Afghanistan's new media landscape: The Taliban are all over TV
Afghan media companies seek to remain independent but it can be hard to refuse Taliban members on shows, who then share their radical views. -/1TV/dpa
Afghan media companies seek to remain independent but it can be hard to refuse Taliban members on shows, who then share their radical views. -/1TV/dpa

Taliban chief spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, the best-known member of the militant group, was first seen on televisions around the world in August 2021.

Mujahid, the long-hidden face of the Taliban, addressed the international press after the militants captured Kabul along with the rest of the country, violently toppling the Western-backed government.

Almost a year on, Taliban faces now feature regularly on talk shows - even those hosted by broadcasters stations whose journalists have been killed in attacks by the group in the past.

One Taliban activist seen regularly is Mobeen Khan, who brags about fighting the former government on prime time television. "We took power by force. We fought for 20 years. We sacrificed our youth. We tied bombs to our bodies," he recently told Tolonews, a private broadcaster.

Khan, who calls himself a "general," says he held out for months in hiding in Kabul, stirring up anti-government sentiment online.

And Mujahid, then in charge of the military part of the Taliban's press work, tells of travelling fearlessly throughout the country, although NATO picked him up years ago and held him temporarily. "I was in jail for six months," says Mujahid, now the Taliban government's spokesperson.

He was released after a deal was made with the Afghan government, he claims, although these statements are difficult to verify independently.

Afghanistan's media landscape, once seen as one of the greatest achievements of the western-backed government, has changed dramatically since the Taliban took power.

Work at hundreds of editorial offices and radio stations has been brought to a halt and more than 2,000 media workers have lost their jobs, according to the International Federation of Journalists.

Dozens of journalists have been temporarily arrested during the past eight months for aberrations such as reporting on women's protests, for example.

The pressure on journalists comes from two Taliban authorities in particular: The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which establishes moral values, and the Taliban's domestic intelligence service.

Afghan journalists have been detained in the notorious Bagram prison, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported in February, the site where inmates were allegedly abused and tortured by US soldiers before the Taliban returned to power.

New media laws further hamper broadcasters' work, as the Taliban demand that reporting is carried out in line with Islamic values and national interests, although what exactly is meant by this is often unclear.

Saad Mohseni, chief executive of the Moby Group that runs Tolonews channel, responded fast when the Taliban claimed power. "We instructed our female presenters to dress more conservatively," he recently told Bloomberg.

The broadcaster also cancelled music shows and soap operas. "That was smart because the Taliban went into the channels and threatened to take people away if they didn't cancel certain programmes," Mohseni says.

It's a balancing act right now, which is constantly being renegotiated with the Taliban, says Mohensi.

He has also been surprised by some of the broadcaster's decisions, such as increasing the number of female staff after August 2021. "The Taliban tolerate us in a way," Mohseni said. "Even within the Taliban, there are factions fighting for power and using the media to spread their views," he says.

The pressure is often greater on lesser-known broadcasters. Few journalists are willing to talk publicly about what is actually happening, fearing the consequences.

One presenter from Kabul who wanted to remain anonymous described arrests in the capital that seemed to be indiscriminate. The Taliban pulled black hoods over staffers' heads and dragged them into vehicles before releasing them a few days later.

Such incidents have led masses of journalists to leave the country.

The situation leaves many broadcasters facing difficult decisions. Many want to continue reporting independently but even as they try, Taliban representatives push their way into talk shows where they expound their radical views.

Many media outlets feel unable to oppose their statements in public, especially after well-known 1TV presenter Mohibullah Jalili was recently arrested and beaten.

The Taliban promised to investigate the incident but such actions are a deliberate form of intimidation, according to rights groups such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

With the Taliban back in power, all that many hope for now is a new and braver civil society.

"The harassment of journalists has intensified as a result of the new restrictions, especially since the start of 2022, causing widespread alarm within the media," RSF said recently, calling on the United Nations for action.

"The press freedom situation in Afghanistan must not pass under the radar of the international community’s attention."