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With the Taliban in power, Afghan journalists face detentions and more

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Journalism in Afghanistan is in a new and darker phase. During 20 years that U.S. troops were in that country, freedom of expression flourished. TV networks and news sites delivered news in multiple languages. Journalists did that work even though Taliban insurgents and others frequently targeted them for assassination. When Taliban forces took control of Kabul over the summer, hundreds of Afghan journalists fled the country if they could. Yet others stayed behind and are still trying to do what they once did despite threats of retribution. NPR's Arezou Rezvani has some of their stories.

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: To really understand what Afghan journalists stand to lose under the Taliban, you have to go back in time to the 1990s, when the group was last in power. Televisions were banned back then. Some Afghans buried their TVs. Radios mostly carried Islamic programming and propaganda. So when the Taliban seized power this summer, Lotfullah Najafizada, who's head of Afghanistan's 24-hour news channel, was certain his network would go dark. But TOLONews is still going.

LOTFULLAH NAJAFIZADA: This is not what we expected. We thought, you know, that with the Taliban's arrival, that will probably - would be the end of our operation.

REZVANI: TOLONews was part of Afghanistan's media explosion of the last 20 years. It's where anchors interview high-profile officials and pundits debate political issues. Even though they're still allowed to work, Najafizada says they're steering clear of controversy and criticism because they're not sure where the Taliban's red lines are.

NAJAFIZADA: We don't know if that's going to last long, especially now that, you know, the Taliban are creating problems for girls to go to school. And they stopped all female government employees from going to work.

REZVANI: And then there's the fact that the Taliban has asked the state broadcaster, at least for now, not to call female staff back to work.

NAJAFIZADA: So you can't say that, you know, private sector is protected from those restrictions.

REZVANI: For journalists not on television in roles much less visible, the experience has been far darker. And it tracks with what Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists is observing.

STEVEN BUTLER: Many report that they've received threats or that they fear that they're being hunted. So this atmosphere of fear pervades the media industry. And it makes it difficult for reporters to report honestly and openly, the way they did before the Taliban rolled into town.

REZVANI: Butler says, vague rules aside, the risks Afghan journalists face are compounded by another issue.

BUTLER: The Taliban doesn't have full control over the way its people operate.

REZVANI: The Taliban doesn't disagree with that point. Those patrolling the streets have spent the last 20 years fighting, not policing or engaging with civic society. But they do spend it differently. Listen to how Inamullah Samangani, a Taliban spokesman and member of the cultural commission, puts it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

INAMULLAH SAMANGANI: (Through interpreter) We have repeatedly said that we believe in freedom of speech in media. It is an urgent necessity for our community. Of course, because the situation is not normal yet and the situation is not fully under our control, we want to prevent some irregular and disorderly scenarios and assure the security and safety of journalists to prepare the ground for them to report.

REZVANI: Take the case of 22-year-old Taqi Darybai. Some weeks ago, Darybai went with a colleague to cover a women's protest in Kabul for his newspaper. The audio you're hearing is from their footage that day.

(CROSSTALK)

REZVANI: And that abrupt ending is the moment when some Taliban detained them. They were taken to a police station. Darybai says he was led into a room

TAQI DARYABI: (Through interpreter) About eight to nine people came to that room and handcuffed me and laid me down on the ground. And all of them started beating me with whatever they had in their hands - with whips, batons, with rubber, with wood. With whatever torturing tool they had, they beat me until I passed out.

REZVANI: Daryabi was let go several hours later. In the weeks since, he's been in and out of the hospital for treatment. He still has nightmares. His colleague, who was also beaten up that day, has lost partial vision. The Taliban did apologize. But Samangani, the Taliban spokesman, shifts the blame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAMANGANI: (Through interpreter) We believe that the journalists turned into the victims of an illegal protest. The protest was not run in cooperation with the government and legal systems. Unfortunately, the mujahideen who were there for security were not aware and were not prepared to deal with that.

REZVANI: This lack of control and few clear and formalized rules is why so many Afghan journalists have stopped working. But even stopping isn't always enough. 26-year-old Atefeh, who wants to use only her first name, was a reporter from the western part of Afghanistan. She's published critical reports on the Taliban and is now in hiding. Her neighbors tell her the Taliban are looking for her.

ATEFEH: (Through interpreter) I've been receiving videos from various unknown numbers, presumably from the Taliban. One recent video I got shows the Taliban torturing a man to death. Now, I am ready to be killed by a bullet. But I do not want to fall into the hands of Taliban. I don't want to be cut up into pieces.

REZVANI: These are the stories that point to a troubling future for Afghan media. Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists says Afghanistan is likely headed towards a system where the Taliban control what they write.

BUTLER: And journalists who step over a line will get into trouble one way or another.

REZVANI: There will come a time when Afghanistan recedes from top headlines. And the world's attention will turn away. It is in that moment that the story of Afghanistan will fall squarely on the shoulders of Afghan journalists. And that's also when the Taliban's true positions on a free press will come into focus.

BUTLER: You know, you have to ask yourself, is this a government that is willing to accept criticism, you know, sharp criticism that a free press normally would deliver?

REZVANI: Butler thinks it's unlikely.

Arezou Rezvani, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "DECADES AND MOMENTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.