As a mass exodus of journalists and media workers is under way from Afghanistan, fears are rising that the takeover of the Taliban will put an end to the kind of press freedom that the country has enjoyed for the past two decades.
Journalists in Distress, an international network of media assistance organisations, has listed more than 1,200 media workers trying to flee the country since the capital was taken over by the Taliban on Sunday.
“The list is getting longer every day,” said Susanna Inkinen, who manages Afghan cases for the organisation. The group has been preparing for this eventuality, setting up safe houses for journalists and human rights defenders across Afghanistan in recent months and helping those in danger to relocate.
“Many journalists feel like they don’t have a future in Afghanistan any more. This year alone, around 500 female media workers lost their jobs due to security; mainly because media houses didn’t feel like they were able to keep them safe any more,” she told The National.
Around 4,000 journalists and media workers were living and operating in Afghanistan, this year's Journalists in Distress figures showed. Around a quarter of these were women.
The Taliban has said journalists do not need to worry. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid addressed the media directly and answered questions on Tuesday.
“If they are fair, they can criticise us so we know our mistakes; but it all needs to be fair,” he said, underlining the importance of Sharia. The media is “serving their people and government”, he said.
Still, a number of Afghan media outlets have already started self-censoring and even posting pro-Taliban content for their own survival and protection.
The militant group has asked broadcasters to keep operating, with a Taliban official even seen interviewed on television by a female news anchor, a move that has been described as potentially optimistic but has likewise been perceived as suspicious.
But many worry that this veneer of respectability could drop once foreign forces and embassy staff have departed.
“[Mujahid] conveyed little that would reassure anyone that the Taliban ever intend to respect the right of free expression and media freedom,” said Patricia Gossman, Associate Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.
“The Taliban have been implicated in the killing of dozens of journalists in recent years and have issued threats to many more. Mujahid’s words suggest that the Taliban will regulate or censor reporting that is critical of their governance or their views of ‘Islamic values’.”
Since Sunday, many journalists have been living in hiding, afraid to resume their profession, saying they are afraid of retribution, of being followed and of being detained. Caution has become utmost priority.
“I don’t leave my house and my managers know I am in hiding,” one Afghan photographer told The National, adding that he was receiving little support from his employer.
“The situation is especially hard for freelancers,” Ms Inkinen said, as some international media houses were not helping their freelance workers at all. “We are concerned about their security as well as psychological wellbeing,” she said.
The Taliban has so far not published any guidance, media laws or legal framework for journalists, neither has an announcement been made on whether there would be a system of punishment for breaking any newly introduced laws.
While militant leaders have guaranteed the safety of each media worker, journalists on the ground report discrepancies and say the group is not able to control its fighters.
“If they really want to demonstrate their commitment to human rights … they would allow all media outlets to function as freely as they were before they took power, without threats of censorship or violence, they would hold their forces accountable for attacks on journalists,” Ms Gossman said of the Taliban.
While several dozen journalists have already been evacuated from their homeland – many have made it as far as Qatar, Ukraine and France – hundreds of others are waiting, seeing little alternative but to give up their lives and careers and start over again in foreign lands.