On a Saturday morning last month, 31-year-old journalist Abdul Saboor Sirat took a taxi to a ceremony in his home city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan for “Afghan Journalists Day.” He joined around 100 people gathered in the basement of a cultural center.
But within thirty minutes, the journalists meant to be the event’s guests of honor instead became victims. A parcel bomb went off as a children’s choir performed on stage.
“It was blood, cries and dust all over,” Sirat told FRONTLINE in an interview. His eardrums rang, his face burned and shrapnel had pierced his leg, he said. Sirat spent twenty days in the hospital recovering. He was not alone; At least eight others were injured and 20-year-old journalist Hosein Naderi died in the bombing. Islamic State fighters, a rival of the ruling Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Shortly after leaving the hospital, Sirat said he faced threats and restrictions from the Taliban too. After he wrote a piece for online outlet Pajhwok Afghan News about the rapid closure of print publications in his province, the Taliban summoned him. They demanded he revise his piece and remove segments that partly blamed Taliban restrictions for news outlet closures. Eventually, he complied.
“Media have no practical independence,” he said. “We are hostages of the Taliban now.”
Sirat’s experience speaks to what Afghan and international advocates describe as a worsening crackdown on the press since the Taliban returned to power in 2021, one where Afghan journalists regularly face violence, detainment and censorship. Now, with few sources for independent news, Afghans and their news organizations have been forced to adapt, blurring the lines between citizens and journalists, social media and news.
It’s a stark change from the recent past. Independent media flourished in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s fall in 2001, and continued to grow for two decades before coalition forces left in August 2021. A survey from advocacy group Reporters Without Borders counted 547 media outlets operating in the country in early 2021.
“It was a thriving news ecosystem,” said Fahim Abed, a journalist from Mazar-i-Sharif who spent 12 years reporting for outlets like The New York Times and BBC from Kabul. “It was a very young industry but still, it was strong.”
As the United States planned its exit from the country, that began to change. The Taliban started asserting stronger control over reporters and stories at that time through threats, intimidation and violence, Abed said. By the summer of 2021, when it appeared likely the group would return to power, Afghan journalists grew even more worried for their safety.
“I changed my address. I used different cars. I spent many nights with friends because the threat level was very high,” Abed said.
When the Taliban seized control of the Afghan capital of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, completing its takeover of the country, many journalists with ties to international outlets and potential visas planned their exit. Those who stayed faced new threats from a powerful Taliban that began an immediate crackdown on the press.
Just a month after returning to power, the Taliban put forth 11 rules for journalists to follow, including not publishing content in conflict with Islam. Then, last July, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada went further, warning reporters that they would be punished for defaming government officials.
Press advocacy groups say the crackdown has only gotten worse. The Afghanistan Journalists Center has tracked 160 cases since 2021 where the Taliban has detained journalists in prison for anywhere from hours to months for violating Taliban rules. Over 50% of media outlets have shuttered, according to Afghanistan National Journalists Union, and many international news broadcasts have been banned. Afghan news outlets that remain in business report being censored. Abed, who has since relocated to the United States, said many journalists he knows in Afghanistan have had to find work elsewhere as cooks or laborers.
Women journalists have faced further restrictions. The Taliban banned nearly all women from the workforce when it returned to power, leading to a financial crisis for families in which women were the primary earners. That decimated their presence in the field of journalism; a December 2021 report from the International Federation of Journalists found that 95% of Afghan women journalists have become unemployed.
Read more: Humanitarian Needs in Afghanistan Deepen as Taliban Continues Ban on Women Working for NGOs, UN
In May, the Taliban imposed more rules on women journalists who managed to continue working, announcing that women broadcasters would have to cover their faces while on air.
Beh Lih Yi, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, described these restrictions as part of a broader crackdown.
“These restrictions really aim to erase women from public life in Afghanistan,” she said.
The crackdown means that some of the country’s most important stories are going unreported and its citizens are left uninformed, Afghan journalists told FRONTLINE. When asked what sort of issues are getting overlooked, the journalists spoke of severe droughts, women’s rights, food shortages, poverty and a lack of jobs, and school curriculums being overhauled by the Taliban.
But journalists and advocates say the gulf in news coverage has also brought a paradigm shift in the way Afghans produce and consume news. With many outlets either shuttered or censored, more Afghans are getting their news through social media like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, from sources ranging from journalists in exile abroad to viral YouTube personalities.
Often, the photos and videos that drive this informal news ecosystem are posted by Afghans with a smartphone, sometimes described as citizen journalists.
“Citizen journalism is one thing that’s served the people of Afghanistan,” said Bilal Sarwary, an Afghan journalist who reported for a number of international outlets from Afghanistan before leaving when the Taliban returned to power. “It’s sort of the lifeline.”
Sarwary recalled multiple instances when demonstrations broke out in Kandahar and other provinces protesting the Taliban’s ban on girls attending secondary schools. While Afghan media outlets struggled to cover the protests without censorship, according to Sarwary, footage from smartphones went viral across the country, and WhatsApp groups were formed to provide updates.
But Sarwary acknowledged that filling the news vacuum left behind by news outlets with social media comes with risks, namely unverified facts and misinformation. Recently, he came across viral posts on Twitter saying the Taliban had killed a high-profile leader of an anti-Taliban resistance group. But after journalists began digging, they found those reports to be false.
Social media is also not immune from Taliban control, according to Beh from Committee to Protect Journalists, who said the Taliban has grown more tech-savvy. The Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence has monitored influential social media accounts and has detained individuals for posting criticism online.
Ahmad Quraishi, founder and executive director of advocacy group Afghanistan Journalists Center, agreed the news consumer’s migration toward social media is a double-edged sword. News from those sources has a benefit but can’t replace a functioning local media industry within Afghanistan, he said.
“Misinformation and disinformation in social media are going to turn the space toward the benefit of the authorities,” he said.
Now mostly recovered and back to reporting, Abdul Saboor Sirat told FRONTLINE he worries these crackdowns mean his country is fading out of the spotlight of the international community, leaving his fellow journalists poorly equipped to push back on Taliban restrictions. Bilal Sarwary, who said he now struggles to report on Afghanistan from abroad after being forced to leave, agreed.
He said, “I think Afghanistan is going to turn into a dark spot in that region of the world.”