Two days after the capture of Kabul, the Taliban promised that the media would be “free and independent”, but now the group has set the limits of that freedom.
In a September meeting with representatives of several Afghan media outlets, Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi, acting head of the Taliban Government Information and Information Center (GMIC), announced a publication / dissemination guide containing 11 guidelines.
Many of the rules are similar to the laws and editorial policies of the elected government of Afghanistan. They mainly deviate from it by eliminating references to international standards.
Other rules give the Taliban broad control over content. These include guidelines that the media should coordinate with the GMIC when preparing content and “carefully” report events not confirmed by a manager.
Under the government overthrown in August, the Afghan media could publish or broadcast without submitting content to the authorities in advance.
Watchdogs and local journalists see the guidelines as a sign that the Taliban plan to censor content inside the country.
“The new rules clearly mean censorship,” Sadaqat Ghorzang, a TOLOnews reporter for the eastern provinces, told VOA. “This not only creates problems for journalists to do their job, which provides information to the people, but also violates freedom of expression.”
Shinkai Karokhail, a former Afghan parliamentarian, described the guidelines as “a clear warning to journalists” against criticism of the Taliban leadership and their actions.
Not only does the Taliban’s new guide “impose limits on journalists”, it is against press freedom, she told VOA.
A copy of the guide, which was disseminated online and discussed by media watchdogs, contained 11 rules.
Under Rules 1-3, media and journalists are prohibited from publishing or broadcasting anything against Islam, insulting national figures or violating privacy.
Rules 4 to 6 require journalists to follow the principles of journalism and to balance reporting and not to distort content.
Rules 7 to 8 state that questions which have not been confirmed by the authorities or which could have a negative impact on the attitude of the public should be treated with caution.
Rule 9 requires the media to be impartial and honest in their coverage.
And 10 and 11 advise reporters to coordinate with GMIC when working on “detailed problem reports.”
Rules 1-6 and 9 are based on media laws and a code of ethics that set out professional standards established under the elected Afghan government.
However, the international watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted that unlike these laws, the new guidelines do not refer to international standards.
This could allow the guides to be “abused or arbitrarily interpreted,” RSF said.
At least four of the directives could also give the Taliban greater powers to control and censor media content, RSF said.
He said rules requiring journalists to coordinate with the Taliban’s GMIC and not report cases until they are officially confirmed suggest a return to prior censorship: the government has the power to review and possibly to block the content before it is broadcast.
RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire described the directives as “chilling”. They can be used in a coercive manner and “do not bode well for the future of journalistic independence and pluralism in Afghanistan,” he said in a September 22 statement.
Afghan journalists say the guidelines show that the Taliban intend to control and censor news and information in the country and to silence any criticism of their regime.
TOLOnews reporter Ghorzang said the guidelines contain several ambiguities.
“The new rules say journalists have to respect national and religious values. Well, journalists have done it,” he said. “What they want to communicate is not clear. Are national and religious values different for them? They should provide details of what Islamic and national values are.
The requirement that journalists consult the Taliban before broadcasting reports “raises questions about media independence and freedom of expression in the country,” he said.
Rules open to interpretation
Qayum Safi, a journalism professor at Khurasan University in Afghanistan who has worked for various media, said without a framework, such rules could be open to interpretation.
“Under the previous government, we had a constitution and other laws that provided a framework for the functioning of the media,” he said. Since the Taliban took power, “there is no clear framework for journalists in the country; therefore, the guidelines are open to multiple interpretations and can be misused ”.
The Talban should have consulted all stakeholders before writing the rules, Safi said. “They should have involved all parties, groups and organizations that are involved with journalists.”
Ali Haqmal, a reporter for the daily 8 Sobh, said the guide imposed restrictions on press freedom. “For example, he says that national figures cannot be insulted. It cannot mean any criticism of any kind, because any criticism can be interpreted as an insult.”
The rule regarding coverage of unofficially confirmed events “could also hamper the speed and free flow of information,” he said.
Sifatullah Zahidi, a journalist based in Helmand province, said Taliban rules give the group control over what can be published. “A journalist should inform the subject he wishes to cover in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” he said, using the official Taliban name for the country. “If they (the Taliban) like him, the reporter will cover it. Otherwise, he won’t be allowed to cover the subject.”
So far, the Taliban have not indicated what the penalties would be for non-compliance, and it is unclear how the guide, which has not been adopted, will work with existing legislation.
In the past six weeks, however, media watchdogs have reported that the Taliban have used violence, arrests and threats against journalists.
In a statement released Friday, Human Rights Watch said the Taliban arrested at least 32 journalists, several of whom were beaten in custody, and some were warned of their reporting before being released.
Most were news teams covering women’s protests against the Taliban regime earlier this month.
Amidst the violence and uncertainty, more than 150 media outlets have closed, according to the International Federation of Journalists.
In addition, according to the IFJ, around 90% of media workers are “currently without access to a job or a salary due to the media shutdown”.