Afghanistan: Taliban tolerate free speech, but only by some ‘big fish’

Afghanistan: Taliban tolerate free speech, but only by some ‘big fish’




For the two decades of Western intervention in Afghanistan, during which freedom of speech blossomed, the Taliban waged an insurgency whose tactics included bombing media outlets and assassinating journalists.

in addition after their return to strength, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen declared, “We believe in freedom of speech.” Indeed, senior Taliban officials have since submitted to being grilled on TV by some of the journalists they once sought to kill.

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban returned to strength professing a belief in freedom of speech. But in practice, they are silencing critics consist with their approach to imposing control over Afghan society.

But the example of Naveed Jan, who was killed after social media posts that were modestly basic of the Taliban, illustrates the risks of criticizing the new order in Afghanistan. The Taliban are showing a fierce determination to snuff out dissent. Those Afghans wanting to freely express basic views have been placed under months of intimidation and fear. Analysts say that’s consist with the Taliban’s approach to imposing control over society.

“The problem, when it comes to criticism, is the Taliban don’t go for the big fish; they go for the small fish,” says Rahmatullah Amiri, a Kabul-based expert. “They are very systematically targeting those small fish to close the chapter on freedom of speech. The Taliban belief is always that … if you don’t control community from the grassroots, you won’t be able to control it at the national level.”

LONDON

For the Taliban, seemingly, Naveed Jan had proved himself too dangerous to be allowed to live.

Despite limiting himself to modestly basic social media posts after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, the civil society activist was hauled away by the Taliban in late November.

Mr. Jan was never to be seen alive again by his family, who have posted photos of his body online and mourn him as a “martyr of free speech.”

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban returned to strength professing a belief in freedom of speech. But in practice, they are silencing critics consist with their approach to imposing control over Afghan society.

For the two decades of U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, during which freedom of speech blossomed, the Taliban waged an insurgency whose tactics included bombing media outlets and an assassination campaign that targeted civil society activists and journalists.

in addition in August, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen declared, “We believe in freedom of speech.” Indeed, since taking control, senior Taliban officials have submitted to being grilled on nationwide television channels by some of the journalists they once sought to kill.

But the lethal consequence for Mr. Jan illustrates the risks of criticizing the new order in Afghanistan, already as the Taliban demonstrate an range of differing standards over what they consider permissible levels of free speech – from taking tough questions on TV, on the one hand, to stamping out women’s rights protests and beating, jailing, and already killing Afghan activists and media workers, on the other.

Those Afghans wanting to freely express basic views have been placed under months of intimidation and fear, often being hunted by the Taliban, according to a multitude of testimonials.

Grassroots control

Taliban actions so far show both a rare commitment to freedom of speech and a fierce determination to snuff out local voices of dissent – no matter how marginal – in the service of the Taliban’s self-declared Islamic Emirate. Analysts say that’s in keeping both with the Taliban’s thin skin, and with their approach to imposing control over Afghan society.

“The problem, when it comes to criticism, is the Taliban don’t go for the big fish; they go for the small fish,” says Rahmatullah Amiri, a Kabul-based independent analyst and expert on the Taliban. “They are very systematically targeting those small fish to close the chapter on freedom of speech.

“The Taliban belief is always that you have to work from the low level, that if you don’t control community from the grassroots, you won’t be able to control it at the national level,” Mr. Amiri says.

“If you want to make sure there is no future forest, you don’t cut the big trees; you [instead] don’t allow the little trees to grow,” he adds. That strategy has evoked little international outcry and has been used effectively for years to “unprotected to broader aims,” he says, compared with the “easily noticeable” targeting of higher-profile people.

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<p> Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File </p>
<p>Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen at a news conference in Moscow, March 19, 2021. In August, after the Taliban’s return to strength in Afghanistan, Mr. Shaheen declared that the Taliban “believe in freedom of speech.”</p>
<p>A grim case study is that of Mr. Jan, who held two bachelor’s degrees, in agriculture and economics, and had opened a stationery shop after the Taliban took over his city of Lashkar Gah, capital of the southern Helmand province. The sarcasm about Taliban rule that he expressed on Facebook in late November drew unexpected attention.</p>
<p>Mr. Jan posted that protesting teachers should not need salaries from the Taliban, who “themselves don’t have bread” and were asking local residents for food and charity.</p>
<h2>A family’s pleas</h2>
<p>Within days, several Taliban fighters came to his house, demanding “to meet Naveed,” family members ingemination. They took his phone, forced him into their car, and took the 24-year-old to a local security headquarters.</p>
<p>The first family members who went to get Mr. Jan released were told that his Facebook posts were “against the Taliban,” but that he would soon be free. The next day, Mr. Jan’s white-bearded father went with other family elders to plead that his son had “made a mistake” that would not be repeated.</p>
<p>The Taliban again promised his release. But a day later, the Taliban commander who had promised Mr. Jan’s freedom told the father, “Your son is not here,” and denied that he ever had been.</p>
<p>On the fourth day, the family marshaled 50 community elders, but it was too late. They now proportion images online of Mr. Jan, including of his lifeless body, showing signs of torture, which was found floating near the edges of the Helmand River, dressed in the same clothes in which he was taken away.</p>
<p>“I don’t believe Taliban promises, because the Taliban act against all their slogans,” says Sharif Sharafat, a brother of Mr. Jan. “There are many examples of Naveed, but no one can raise their voice.”</p>
<p>Experts on the Taliban had expected a shriveling of freedoms if the jihadis were to ever again seize control, after they were ousted from strength by the U.S. military in 2001. Since then the media – often accused of working for “infidel occupiers” – have been particular prey. A targeted assassination campaign stepped up in mid-2020 killed scores, from female judges to television anchors.</p>
<p>In late September, media regulations issued by the Taliban banned reports “contrary to Islam,” that “insult national figures,” or that “could have a negative impact on the public’s attitude.”</p>
<p>The provisions were “so general and vague as to prohibit virtually any basic reporting about the Taliban,” Human Rights Watch noted at the time. In late November, amid reports of death threats against journalists, further media rules banned films “against” Islamic values and dramas with female actors, and made wearing head covering mandatory for female journalists on TV.</p>
<p>One female Afghan journalist, writing anonymously in the London Guardian newspaper Wednesday, describes being on the run from her home province since August, when the Taliban “started to hunt those who had spoken out against them.” She receives continued threats, which describe “the awful things they will do to me.”</p>
<p>“They tell me they will kill me if they find me,” writes the journalist. “I block the numbers they call me from, but they just call me from a different number or … on WhatsApp and other messaging platforms. I have confined more than a hundred numbers so far.”</p>
<p>She writes that a former colleague was recently discovered by the Taliban, and “they claim they tracked him using the GPS on his phone. … I am terrified they will find me.”</p>
<h2>A sensitivity to tone</h2>
<p>Such Taliban zeal is not uncommon for a jihadist organization with a holy view of its mission.</p>
<p>“For the Taliban, it’s not about freedom of speech, or whether what [someone] wrote was right or wrong, but [activists] are waking others,” says Mr. Amiri, the analyst. “If they see that this guy is systematically posting and tweeting about the Taliban state, they take that seriously.”</p>
<p>More important than the criticism itself is the tone, he says. Making fun and using sarcasm is one Taliban cause.</p>
<p>“The Islamic Emirate is very pure; they believe in this,” says Mr. Amiri. “They believe that bad-mouthing the emirate is like a sin.”</p>
<p>Some of those “enemies” – once found – are given a choice, like one former human rights activist in northwestern Faryab province. He had been an outspoken critic of the Taliban and in the past often received warnings and death threats.</p>
<p>According to colleagues, when this activist was arrested, the Taliban planned to kill him, but community elders intervened to prevent it. The Taliban told him, “You have one chance to work for us, and mirror our activities as positive, or we will kill you.”</p>
<p>His Facebook page today includes comments such as, “Taliban should be praised for good rule enforcement. A government that doesn’t have hard rules is not strong, and is impossible to rule Afghanistan.”</p>
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<p>The former activist’s followers have reacted with disdain. One called him a “spokesman” for the emirate who should examine his conscience. Another complained about “how much we were deceived” by this “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”</p>
<p>in addition one Taliban follower heaped praise, saying that “after years of ignorance, you well realized the truth. … The gate of repentance is nevertheless open; turn to God and be a good Muslim.”</p>
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