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Actions or words? Afghan journalists question Taliban's free press pledge

4 minute read

Aug 19 (Reuters) - Beaten, homes raided, turned away from work for being a woman: the complaints made by some Afghan journalists in recent days are sowing doubt about assurances made by their new Taliban rulers that independent media would be allowed.

In its first press conference since capturing the capital Kabul, the Islamist militant movement said on Tuesday it would allow free media and jobs for women - banned when it was last in power from 1996 to 2001.

"It has become clear there is a gap between action and words," Sahar Nasari, a presenter on state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday in his native Pashto.

Nasari said Taliban members took his camera and beat up his colleague while he was trying to film a story in Kabul on Thursday.

Journalists are targeted around the world, especially in times of upheaval. But the issue is a sensitive one in Afghanistan, where an open media, free speech and women's rights are widely seen as hard-fought gains after two decades of war.

A Taliban spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on accusations that it has harassed journalists, and in particular women in the profession.

Several media watchdogs have also reported incidents of Afghan journalists being beaten, harassed or raided at their homes in recent days.

"The Taliban needs to stand by its public commitment to allow a free and independent media at a time when Afghanistan's people desperately need accurate news and information," said Steven Butler of New York-based media rights group, Committee to Protect Journalists.

Saad Mohseni, the head of media group MOBY which runs Afghanistan's largest private broadcaster Tolo news, told Reuters his journalists had not been harmed since the Taliban came to power, and that his female reporters continued to work.

In one Tolo broadcast this week that would have been unthinkable during the Taliban's previous rule, a female Tolo presenter interviewed a Taliban official.

Still, Mohseni said the future remained uncertain.

A cameraman films a news anchor at Tolo News studio, in Kabul, Afghanistan October 18, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

"The laissez-faire approach is more a reflection of not having enough bandwidth than a specific policy that they (the Taliban) will allow media to carry on business as usual," he said.

"So I wouldn't get too excited. It's only been 72 hours since they took over the city."

'REGIME CHANGE'

The Coalition for Women in Journalism, an international advocacy group, said they had been inundated with requests for help from female journalists in Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power, and were in contact with multiple women who said they felt threatened in their homes.

An editor at Pajhwok News Agency in Kabul said on condition of anonymity that a Taliban official had advised his 18 female reporters to work from home until the movement had finalised its rules on women at work.

Presenter Shabnam Dawran, who had long been the face of state-owned RTA, said she was turned away from her job after being told "the regime has changed".

The Taliban's spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said on Tuesday that media must not work against Islamic or national "values", and that women could work "within the framework of Islam."

Some journalists worry that restrictions and censorship could deal a blow to a flourishing Afghan media scene that has changed dramatically since the Taliban were last in power.

From a time when a single state-owned radio station broadcast mainly calls to prayer and religious teachings, the country now has an estimated 170 radio stations, over 100 newspapers and dozens of TV stations.

Some residents say things are already changing, with TV stations removing music and entertainment shows and Western programmes.

One reporter at Bakhtar news agency, the official state news agency, said he "almost froze" when an armed Taliban member walked into the newsroom on Thursday.

"He walked straight into the editor's room and later we were told that the website would need a fresh look and how stories are presented will be discussed soon," the reporter said.

Reporting by Kabul newsroom, Rupam Jain, Charlotte Greenfield, Alasdair Pal and Kenneth Li; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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