Amid Taliban Repression, Afghan Media Are a Beacon of Hope

Since regaining power two years ago, the Taliban have largely discarded Afghanistan’s democratic institutions but have taken a somewhat accommodating, albeit contradictory, approach toward independent media. Instead of banning independent media altogether, they have implemented regulatory restrictions and punitive measures to limit free speech and control the media environment. This policy approach seems to be part of an evolving communication strategy that helped enable the group’s rise to power. Despite all the bad news coming out of Afghanistan, resilient, creative journalists and media outlets provide reason for some guarded optimism. The international community should do what it can to support the media sector, which is essential for advocating for citizen rights and providing an information lifeline to Afghans.

Free Media’s Emergence

The rise of independent media in Afghanistan was one of the most remarkable and celebrated achievements of the post-Taliban democratic era. Once an isolated country with no free press or internet access, Afghanistan quickly embraced the information age. Over the course of a few years, the country became an inspiring model of free media in the region, with unprecedented growth in news, entertainment channels, print publications and online platforms. Before the Taliban takeover, 543 local and national media outlets operated across Afghanistan.

The media also promoted pluralism in a highly fragmented society, drove democratic change and helped to empower women. New constitutional rights enabled marginalized ethnic and religious communities to establish for the first time their own outlets and pursue equal rights and opportunities.

In a culturally diverse society often beset by political turbulence and a compromised rule of law, free media emerged as a powerful tool for challenging corrupt officials and advancing government accountability.

The Taliban’s Evolving Communication Strategy

With the media landscape undergoing significant transformation after 2001, the Taliban began adapting its information strategy, as early as 2005. A notable example of its adaptive approach was the incorporation of visual communication tools in propaganda campaigns, including pictures, drawings, videos and online platforms, which the movement had opposed or banned during its first reign from 1996 to 2001.

In addition, several other distinctive elements characterized the Taliban’s evolving communication strategy, enabling the group to outperform its opponents.

Consistency and Resonance

From the outset, the Taliban framed its war as a jihad to expel foreign “invaders” and establish a Shariah-based Islamic system, replacing the U.S.-backed government. This overarching strategic goal remained consistent throughout the insurgency and was central to the Taliban’s master narrative. In addition, their messaging employed cultural, religious and nationalistic codes and frames such as colonialism, occupation, infidels, religious obligation, martyrdom and sovereignty, among others. These terms were used to draw parallels with the historical victories of Afghans in previous holy wars, further enhancing narrative resonance.

Targeted Messaging

Devising targeted approaches, the group tailored messaging to specific audiences with the aim of achieving specific outcomes. For example, they spread intimidating shabnamah (or night letters) to deter locals from aiding the “infidels” and produced videos of heroic attacks to glorify jihad and ramp up recruitment.

Through media manipulation, the Taliban sought to incite outrage by highlighting culturally sensitive issues like home searches, night raids, civilian casualties and the propagation of Western values. They also exploited people’s grievances around the endemic corruption of the state, and their political alienation, to widen the state-society gap while positioning themselves as potential saviors.

Media Weaponization and Savviness

By 2008, the movement had already developed a complex communications strategy. They utilized traditional means like night letters, religious sermons, poetry and print publications and leveraged modern methods including multilingual websites, cell phones and DVDs.

With the rising popularity of digital media post-2009, the Taliban’s sophisticated approach expanded, using platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and encrypted apps like Telegram and WhatsApp for broader outreach, real-time updates and interaction with the local and foreign media.

With hundreds of aggressive social media accounts, the media-savvy insurgents countered NATO messaging, demonized opponents, threatened critics and projected power.

Through these methods, they pervaded cyberspace and maintained a palpable psychological presence.

Exploiting Weaknesses and Opportunities

Ineffective messaging by the United States and Afghan governments also gave insurgents an advantage. President Hamid Karzai’s calling the Taliban “brothers” and President Ashraf Ghani’s hesitance to call them “enemies” were particularly self-defeating. Washington’s focus on troop withdrawal from 2009 on undermined any appearance of long-term resolve and negated potential gains. These inconsistencies provided rich material for the Taliban to underscore its own resolve.

Premature conciliatory overtures since 2010, including the 2013 opening of a Taliban office in Doha, pushed insurgents into the political limelight. Starting in October 2018, official U.S.-Taliban talks further boosted Taliban legitimacy. Upon securing the landmark withdrawal deal, insurgents astutely entered Afghanistan’s mainstream media and expanded international outreach. The agreement validated the Taliban’s anti-occupation narrative and won them the information war.

Opting For a Controlled Media Environment

The Taliban have strictly controlled non-state media since August 2021. This approach likely stems from the communication strategy and media exploitation skills crucial in their ascent to power.

Early in the insurgency, the Taliban proclaimed that “wars today cannot be won without media,” and to this day, they seem to value the media’s utility as a strategic tool, and a weapon, to promote their narrative and legitimacy.

However, the Taliban’s view of media is solely utilitarian, devoid of respect for democratic values. During the insurgency, they never wavered to threaten, attack or even massacre journalists. Post-takeover, they slashed media freedom using censorship and intimidation.

Yet, the Taliban’s control over independent media is not absolute, a situation potentially shaped by two key considerations. First, pushing for total control might lead to the closure or exile of more independent channels, a scenario the Taliban likely wishes to avoid due to losing their leverage and control. Second, outlets driven into exile have often reemerged with more assertive voices countering the Taliban narrative.

Thus, the Taliban appear to have opted for a relatively accommodating approach, allowing media operations in exchange for enhanced control and self-promotion. Media within the country also understand that to avoid retribution it is necessary to navigate a fine line between objectivity and fair treatment.

This balance presents a conundrum for the Taliban and a potential opportunity for the media to incrementally push for greater freedom. What dynamics may eventually shape a new equilibrium in the media space?

Tightening The Media Noose

Since August 2021, advocacy organizations have reported over 300 incidents against media personnel including violence, imprisonment and surprise raids. Summons, arrests and punitive measures are carried out mainly by the intelligence authorities against local and foreign journalists deemed non-compliant with regulations.

The Taliban have issued multiple decrees, vaguely worded guidelines and verbal instructions drawing ethical and Islamic boundaries for journalists, banning music and entertainment and suppressing news related to citizen protests and resistance forces. These rules also require female journalists to cover their faces and work in segregated spaces.

In a July 2022 decree, Taliban Emir Haibatullah Akhundzada expressly cautioned against criticizing Taliban authorities. Later, in a public tweet, his notorious minister of higher education warned that undermining the emirate, either by speech, pen or action is “punishable by death.”

With no laws governing the free press, authorities across the country have free reign to censor and deal with the media as they see fit. Some provincial officials even demand review and approval of content prior to publication. The suspension of the Republic’s mass media law obstructs legal boundaries, leaving journalists uncertain where to draw the line to avoid reprisals or seek legal protection against persecution.

To control the flow of information, the Taliban heavily scrutinize media content, issue warnings, implement corrective measures and limit access to information deemed harmful to their reign or reputation. They have banned and expelled several popular national and international news services including Hasht-e-Sob daily, Etilat-e-Roz newspapers, Kabul News television, Radio Liberty, BBC and Deutsche Welle.

Media advocacy organizations on the ground report that 40% (200) of media outlets, including 55 TV channels, 109 radio stations, 21 news agencies and 15 newspapers, have been forced to close due to repressive policies and financial struggles. This has led to 60% (4,932) of journalists and media workers losing their jobs. Additionally, 67% (914) of female journalists are out of work, and outlets led by women have dwindled from 54 to 10.

A rapidly contracting economy, aid reduction, cumbersome taxation and the widespread ban on income-generating entertainment shows have compounded the media’s sustainability crisis. Some outlets have reported as much as an 80% drop in their revenues since 2021. Surviving outlets also face a growing capacity deficit due to a lack of experienced journalists and editors, most of whom have left the country.

Emerging Trends and Pushbacks

Still, journalists have resiliently persevered to keep media alive. The continued operation of major national television and radio stations like Tolo, Shamshad, 1TV, ArianaKillied and Salam Watandar is remarkable. In addition to national outlets, over 30 local televisions and 100 community radio stations operate across Afghanistan. Cable networks that carry foreign news and entertainment channels, including Turkish and Indian, have been largely unaffected by restrictions.

Tolo TV observes World Press Freedom Day with a talk show on Afghan media’s challenges, with active participation from an in-studio audience. (Tolo News)
Tolo TV observes World Press Freedom Day with a talk show on Afghan media’s challenges, with active participation from an in-studio audience. (Tolo News)

Additionally, media remains one of the few select sectors where women are still permitted to work.

Systematic harassment has undeniably led to increased self-censorship and the media cannot dismiss legally binding restrictive edicts. Nonetheless, journalists have time and again ignored potential reprisals and pushed the boundaries by raising critical voices, covering citizen protests and questioning Taliban edicts such as bans on women’s education and work.

Where access to information is denied, media intelligently resort to secondary sources of information, including social media and foreign-based news agencies.

Prominent advocacy organizations like the National Journalists UnionNAI and the Independent Journalists Association are reestablishing their presence. Notably, the Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) has secured a seat at the Taliban’s media violations commission and has led numerous safety and resiliency training nationwide. AJSC also assisted with the reopening of Voice of Women radio in Badakhshan province in April.

Another exciting trend expected to deter Taliban from further media repression or shutdown is the emergence of digital outlets and advocacy organizations in exile. Many news outlets or reporters forced by Taliban into exile have reemerged with stronger and more critical voices.

The exiled Hasht-e-Sob and Etilat-e-Roz publications are rapidly recovering online audiences. VOA and Radio Azadi may no longer be conveniently accessible on FM networks but they have extended their broadcasts online, as well as on medium and shortwave frequencies, ensuring that they remain relatively accessible.

In addition, a number of prominent journalists have launched new digital, foreign-based outlets including Amu TVChashm NewsKabul NowFarsi TimesSicht TV and ABN.

On the advocacy side, the Afghanistan Journalists Center, which runs a press freedom tracker, has shifted its base to Belgium, and more entities are emerging across different continents.

Media in exile play a significant role in countering the Taliban’s disinformation campaign and taking the first shot at sensitive news stories, effectively paving the way for further follow-up coverage by local media. There also seems to be information sharing between foreign and local outlets, giving rise to a collaborative, hybrid media approach.

Online platforms continue to play an indispensable role in providing citizens with easier access to information. In addition, digital outlets have allowed audiences to record events and share valuable footage with media for wider public dissemination — a rising trend in citizen journalism.

There are no reliable statistics but de facto authorities have confirmed that at least one-quarter of the population has access to the internet via mobile phones. This corresponds with Meta’s figures that put Facebook users in Afghanistan at roughly seven million.

Pressing Forward

The Taliban’s strategic decision to allow media operations in exchange for enhanced control and self-promotion contrasts sharply with their 1990s rule. This shift provides journalists and the international community a rare chance to advance freedom of expression and push for greater civic space.

To achieve this goal, the international community should provide comprehensive technical and financial support to the media sector, with a particular focus on local media, and those pursuing a hybrid approach.

In addition:

  • It is vital to prioritize the protection and empowerment of female journalists through improved training, resilience building, salary and professional coordination. Local outlets should be incentivized to hire female journalists and produce content related to women’s rights.
  • While pressuring the Taliban to respect free speech, human rights organizations should monitor incidents and advocate for the right of journalists who are mistreated, imprisoned or prosecuted.
  • Local professional unions and associations must be sustained and strengthened in order to defend free speech and advocate for journalists’ rights inside the country.
  • Protecting journalists from intrusive surveillance requires technical support to shield sensitive information and confidential sources. Journalists should also be equipped with encryption tools and VPNs to bypass barriers that restrict access to information.
  • A workable emergency mechanism must be put in place to ensure the identification, sheltering and safe evacuation and resettlement of journalists faced with life-threatening dangers.
  • Thinking ahead on possible internet-related restrictions, it is advisable to engage with tech companies to explore possibilities for continued, seamless public access.

The Taliban are fundamentally opposed to democracy and its underlying values. Noting their relentless rollback of the democratic progress attained over the past two decades, there is little cause for hope in what lies ahead. Nonetheless, it is both pragmatic and wise to protect and enhance what remains of Afghans’ fundamental rights and liberties and push for improved conditions until a more favorable opportunity arises.

Amid Taliban Repression, Afghan Media Are a Beacon of Hope