Very few expected the Taliban to have reformed since they were deposed from their seat of power in 2001. Amid their two decades-long violent campaign to recapture power, the Taliban leaders themselves reached out to the international media describing how they are willing to forsake their earlier obscurantist image that made them unacceptable to the international community. Events since August 15th, 2021, however, underline that while a small fraction of the group may possibly represent a moderate face, the group remains firmly in the grip of men, who are unwilling to change.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Taliban’s attempt to build a new narrative in Afghanistan, by dispelling the commonly held image of the former insurgents as ruthless, revengeful, and regressive, has been hampered by unceasing acts of brutalities committed by their fighters on civilian, military and intelligence personnel of the deposed civilian government, minorities, women, and media. To the consternation of the new rulers of Taliban, such reports continue to emerge from Afghanistan, greatly hampering the prospect of their recognition by the international community. This has pushed the Taliban to unveil a project that seeks to browbeat the neutral media to submission.
Such incidents had grown in numbers as the Taliban went on capturing territories prior to the August 15th takeover of Kabul. On August 12th, the Ministry of Information and Culture detailed several acts of threat, violence, intimidation and even killing of media persons by the Taliban. Journalists were not only forced to conduct interviews of Taliban commanders, but were also fired upon and threatened with death, should they write anything against the group. In the subsequent days, the Human Rights Watch has claimed, several journalists have been taken into custody, for their alleged attempt to paint the Taliban negatively. They were reportedly released after being warned.
Another research conducted by the Afghanistan National Journalists Union (ANJU) highlights threats faced by the female journalists and media personnel, who are estimated to have once represented over 67 percent of Afghanistan’s journalists and media workers. The Taliban has asked the media houses to bring curtains on female-led programming and remove female journalists. The international withdrawal has had major implications on Afghanistan’s once thriving print and digital media. The Taliban takeover has rendered over 67 percent of the journalists and media workers jobless, the ANJU research revealed. The regime of threat and intimidation unveiled by the Taliban simply makes objective journalism unviable.
In late September, the Taliban further issued a set of guidelines to regulate media coverage. While on one hand, media personnel were promised relative freedom as long as they respect Islamic values, on the other, they were liable to be prosecuted for printing or broadcasting reports that are ‘contrary to Islam’, for insulting ‘national figures’ or distorting news content. Media must publish, the Taliban have warned, balanced news that are confirmed by their officials. Such sweeping regulations have proved to be a huge deterrent for local journalists, forcing them either to shun journalism or self-regulate. This effectively means that what the world comes to know about the Taliban’s brutalities is only a small fraction of the actual rampant happenings. Worse still, those who have been successful in reporting Taliban atrocities are doing so at great risk to their lives and may not be able to continue for very long.
These represent a huge challenge for the select Western media which still operate out of Afghanistan and continue to report odd incidents of Taliban atrocities. Much of them are dependent on local stringers, who are being silenced by the insurgents. Further, in the words of an Afghan British journalist, the Taliban’s ‘vice and virtue’ squads are trying to operate “away from the eyes of the media, especially Western media.” This further underlines the new reality in Afghanistan, where the Taliban may have been able to successfully prevent the leakage of information that might hurt their image.
New and alternate media and social media platforms are often hailed as a game changer worldwide, making ground-level information available to the wider world, with the tap of a button. Citizen journalists have made enormous inroads into the realm of information dissemination, breaking the barriers imposed by oppressive regimes. Taliban in Afghanistan, however, pose two different challenges. Firstly, with limited internet penetration (the total number of internet users was estimated at 8.6 million before the Taliban took over), much of the happenings in the country’s hinterland would always be out of the purview of these lone warriors. Secondly, with the threat of death looming large, many Afghans would be inclined to play safe. The BBC has already detailed how social media users are deleting their profiles over fear of attacks by the insurgents.
Regulating print and digital media and stripping them off ‘offensive’ content is further accompanied by the Taliban’s attempt to establish its presence, if not dominance, on social media. It is interesting, therefore, to understand how the group’s cultural commission with a dedicated team of volunteers is attempting to not only spread its ideology, but also to be the source of ground level information. Unlike in the past, when the Taliban displayed its abhorrence for internet, its team of volunteers now seek to get Taliban hashtags such as #westandwithtaliban and #kabulregimecrimes. Efforts are also made to disseminate fake information on WhatsApp and Facebook. At one level it is convenient to dismiss these attempts at ineffective and hence, irrelevant. At the other, these represent the group’s evolving understanding of the nuances and strength of new media. As the mainstream Afghan media is silenced and the Western media is made to rely largely on a trickling of information from the small group of anti-Taliban elements, the danger of the Taliban’s false narrative starting to prevail is real.
While the print and digital media in Afghanistan are staring at a long and dark tunnel, there is a glimmer of hope, however, for the new media. The internal feud within the Taliban and its questionable dominance over the entire country may still keep some windows open for ground level reportage. Nonetheless, without external assistance and pressure on the Taliban, how long those windows will remain open is a critical question.