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Afghan TV journalists describe ‘psychological prison’ amid Taliban order to cover faces on air

The devastating directive came Wednesday from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which replaced the country’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August.

In the newsroom, headquartered in central Kabul, two newscasters burst into tears during a conversation with CNN.

“They want women off the screen. They’re afraid of an educated woman,” says Khatera, 27, who has hosted the morning news for five months.

“First they deprived the girls from going to school, then they got into the media now. I’m sure they don’t want the presence of women in general,” she adds. .

During the Thursday morning editorial meeting, a group of around thirty employees, more than a third of whom are women, discuss the day’s news. Feeds from TOLOnews and its two sister TV channels play behind them, alongside those from international news agencies.

Station manager Khpolwak Sapai told the team that he had considered closing after receiving the directive, but then thought that female staff who wanted to anchor with their faces hidden should be allowed. to do it.

Previously, the presenters had already adapted to the Taliban takeover by moving their headscarves to hide their hair.

Afghan TV journalists describe ‘psychological prison’ amid Taliban order to cover faces on air

The international community has clearly indicated that respect for women’s rights and the education of girls will be an essential condition for the recognition sought by the new Afghan leaders.

But many Afghan women fear what the future holds.

The latest directive adds to a long list of challenges Afghanistan’s leading independent news channel has faced over the past nine months, including seeing more than 90% of its staff flee the country after arriving of the Taliban.

“All of my reporters who worked in this room — all the anchors, men and women — are gone,” Sapai told CNN in an interview in his office. “And all the producers… All the human resources working at TOLOnews are gone. At the management level, ‘I was on my own,’ Sapai says, ‘I was just thinking about keeping the screen alive. [and] don’t sink…I can’t believe I did it.”

Amidst the chaos, Sapai had no time to fear for his own safety as he focused on how to keep the lights on.

Now, network hosts, who have enjoyed their rights for 20 years, fear a brutal backlash.

” What do we have to do ? We do not know. We were ready to fight until the end to do our job, but they won’t let us,” says Tahmina, 23, a news anchor, in tears.

“It’s a psychological and demotivating prison,” she adds. “We don’t have the motivation to go on screen freely and openly.”

His colleague Heela, who was once on camera, now works as a producer out of fear for her safety.

Afghan TV journalists describe ‘psychological prison’ amid Taliban order to cover faces on air
His fears are not unfounded. In the past five years alone, 24 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, according to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Yet the network hosts on-air debates about Taliban dress code edicts and whether they are Islamic. And they even invite Taliban leaders to discuss these issues, sometimes with a presenter.

Across town, Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid attends a meeting with local journalists to belatedly mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3. We stop him on the way to ask him why women have to cover their faces.

“It’s an opinion of the ministry,” he said. When asked if it is compulsory, Mujahid replies that “they should wear it” and compares it to the use of masks during the pandemic. “As during the COVID pandemic, the mask was mandatory.”

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