A year of Taliban rule leaves civic space decimated in Afghanistan

A year of Taliban rule leaves civic space decimated in Afghanistan
Taliban members ride in a pickup truck ( (Photo by Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images)

The state of civic space in Afghanistan remains ‘repressed’. 15th August 2022 marked one year since the Taliban’s dramatic seizure of power. The anniversary brought with it a flood of reports further detailing the dire human rights situation in the country and the devastating impact renewed Taliban rule has had on civic space.

Taliban actions over the last 12 months have confirmed that assurances given by the group that it had changed its stance towards human rights were merely a negotiating tactic. Ideological hardliners within the Taliban leadership have the upper hand; the de facto authorities have made it clear they are intolerant of inclusive governance, free media, civil society and women’s participation in public life.

As called for by a coalition of 25 leading NGOs including CIVICUS, the UN Human Rights Council held an Urgent Debate on the situation for Afghan women and girls on 1st July 2022 at the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

During the session UN Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in Afghanistan Richard Bennett issued a joint statement on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures. In his statement he lamented that “despite public assurances from the Taliban that they would respect women’s and girls’ rights, they are reinstituting step-by-step the discrimination against women and girls characteristic of their previous term and which is unparalleled globally in its misogyny and oppression.” Highlighting Taliban efforts to entirely remove women from public life, the statement continued, “It seems the Taliban’s intentions are not only to impose absolute gender segregation, they are aimed at making women invisible by excluding them almost entirely from society.”

Meanwhile, in July 2022, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released its first report on the human rights situation since the Taliban takeover. Examining the period between August 2021 and June 2022, the UNAMA report documented a litany of human rights abuses, including consistent and sustained efforts to curtail Afghans’ freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly. UNAMA stated that “the de facto authorities have made clear their position on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of opinion. They have limited dissent by cracking down on protests and curbing media freedoms, including by arbitrarily arresting journalists, protestors and civil society activists and issuing restrictions on media outlets.”

An Amnesty International report published on 15th August 2022 provided further context, detailing chilling testimonies from members of civil society – including women’s rights activists – about their treatment after being detained for their peaceful activism. While arrests and disappearances of activists since August 2021 have been well documented in the media and by NGOs, details about their treatment in Taliban detention have only become available more recently. Many detainees were too scared to talk about their experiences after their release for fear of further consequences for themselves or their families; however, testimonies are beginning to emerge from those who have managed to leave the country. Former detainees report being kept in incommunicado detention, being tortured to give up the names of other activists, having their identity and travel documents confiscated and having their relatives threatened.

On 6th September 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan released his first report. It is a catalogue of abuses under Taliban rule since August 2021 and their devastating impact on Afghans. The report highlights the clampdown on press freedom, the detention and ill-treatment of journalists and media workers as well as physical attacks, threats, intimidation and harassment. It also documents how the Taliban have increasingly limited the freedom of peaceful assembly and the rapidly shrinking civic space and constant pressure that civil society organisations, notably human rights organisations, are subjected to.

Association

Restriction on civil society and activists

As detailed in CIVICUS’ recent Country Brief, freedom of association remains heavily constrained. Acts of intimidation, harassment, detentions and even retaliatory killings of human rights and civil society activists in the early days of Taliban rule led to the shuttering of most CSOs. Many CSO members and human rights defenders (HRDs) who have not left Afghanistan remain effectively in hiding, keeping a low profile and no longer able to carry out their human rights work or activism.

NGOs working in the humanitarian sphere are permitted to operate, but the Taliban views civil society organisations (CSOs) as a threat and has clamped down on their activities, intimidated their former staff and confiscated their resources; groups working on women’s issues or human rights are viewed with particular suspicion.

Local human rights organisations have reported that women-led NGOs have in recent months had their women directors removed from their posts by Taliban officials. At least four such incidents were reported in eastern Afghanistan in one recent monitoring report by the Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization.

Networks of women’s rights activists continue to organise amongst themselves but are unable to operate openly. Night raids and the incommunicado detention in early 2022 of women’s activists who were involved in protests in the early months of Taliban rule has had a major deterrent effect. The detention and torture of members of women’s protest groups have severely impacted their ability to organise; however, brave women activists continue to hold periodic rallies.

One women’s rights activist who live-streamed a Taliban raid on her home in January 2022 during which she was detained alongside her three sisters recently discussed her experiences in detention. She described how she was kept in a Taliban prison for around a month, during which time she was beaten with pipes, cables and whips during recorded interrogation sessions.

Attacks against religious minorities

On 6th September 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Islamic State’s (ISIS) affiliate in Afghanistan, has repeatedly attacked Hazaras and other religious minorities at their mosques, schools and workplaces. The groups said that The Taliban authorities have done little to protect these communities from suicide bombings and other unlawful attacks or to provide necessary medical care and other assistance to victims and their families. The Hazara are a predominantly Shia Muslim ethnic group that have faced discrimination and abuse by successive Afghan governments for over a century.

Peaceful assembly

Continued crackdown on protests

The Taliban’s ban on ‘unauthorised’ demonstrations, implemented in the early days after their takeover, remains in place. The only ‘authorised’ demonstrations are those held in support of the de facto authorities and, as such, Afghans’ right to peaceful assembly has been taken away. Taliban soldiers routinely react to peaceful demonstrations with violence, using beatings and live gunfire to disperse rallies. Journalists are often detained, beaten and have their equipment confiscated while trying to cover these events.

With the exception of occasional small rallies by interest groups over pensions or other specific issues, women’s rights activists are the only group holding protests with any regularity, though even these have been relatively rare in recent months.

A rally held by several dozen women in Kabul on the eve of the Taliban’s one year anniversary saw women carrying signs calling for ‘bread, work and freedom’ and other banners reading ‘August 15 is a black day’. The protest, which took place on 13th August 2022 near the Education Ministry, was dispersed by Taliban soldiers who fired in the air and beat journalists covering the event. Some of the participants said they were beaten by the Taliban, who also destroyed the women’s banners and reportedly confiscated mobile phones from the protesters.

Expression

Freedom of expression has been severely curtailed since the Taliban takeover. Members of the media, commentators, academics and ordinary civilians have been detained, tortured or even killed for criticising the de facto authorities. In recent months, journalists, YouTubers and private citizens have been detained for journalism or social media posts that the Taliban deemed unacceptable. The current political context combined with the ongoing financial and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has also seen many media outlets close down.

Restrictions, arrests and attacks on the media

Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada issued additional restrictions on media reporting on 21st July 2022. In a new decree he stated that ‘defaming and criticising government officials without proof’ and ‘spreading false news and rumours’ are forbidden under Islam. The decree went on to say that people who ‘slander’ government officials will be punished, though it did not specify what the penalty would be. The latest decree adds to existing rules issued to the media in September and November 2021 that placed restrictions on the kinds of stories journalists were able to report and who they were allowed to interview.

The day after the latest decree was issued, a woman radio journalist was attacked in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. She said she had previously been warned to stop work but had refused. Armed Taliban reportedly beat her until she lost consciousness. Her injuries were so serious that she required hospital treatment.

International media workers and their Afghan colleagues have also been targeted by Taliban soldiers. A Pakistani journalist and his crew who were in Kabul to cover the first anniversary of Taliban rule were arrested on 4th August 2022. Correspondent Anas Mallick was held for 21 hours, during which he was reportedly beaten. His crew were detained for 42 hours. On 10th August, the media crew from an Arabic news channel were violently prevented from filming humanitarian aid distribution while live on air, despite having been granted permission to do so. The crew’s cameraman was reportedly hit with a whip during the incident.

On 15th August 2022, the Taliban attacked Raufi, an anchor and reporter with Afghanistan’s independent Ariana News TV station, while he was recording the aftermath of an explosion in front of Ariana’s headquarters in the Bayat Media Centre in the capital of Kabul. The men confiscated this mobile phone and one of the men slapped him in the face, causing his mouth to bleed.

American journalist and independent filmmaker Ivor Shearer and Afghan producer Faizullah Faizbakhsh were detained on 17th August 2022 after filming in the Sherpur area of District 10 in Kabul, where a U.S. drone strike killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri earlier in August.

These recent incidents follow a pattern of abuses against media workers that began as soon as the Taliban seized control of Kabul in August 2021. Journalists are sometimes detained or harassed because of specific stories they publish, but many have been arbitrarily rounded up while they are covering women’s protests against the Taliban. In UNAMA’s report on the human rights situation that was released in July, the agency documented 163 human rights violations by the Taliban targeting journalists and rights workers. These included arbitrary arrests, threats and harassment. UNAMA also reported six killings of journalists by the Islamic State group.

The Taliban also place significant restrictions on journalists who are trying to cover security incidents. The de facto authorities often seal off the sites of bombings and other incidents because they don’t want negative coverage of attacks that would make them look incapable of providing security. These restrictions make it difficult for journalists and therefore the Afghan public to know the true scale of security incidents. The Taliban have also heavily restricted media access to parts of the country experiencing armed clashes between the Taliban and resistance groups.

RSF survey highlights difficult media environment

Media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a survey in August 2022 that highlighted the impact of Taliban rule on the previously vibrant media environment over the last 12 months. According to the survey, ‘in the year since the Taliban took power on 15th August 2021, Afghanistan has lost 39.59 percent of its media outlets and 59.86 percent of its journalists.’ Afghanistan had 547 media outlets prior to 15th August 2021. One year later, 219 ceased their activities. And of the 11,857 journalists tallied prior to 15th August 2021, there are now only 4,759.

The changes have been particularly devastating for women journalists, ‘three quarters of whom are now unemployed.’ The report continued: ‘Women have suffered most in the carnage inflicted on Afghan journalism in the past year and have disappeared completely from the media landscape in 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – Badghis, Helmand, Daikundi, Ghazni, Wardak, Nimroz, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktia, Samangan and Zabol. Of the 2,756 women journalists and media workers employed in Afghanistan prior to 15th August 2021, only 656 are still working. Of these, 84.6 percent are working in the Kabul region.’

Other detentions linked to Taliban clampdown on freedom of expression

Ajmal Haqiqi, a model and Youtuber, was arrested on 7th June 2022 by the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), an agency that has been at the forefront of the Taliban’s clampdown on the media and freedom of expression. Haqiqi had posted a video featuring himself and three of his colleagues on his YouTube channel the previous week, in which one of his colleagues reportedly referred to verses from the Quran in a humorous manner. Haqiqi posted a video on 5th June 2022 apologising but was nevertheless detained two days later along with the three men from the original film.

The GDI soon after released a video in which Ajmal and his colleagues were forced to deliver a ‘confession’ wearing prison uniforms. Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner, said ‘Arbitrarily detaining YouTuber Haqiqiand his colleagues and coercing them into apologising because the Taliban de-facto authorities were offended by the video is a blatant attack on the right to freedom of expression. The Taliban must immediately and unconditionally release the YouTubers and end their continued censorship of those who wish to freely express their ideas.”

In another recent case involving social media, a civilian in Kandahar was reportedly arrested for posting criticism of the Taliban on his Facebook page. According to local media, he was handed over to the ‘judicial authorities’, though the Taliban legal system remains very opaque and there is no due process or transparency around judicial proceedings.

According to SRMO, there have been several recent reports of civilians being arrested for posting criticism of the Taliban on social media; however, there are often only single local media reports of these cases, making it difficult to confirm details. Recent cases discussed by local media outlets include two reported arrests in Kandahar province related to Facebook posts that were critical of the de facto authorities – the first on 21st July and a second in mid-August 2022. Another incident was reported on 21st July 2022 in Helmand province, where a man was reportedly detained for posting about poverty in his district on social media.