Thu 4 May 2023 05.00 EDT
Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, one-third of journalists have left, while those who remain live with threats, attacks, unlawful detention and extortion
Mortaza Behboudi, an Afghan-French journalist, had been drawn back to Afghanistan, which he had left aged 21, to report on the deteriorating humanitarian conditions and situation for women.
“He has a passion to give voice to people who had their voices taken from them, which is why he went back to Afghanistan,” says Aleksandra Mostovaja, Behboudi’s wife.
“He felt it was so important that he should be there, not only because he knew the language, the history, its culture, but also because any story on Afghanistan without perspective of its people will not be complete.”
But on 7 January, two days after he had arrived in Kabul and before he could even begin his work, Behboudi, a French national of Afghan origin, was arrested by the Taliban. Mostovaja has spoken to him just once since – a short phone call in the presence of the Taliban – on 26 January.
“His voice sounded very bad, like he was about to cry and that has made me very worried [abut his condition]. The Taliban have not told us officially why he was arrested, but sources told us that he might be accused of spying, which just isn’t true,” she says.
Mostovaja believes his reporting may have been a reason for his detention. “Some journalists told us that they [the Taliban] make such arrests as a warning to others about what they can do to those who report against them,” she adds.
Since taking over Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have repeatedly targeted journalists. Faced with threats to their lives and increasing restrictions on their work, particularly against women, many are being forced into exile. About one-third of Afghanistan’s journalists have since left the country, with 318 of the 623 media outlets registered in 33 Afghan provinces shutting down, according to one estimate last year.
Several journalists that spoke to the Guardian shared testimonies of threats, attacks, unlawful detention and extortion.
Attacks on journalists in Afghanistan are not limited to the Taliban. Mohammad Sahil*, a 28-year-old Afghan reporter, survived an Islamic State bomb attack in March at an event to honour local journalists at the Tebyan cultural centre in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
“Everything went dark, and I lost consciousness for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes, blood was flowing at the back of my neck and my eyes were filled with smoke and dirt. All my colleagues were lying broken and bloodied around me,” he says.
The attack claimed the lives of two Afghan journalists and injured dozens of others, including Sahil, who suffered severe damage to his ears. “I have been living in fear since then, changing locations every night. As a Hazara and a journalist, I am an Isis target,” he says, referring to the historically persecuted ethnic group in Afghanistan. “Sometimes I have no hope left that I will survive to have a future,” he adds.
Sahil says he had made several unsuccessful attempts to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover. The Taliban had taken over his office and turned it into a religious school.
“After I lost my job, and facing security challenges for my work, I decided to go to Iran, hoping to apply for asylum to a European country from there,” he says. However, he was forced to return to Afghanistan after being unable to extend his visa in Iran.
Back in Afghanistan, he found work as a freelancer to support his family, but the attack has convinced him he needs to leave Afghanistan once again.
“Life in exile is extremely difficult, but I could be hurt and even killed in Afghanistan. The days pass with despair and they are darker than the darkest nights,” he says.
Even before the Taliban takeover, Ahmad Idrees*, a 38-year-old Afghan journalist, had faced threats from the insurgent group. Letters bearing Taliban insignia, delivered to his office and home in northern Afghanistan, would declare him an infidel and a traitor, with threats to punish him for his critical reporting of the group’s activities.
“When they finally took over, I started to receive incessant calls and messages on social media threatening to kill me and hurt my family. After months of hiding in different locations, I had no option but to escape the country,” he says.
Idrees is among an estimated 250,000 Afghans living in Pakistan, but even there he doesn’t feel safe. In February this year, he was arrested along with a colleague by the local police and forced to pay a bribe.
Several Afghans interviewed for this story confirmed that it is common for authorities in Iran and Pakistan to extort refugees. In January, more than 600 refugees in Pakistan were sent back to Afghanistan, leaving many exiles in constant fear for their lives and afraid to leave their homes.
Mostovaja has had little contact with her husband since the Taliban-monitored phone call three months ago. She says he had felt safe coming back to Afghanistan on a French passport.
“It is not possible to understand what is happening in Afghanistan without Afghan journalists. Which is why it is important to fight for their freedom of speech and expression. We can’t remain silent,” she says.
*Names have been changed to protect identities