Bitter Memories and Unknown Future: What will happen to the Free Press in Afghanistan?

On 15 August 2021, in the morning, rumours started circulating on social media that the Taliban had entered Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. I was at my office and was looking for the confirmed news on social media. As chaos took over our office, it was confirmed around noon that Taliban had taken over Kabul. Many photos of the Taliban riding in military vehicles on Kabul streets were posted on social media.  Shortly, the then president of Afghanistan fled the country with some of his ministers and advisers. The government system collapsed, governmental agencies were closed and the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Several critical events in a single day put Afghan people in an unexpected and concerning situation. Many people decided to close their businesses for some days or even forever, many more decided to flee the country.

I was then working as video editor and photographer for Etilaatroz Newspaper. I had worked for nearly two years for the newspaper and I sometimes used to write the text of video reports, beside editing and photography. After the collapse of Kabul, our work decreased and the workload reduced. Some of our colleagues left the office in the afternoon on 15 August and went to their homes. The anarchy in the city made everyone worried and terrified, and our major concern was the possibility of an armed conflict or getting stuck in a bloody war.

A few days later, people started returning to their jobs and businesses. The Taliban were trying to facilitate for their leaders to come to Kabul to carry out talks and decide on the establishment of a cabinet and a new government for Afghanistan.

The fall of the government and the subsequent rule of Taliban were full of important events, events which should have been covered and reported by journalists around the country. Unfortunately, a number of media outlets stopped their operations and were closed. Many journalists lost their jobs and access to information in different cities and provinces was quite difficult. The rule of the Taliban, who had committed many attacks against the right to freedom of expression for decades, including direct attacks against many Afghan journalists, made us more concerned and terrified than ever before.

The situation in our office was disappointing and it was intolerable for me that I was unable to continue working for Etilaatroz Newspaper. In spite of fear of reprisals from the Taliban, I thought that they might stand on their promises made during Doha Talks in Qatar and would allow journalists and media outlets to continue working freely and safely.  Therefore, my hope motivated me to cover women protests in response to the removal of the Ministry of Women Affairs from the cabinet on 8 September 2021.

The protests were held in different parts of Kabul. My colleague Nemat Naqdi and I went to PD-3 (Police District-3) of Kabul to cover the protest. We started filming when women gathered and started the protest, but the Taliban tried to stop us and simply told us not to film. We asked about their reason but received no answer. After that, one of them took me to the PD. Before entering the PD, I thought they had brought me to talk and negotiate but I soon realized what awaited me: I was tortured until I fainted. They kept me in one of the rooms of the PD for four hours. I fainted several times and would regain consciousness when they would spray cold water on my face.  

Every time I would regain consciousness, I felt like I was inside an oven. My whole body would burn and my body kept losing strength, making me to faint again and again. Finally, when they told us that we were free, I felt happy that we would at least get out. While we were waiting in the PD to receive our belongings, which had been taken from us before they started torturing us, several of them, all of my age who were carrying heavy weapons, gathered around us. I asked them, ”Why are you torturing us? What is our crime? Is torturing the only way? Is not torturing someone like this so cowardly?” One of them said: “Did I torture you? I did not and you know it.” Another one said: “Thank God that I was not there, or else, I would have beheaded you (pointing under his throat)”.

That was my last working day for Etilaatroz Newspaper. When I returned to the office from the PD, most of my colleagues and friends had been waiting me there. The news of our torture had already been widespread. My cell phone was full of missed calls; my parents, family members, and many friends called me. When I entered the office, I saw their sad faces and eyes full of tears. Seeing them was more painful than the lashes of the Taliban. When I was finally able to sit down, I told some jokes to make them laugh. After that my parents called me, I lied by telling them I received only three lashes from the Taliban but my body was full of wounds from the torture I was subjected to.  

After that day, many friends came to visit me. Their presence was a source of encouragement, and I could for a moment forget what had happened to me. After the incident, I used to go to the office to talk and give interviews to journalists—both foreign and local—to bring the attention of the international community and media support organizations to the deplorable state of journalists and the media under the rule of Taliban. During the meetings, my family members accompanied me as I could not have meetings alone for some days. The period after my detention was traumatic. During the days I could not sleep and at nights I had nightmares about what happened to me, which kept me awake till morning.

After one month, a US organization helped me to get out of Afghanistan. I said goodbye to Kabul on 3 October 2021 and migrated to USA with a hope for safety and freedom. It took almost two months to get to the USA and where I started a new life. I feel safe here but I still lack psychological security.

The memories of the past few months still haunt me, even after arriving in the USA. Lack of support of the international community and media supporting organizations, the closure of many local media outlets, journalists’ unemployment and having seen many of my colleagues fleeing to different countries, coupled with the imposition of severe restrictions on the media by the Taliban, repeated torture of journalists, failure to achieve our wishes for our country, losing the values that we have fought for years to achieve and the daily painful events which happen to the people of my country completely destroy me. Every day I ask myself—what was our fault that we are in such adversity and miserable situation and why is prosperity impossible for us? Unfortunately, remembering my bitter memories is always difficult for me and whenever I remember that day, I instantaneously cry. I cry for the failure to fight for a humane society, good government, and a peaceful environment in the country which will never come true.

I wrote this note on the occasion of May 3, World Press Freedom Day. I kindly request all media supporting organizations to defend the few free and independent media outlets that are still running of Afghanistan. We need your support more than ever in order to keep the right to freedom of expression alive in Afghanistan and fight once again for a society in which human rights are a reality. Please do not allow our despair and distress to continue and do not let us feel alone in this struggle. Your cooperation and support can be like recovery for my pains and can save me from despair. Undoubtedly, with your support we can keep alive the free press in Afghanistan and can highlight the struggles of the people who have no other hope than the media to raise their voices. I hope to continue to work as a journalist in the USA and cooperate with Etilaatroz Newspaper, which is a famous and preferable press of Afghanistan. I will continue my education in the field of journalism so that I remain a journalist and I will try my best to effectively fulfill my responsibility in this field. To do so, we need the continued support from the international community.