 2021

[lxiii] A. Ahmadzai, personal communication, 23 March 2021

[lxiv] H. Mansoor, personal communication, 21 March 2021

[lxv] S. Gawhari, 30 March 2021

[lxvi] K. Gannon, personal communication, 29 March 2021

[lxvii] Junne, G., & Verkoren, W. (2005). Postconflict development: Meeting new challenges. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

[lxviii] Brown et al. 2011

[lxix] Osman, W. (2019). Between the White House and the Kremlin: A Comparative Analysis of Afghan and Tajik Media. International Journal of Communication,13, 619—641.

[lxx] Jungblut, M., & Hoxha, A. (2016). Conceptualizing journalistic self—censorship in post—conflict societies: A qualitative perspective on the journalistic perception of news production in Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Media, War & Conflict,10(2), 222—238. doi:10.1177/1750635216673283

[lxxi] Nasar, K. N. (2021, January 15). Taliban cracks down on ‘costly’ polygamy. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world—asia—55630097

[lxxii] Osman, W. (2019). Between the White House and the Kremlin: A Comparative Analysis of Afghan and Tajik Media. International Journal of Communication,13, 619—641.

[lxxiii] Z. Daryabi and P. Kawa, personal communication

[lxxiv] Osman, W. (2019). Between the White House and the Kremlin: A Comparative Analysis of Afghan and Tajik Media. International Journal of Communication,13, 619—641.

[lxxv] A. Ahmadzai, personal communication, 23 March 2021

[lxxvi] Jargalmaa Amarsanaa, T., Anthea Mulakala, J., & Brandon, J. (2019, December 03). Afghanistan in 2019: A survey of the Afghan people. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from https://asiafoundation.org/publication/afghanistan—in—2019—a—survey—of—the—afghan—people/

[lxxvii] K. Gannon, personal communication, 29 March 2021

[lxxviii] The World Bank in Afghanistan. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3fG8dIl

[lxxix] Geneva Conference on Afghanistan: Joint Communiqué, November 2020

[lxxx] International Crisis Group, 2020

[lxxxi] BBC Persian. (2021, July 3). تغییر سیاست‌های رادیو ‘نوبهار بلخ’ به نفع طالبان. BBC Persian. https://bbc.in/2TUx7LT.

[lxxxii] RW(@USAmbKabul July 2. 2021