An Afghan newspaper is struggling to survive under the Taliban

Working for a newspaper was a dream come true for many Afghan journalists. Now they fear repercussions from reporting on the Taliban, and wonder how they will survive, writes Sudarsan Raghavan

Tuesday 21 September 2021 00:00
<p>Etilaatroz staffers preparing to move the newsroom to a new building in Kabul</p>

Etilaatroz staffers preparing to move the newsroom to a new building in Kabul

When the senior Taliban official, dressed in black, enters the struggling newsroom, some journalists freeze, fear etched on their faces.

He walks to a sofa and sits across from the editor, who on this particular day is considering whether to shut down the newspaper. To the mullah’s left are two reporters who were viciously beaten up by Taliban fighters a week ago for covering a women’s rights protest.

As their conversation unfolds in front of Washington Post journalists, it becomes clear that the Taliban official, too, is worried. The burly, black-turbanned man turns to Nemat Naqdi, one of the journalists who was assaulted, and expresses what would previously have been unthinkable from a representative of a movement known for its brutality.

“We are sorry,” says Sarujullhaq Omari, a member of the Taliban’s newly created media committee. “We will investigate what happened.”

It is a sign of the Taliban’s attempt to convince Afghans – and the world, especially western donors – that its latest iteration is a more moderate, more gentle incarnation of the old, and one that enshrines basic freedoms. But none of the journalists at Etilaatroz, a publication providing one of the few remaining critical voices in Afghanistan, believes the contrition is sincere. Its editors note that the conciliatory visit, while surprising, came a week after the attacks, and only after images of the reporters’ bruised bodies had gone viral.

Even as he apologises, saying he feels sorrow when he looks at the photos, Omari suggests that the journalists were to blame. The paper, he adds, needs to be more responsible.

“These were illegally organised protests,” Omari says. “You should be more cautious. These things can happen during such a situation when we are just setting up.”

Zaki Daryabi, the editor in chief of Etilaatroz, stares at him, hiding his anger.

“What happened was like a trick,” Daryabi says later. His younger brother, Taqi, was beaten up along with Naqdi. “While he apologised, he also told me we should be more careful, that it was our mistake that our journalists were tortured... that journalism was the reason for what happened to our colleagues,” says Daryabi. “I wish for a true investigation.”

If the Taliban were to hold its own fighters accountable for the assault, it could send a signal that the rule of law applies to everyone, and that upholding the rights of journalists is important. But the messaging so far has communicated anything but that. Since the Taliban captured the nation last month, they have sought to silence the country’s vibrant media ecosystem, which was one of the most significant achievements of the 20-year western intervention.

I could hear the screams of people inside there. There were also women who screamed. I don’t know what happened to them

Hundreds of Afghan journalists have fled the country, but for those unable to leave, or who decided to remain, their worst fears have come true. Through a combination of decrees, intimidation and physical assaults, newsrooms have lost staffers, had their voices subdued, or been forced to self-censor. Taliban fighters have raided journalists’ homes and ordered female state-TV anchors off the air.

In recent days, at least 14 journalists have been detained and later released for covering protests in Kabul, with nine suffering beatings by the Taliban, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The watchdog group describes the Taliban’s earlier promises to let the media keep operating freely as “worthless”.

“This image is wrong,” Omari, the Taliban official, says when asked about the growing concerns over media suppression by the Taliban. He says that soon the militants will announce a “new mechanism” for how the media should operate, and that “it will be more free and better than the past government”. He adds that women will be allowed to continue to work in the media.

But when pressed on whether media organisations and journalists will need to regulate their work according to strict Islamic laws, Omari nods. “We will be freer than the past, but every freedom should have a frame,” he says.

Naqdi, the corner of his left eye still bloodied from the attack, sits quietly during the hour-long conversation among his editors, Omari, and another Taliban official on the media committee. After they leave, Naqdi walks out onto a balcony, his face grim.

“I don’t trust them,” he says.

As a child growing up in rural Ghazni province, Naqdi would listen every day to the radio to hear the news from around the world. He majored in journalism and graduated in 2016 from Kabul University. Afterwards he worked for a newspaper, and later as a director of a radio station.

Nemat Naqdi is still recovering from the beating he received while in Taliban custody a week earlier

“Becoming a journalist was the big dream of my life,” says Naqdi, now 28 and married.

Naqdi mostly covers social issues and wants to become a documentary filmmaker, he says. Last year, he was hired as a video journalist at Etilaatroz, one of the country’s leading dailies. Its mission statement stands for everything Naqdi believes in: “Informing people, strengthening free media, freedom of expression and access to information.”

On the morning of 8 September, Naqdi and a colleague walked out of their newsroom in west Kabul to put those words into practice.

Just stepping out took courage. Since the Taliban entered the capital last month, Naqdi and his colleagues have been fearful of filming outside. “We were worried about our safety,” he recalls.

But as women started to stage protests in Kabul, Naqdi felt a duty to shine a spotlight on those “who had lost their rights overnight”, he says.

Around 10.30am, Naqdi and video editor Taqi Daryabi started to film the crowd of women protesting. That was when a group of Taliban fighters arrived and ordered them to stop. One pointed his rifle at Naqdi and angrily said they were not permitted to film. The fighter cocked the trigger, Naqdi says.

“I told him: ‘I am a reporter. This is my job,’” he says. “It was not important to them.”

The fighter tried to grab his video camera, but Naqdi pushed into the crowd of women. He spotted another group of Taliban fighters arresting Taqi. Naqdi called the newsroom to alert the staff, just before he was taken into custody himself.

Two members of the Taliban’s media committee, Sarujullhaq Omari, centre, and Hujatullah Mujadidi, second from left, visit the offices of the Etilaatroz newspaper

They were taken to a nearby police station. Three Taliban fighters shoved Naqdi into a room, took his phone, and tied his hands behind his back with a scarf. Then, they kicked him onto the floor and pummelled his body with batons, whips and electric cables, Naqdi says.

“I felt like I was going to die,” he says.

As they abused him, the fighters were accusing Naqdi of organising the protest, he says. Fifteen minutes later, they threw him into a jail cell. Minutes after that, the fighters brought Taqi. He, too, had been badly beaten.

Meanwhile, three other Etilaatroz journalists arrived at the police station to try to persuade the Taliban to release their colleagues. All were pushed around and had their phones confiscated. They were detained in another cell for four hours.

“One Taliban fighter slapped me in the face and whipped my colleague,” says Khadim Karimi, a senior editor, describing his ordeal at the police station. “I could hear the screams of people inside there. There were also women who screamed. I don’t know what happened to them.”

A few hours later, Naqdi and Taqi were released. The paper sent a taxi to pick them up. When they arrived at the newsroom, they could barely walk. Photos taken at the time, and posted on social media, show red abrasions and welts on their backs, legs and faces. Both were taken to a hospital.

I don’t want to cover negative stories about the Taliban. This is about my safety. I am worried that the Taliban will arrest me again

Even before the assaults, Etilaatroz was under pressure. When the Taliban seized Afghanistan last month, the paper was the second-most-read daily in the country. Started in 2012, it had a print edition of 2,000 copies per day, says Zaki Daryabi, the top editor. The paper has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Like most other Afghan media, it was partially supported by US and western aid groups, but also generated income from advertising and other services.

Its reporters exposed many government wrongdoings, including discriminatory hiring practices, corruption, and overspending that led to resignations and other changes.

Now, it is a shadow of its former self. In the wake of the Taliban takeover, the economic and monetary collapse has dried up advertising and subscriptions. With the exodus of western governments and the political uncertainty, grant money has also evaporated. As a result, the paper shut down its print edition and is publishing only online.

With the fall of the previous government, and with the Taliban’s own administration still in transition, sources everywhere have evaporated, making it difficult to cover developments across the nation. The staff used to produce four to five in-depth reports daily. Now, the paper publishes only one most days, Daryabi says.

It is a scenario unfolding across Afghanistan. About 80 per cent of media outlets have shut down or are only partially operating, because of security concerns, financial problems, or uncertainty over their future under a Taliban government, says Ahmad Quraishi, the head of the Afghanistan Journalists Centre, a media support organisation, citing his group’s estimates. One glaring exception to the impact on the media is western journalists, whom the Taliban has allowed to work freely.

Taliban fighters patrol a market in Kabul’s old city, Afghanistan

Etilaatroz is also dealing with the expectations of its readers, who want to see more investigative and governance stories that will hold the Taliban to account. “There are a lot of things happening that puts us under pressure,” Daryabi says. “From one side, a political dictatorship state. And the other side is a free and young generation that expect a lot from us.”

The Etilaatroz staff has shrunk by more than half, from 45 staffers to fewer than 20. Those still brave enough to come to the newsroom work with a cloud of fear over their heads, worried about whether their next story will place them in danger, Daryabi says. Many, he says, are seeking ways to leave Afghanistan.

While the paper continues to publish stories of Taliban abuse, including a recent report covering an incident in which fighters killed a female police officer, it is also opting to self-censor at times. “If our staff are living in the area or are going there, and if we feel the report is too dangerous for them, we will not report it,” Daryabi says.

The attacks on his brother and Naqdi have only heightened their fear, he adds.

This week, the paper has relocated its newsroom. The reason is mostly financial: with a far smaller staff, and much less income being generated, operations are moving to a smaller office that costs less to rent.

“We don't know what will happen next month,” Daryabi says. “Everything is uncertain.”

The move is also partly out of fear, says one journalist in the newsroom. In recent days, Taliban fighters or their loyalists have occupied the houses around the newsroom, says Karimi, the senior editor.

Naqdi has not returned to work yet. He is taking 11 pills a day to relieve the pain, and he cannot hear properly in his left ear, he says.

And when he does return to his job, he will arrive with an altered mindset. He is the eldest son in his family, responsible for the care of his parents. He wants to be there for them when they grow old.

“I don’t want to cover negative stories about the Taliban,” he says. “This is about my safety. I am worried that the Taliban will arrest me again.”

Lorenzo Tugnoli in Kabul and Ezzatullah Mehrdad in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report

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