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Journalists In Afghanistan: The Deadly Fight For Freedom Of Speech

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The announcement of the Taliban taking over Kabul shook the world. Countless newspaper headlines discussed the new regime and its rules. Stories about women facing animalistic treatment and being denied even basic human rights spread everywhere. Reports on the brutal abuse of civilians and protesters as well as those risking their lives to leave Afghanistan went viral. But behind all the stories stand unsung heroes of the conflict – journalists working in Afghanistan. As the Taliban increases its control and dominance in the region, these people sacrifice their lives to report on all that’s been happening in pursuit of truth and hope. 

Just weeks before Kabul fell into Taliban hands, the US had made public claims that the organisation would not take over the country. Two decades had passed since the Taliban first took control of Kabul. Now they were back, ousting the legal president of Afghanistan and entering the presidential palace with guns in their hands, claiming that they come in peace. Unlike in 1996, this time the organisation swore to be different. Yet so far they have done nothing but prove the contrary. 

Ever since the takeover, human rights abuse levels grew. Women can no longer enjoy their freedoms that they spent years fighting for, while underage girls are forced out of their home and coerced to marry Taliban fighters. Protesters face intimidation and massive violence. But among all this chaos there remain resilient journalists committed to letting the world know the truth despite the dangers of doing so. Recently, nineteen Afghan journalists were detained and faced brutal beatings.1 The last few weeks showed an increase in incidents where local and foreign reporters had camera equipment confiscated, could not receive permission to film protests and were threatened with death. Those who refused to comply were detained and faced incomprehensible violence – such brutal attacks expose the true nature of the Taliban’s insubstantial promises of change, as their behaviour remains the same as it was in 1996. 

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It is crucial to understand that in the past 20 years Afghanistan has grown into a state that celebrates freedom of speech and free press. In fact, during the past 2 decades there has been a massive increase in newly established media outlets. Until July 2021, Afghanistan had 1669 print-based news outlets, 438 radio stations as well as 248 television networks.2 But now all of that is changing. Due to pure fear and constant intimidation, many of the news agencies are self-censoring and those who don’t become subject to abuse. 

Not only is the immediate future scary, but the status quo begs a question about long-term consequences – what does the future of free speech and free press look like in Afghanistan? The Taliban have been consistently contradicting all of its promises that guaranteed freedom of speech. During 2021, 3 female Afghan journalists were killed and many were forced to leave their positions just because of their gender. In August, the manager of Paktia Ghag radio station – Toofan Omar – was killed, all because the company voiced support for independent press in Afghanistan. According to official accounts, around 30 journalists were killed this year and countless were abducted.3 Such extensive intimidation could lead to the total extinction of independent Afghan media sources given how intrusive and brutal the Taliban currently are. 

One aspect that still leaves hope for independent press is the continued presence of foreign journalists. In fact, during the past 20 years there have been numerous Italian journalists who based themselves in Afghanistan. Iconic reporters such as Maria Grazia Cutuli and Daniele Mastrogiacomo are only some of those who risked their lives in order to provide full coverage of events taking place in Afghanistan. One of the most famous Italian journalists is Bocconi graduate Cecilia Sala – an incredible woman who is based in Kabul and writes for several Italian and foreign news outlets. Her writings and video broadcasts uncover stories as those of tortured journalists and abuse faced by civilians. Recently, C. Sala survived a hotel shooting carried out by the Taliban and saw fellow journalists get tortured for the smallest critical comment they included in the news.4 Despite all this, she stays committed to her work and continues to fight for a brighter future. 

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The bravery and commitment of both local and foreign reporters based in Afghanistan is the only reason why the other parts of the world, based in peaceful and flourishing regions, get to know about what is happening. As the Taliban seem to be getting stronger every day, all we can do is count on journalists and their work. At the end of the day, whether you are an aspiring journalist or not, these people are surely exemplary icons of today’s world. 

Bibliography 

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Student of International Politics and Government. Key interest areas: politics, international relations, history and social movements. Incredibly passionate about debating tournaments and techno parties.

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