The Current·Q&A

Taliban rule has made independent news coverage in Afghanistan impossible, says media CEO

It has become impossible for journalists and media operating inside Afghanistan to properly do their jobs a year into Taliban rule, says Lotfullah Najafizada, CEO of Amu Television.

Reporters there aren’t allowed to criticize the Taliban, cover female protests, or interview certain people

Women demonstrate ahead of the first anniversary of the Taliban's return to power in Kabul on Saturday.
Taliban fighters fired into the air as they dispersed a rare rally by women as they chanted 'Bread, work and freedom' on Aug. 13 in Kabul. Journalists in Afghanistan are banned from covering women's protests. (Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images)

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It has become impossible for journalists and media operating inside Afghanistan to properly do their jobs a year into Taliban rule, says Lotfullah Najafizada, CEO of Amu TV.

According to Reporters Without Borders, since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, 40 per cent of Afghan media organizations have closed, and 80 per cent of female journalists have lost their jobs.

The Taliban also established a set of rules for journalists to follow, which included a ban on criticizing the Taliban, and that women have to cover their head when reporting.

Najafizada was the director of TOLO news, the largest private media network in the country, which still operates in Afghanistan. Now he works from Toronto, but he's still trying to make sure the people of Afghanistan have access to honest and unbiased reporting. That's why he created Amu TV, a digital-first news organzation, in early August.

Najafizada spoke with The Current guest host Michelle Shephard. Here's part of their conversation.

Tell us a little bit more about [Amu TV]. 

When we found ourselves outside Afghanistan, after the fall of Kabul last year, we realized that this was something that we had to do. We had to come back to journalism. Afghanistan needed that probably more than what was needed before the fall of Kabul. 

Lotfullah Najafizada is a veteran Afghan journalist and co-founder of the media organization Amu TV. (Institute of Politics, University of Chicago)

So journalists outside Afghanistan connected with some of those who are still in the country and created Amu Television. We launched the digital platforms just two weeks ago and we are looking into expanding, provided more help from NGOs and organisations throughout throughout the world to make sure that we can revitalize free media and free press in Afghanistan. 

We all want to know what's happening there. There is so much interest, but there are less eyes and ears on the ground. So Amu is an initiative aimed at filling that vacuum.

It's going to be difficult. It is difficult. But Afghanistan was no paradise before August 15 last year as well. It was the deadliest country for journalists for many, many years in a row. 

Describe how it works. You're based here in Toronto. You have other journalists who found refuge in other places, but you're also working with journalists inside of Afghanistan. How does that work for Amu Television? 

Amu's headquarters are in the U.S. We have journalists in Europe. We have journalists in Pakistan, in Turkey, in India, and most importantly, inside [Afghanistan]. 

So we are expanding our presence inside the country, and hopefully they will be able to do their work as safely as they can. But it's very, very important that we should talk with Afghanistan, not about Afghanistan. So the presence on the ground is critical. 

And as you mentioned, their work has gotten just so much more difficult since the Taliban has come to power. The Taliban has released a set of rules, 11 in total, that journalists and media companies must follow. Can you just walk me through a couple of those? 

Don't criticize the Taliban. Simple as that. For women, cover your faces. Don't interview certain individuals. Don't cover female protests. The list is very long. But it makes it impossible for media inside the country to operate independently. 

How are journalists able to do their work? It must be very secretive. 

Most journalists who work for outlets who are based outside Afghanistan work anonymously. Some work with their identities being disclosed. But for local journalists, I have to recognise their courage and bravery as well. They are doing amazing work. Every single story coming out of Afghanistan must be recognized.

But one should also recognise that that's not the full story of Afghanistan. What we see in media is not what is actually happening. There are so many blind spots throughout the country, geographically as well as topic-wise. 

Why should people inside of Afghanistan and out care about the repression of journalists? 

Afghans, first and foremost, inside Afghanistan, they need to have access to free media. Because that's what they were used to; that's what they know. We had constitutional guarantees for free speech in the past 20 years, and we have a generation growing up being used to that. 

So all of a sudden, they are dealing with censorship. They don't see the amount of criticism that they used to see in media. So that vacuum has to be filled. The Afghan people need to be informed about what is happening inside the country.

As a society, they have to be connected through free flow of information. And of course, the Afghan diaspora. We're talking about millions of Afghans, as well as the international community. 

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint near the gate of Hamid Karzai international Airport in Kabul on Aug. 28, 2021. Najafizada (not pictured) says it's important to have a media presence on the ground in Afghanistan, even if the Taliban makes that dangerous. (Wali Sabawoon/The Associated Press)

We want to know why Ayman al-Zawahiri was in Kabul. Who allowed him to be in Kabul? What does it mean to your security, Michelle, here in Toronto, and security of people around the world?

So I think it's important to invest in journalism and free media, support Afghan journalists, women journalists in particular. I think that is critical for countries like Canada and others, and that's probably an area that they should engage with Afghanistan. 

There's a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks on Afghanistan because we're at the one year anniversary. But generally, do you feel that the international media has maybe stopped covering Afghanistan, maybe lost interest as international troops pulled out? 

The international media was there because of the international presence. We have a lot of great international journalists in Kabul this week, but they won't be there next week. So who is going to cover Afghanistan next week? 

There might be some, but probably not enough. And they look at Afghanistan rightfully from an international perspective. I think there are a lot of Afghan stories that need to be told, and that is an area where Afghan journalists come in. 

I know personally I've helped in trying to get some local Afghan journalists that my colleagues have worked with to find refuge because they feel they can't be safe there. Of those that are working with you, how many are trying to get out? I mean, what's the commitment in terms of those who want to stay and those who want to leave right now? 

Well, to be very honest with you, I know no journalist in Afghanistan right now who do not want to leave, and the situation is getting worse for them. And they have to deal with so much pressure. And I hope things change. 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity. 

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