Over 20 years, Afghan journalist Samiullah Mahdi saw the media in his country go from the organ of the Taliban to the most vibrant in the region. Then came the U.S. military withdrawal and the Taliban’s shockingly swift takeover of the country. Mahdi, now a fellow with the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center On Media, Politics and Public Policy, finished a paper on the future of the Afghan media under the Taliban just before the Taliban entered Kabul. Mahdi was able to leave and is currently in Turkey. We spoke to him about the fall of Kabul, his concerns for an Afghan free press, and his hope for his country.
Q: Did you and your fellow journalists have any idea what would follow America’s military withdrawal?
I knew the situation was turning really bad. I could see that the country was collapsing, and the government was collapsing. The cities—all the cities in the country—fell within 10 or 11 days. And the Taliban had control over almost all districts by the time I decided to leave Kabul. But the media, in general, was unprepared. Nobody thought that it would collapse like that quickly.
I know some outlets that had plans to establish new headquarters in neighboring countries, but they were in the very early stages of those plans, so they didn't have enough time to move their staff outside their country or move their equipment. Everyone was taken by surprise. And I can say, for example, from Radio Azadi, which is the Afghan branch of Radio Free Europe where I was working as chief reporter, few people were able to leave the country—only four or five—and there are more than 100 journalists still inside the country.
From the other organization that I established seven years ago, PAYK Investigative Journalism Center, we were able to evacuate just three people. And the same is true about other media organizations. But unfortunately, because of the threats, because of the environment of terror and fear caused by the Taliban and their behavior and attitude towards the media, journalists really feel they're under threat and they cannot operate normally. So, that is affecting the quality of journalism. The kind of critical reporting that we used to have to hold those in power accountable is now very limited.
Q: You noted that in the two decades following 9/11, Afghanistan’s media became the most vibrant in the region—a media revolution. How did this evolution take place?
Before 9/11, before the arrival of Americans and other international community members and the liberation of Afghanistan from the hands of Taliban, we didn't have independent media in Afghanistan. We didn't have any TV stations because any form of photo and video was forbidden, according to the Taliban's ideology and their rules. And other parts of the media were suppressed. But after 2002, we started having independent media established in Afghanistan. And this was the first time in the history of our nation that we were witnessing something like that. And within a few years we had more than 100 TV channels across the country, while we didn't have any just five years before that.
So our society, which was basically only one voice, the Taliban's voice, started having several voices. Every sector of the society had the opportunity to have its own media and to have its own say in the larger society's discussions. Of course, the international community has been a major contributor, especially the United States, financially and politically. According to the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, the U.S. State Department has spent about $150 million supporting independent media in the country, and projects related to media.
This was very new for us. And it started liberating people. It started liberating women, youngsters, the new generation. And it opened up discussions about very hard topics of politics, society, religion, women's participation in the society. We have a very different people now. We have a very different nation now. It also shows the courage inside the country and our journalists' determination for freedom of expression. We have lost about 100 journalists in the past 20 years in the country. Many of them were targeted by the Taliban.
Q: What were some of the limitations you saw over the last 20 years?
There were internal issues and external factors. The internal issues included a lack of experience. We were the very first generation of the new media in Afghanistan, so we had to learn from our own mistakes. We didn't have role models to follow and learn from. Of course, we were watching and listening to international media, but that wasn't enough. We didn't have domestic and native experienced journalists who could lead us through this revolution. It hasn't been very easy for us. We had to face challenges, difficulties, and failures time and again, and learn from our own mistakes and failures, and step forward.
The external factors could be security. Threats against the lives of media workers and journalists started as soon as the new media was established in Afghanistan. There was support from the general public, but also threats from groups like the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami, Daish, Al-Qaeda, and others. They followed us all through these years and they killed many of us, tortured some, threatened others, including myself. But at the end of the day, the media became a very important achievement of this country and the international community. And as you can see, almost all of our achievements are gone now.
Q: You say the United States stands to lose because the collapse of the Afghan regime will inspire global groups, like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others.
We know the animosity between the United States and these groups. It all started when the Al-Qaeda and Taliban attack United States on 9/11. Right? So now Taliban and their affiliates like Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are celebrating the Taliban's victory over the strongest military in the world. These groups, which are operating in different parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, South Asia, North Africa, and Central Asia, are going to amplify their ideology.
Q: In your paper, you consider how the Biden administration could support Afghan media. What would you like to see from this administration?
I think there is still room for the Biden administration and the international community as a whole to support the media, the free press, and other basic rights in Afghanistan. The Taliban are really seeking international recognition. This recognition shouldn't be given to them as a gift. I think the Biden administration still has leverage to push the Taliban to recognize a free press and other basic human rights. And that will help the Biden administration and the international community to keep the Taliban accountable, document what they are doing, and also monitor the international funds—the international aid—which are supposed to go the country.
Q: Is it possible to see what a new media environment would look like under this new regime?
Even if some other media outlets, I mean private media outlets, continue to operate in Afghanistan, they will become mouthpieces of the Taliban. There is no way that they could operate independently and freely. So we'll have something very similar, even worse than, Iranian media and Saudi media. But the difference is that Iranian and Saudi media are very experienced now. But the Taliban have no experience in public media. There was an interview of Mullah Baradar, the chief negotiator and now the deputy prime minister of the Taliban, aired last night, and the interviewer and interviewee were both reading their questions and answers from a piece of paper.
Q: Why was publishing this paper important to you?
I chose the topic, and the title, because I knew that this was going to happen and the Taliban would be in power, or part of the power structure, in Afghanistan. If we do not address this issue and alert the international community, we are going to lose one of our most important achievements of the past 20 years. So I think, besides research and academia, there is a level of advocacy in my work.
Q: What is next for you?
I really don't know about my future. I am someone who has lost a country now. But I'm still hopeful because I think the society has changed. And the Taliban have not changed. That means that it will be very hard for the Taliban to control and govern this society with their old ideology. The past 20 years of efforts made by Afghan people and the international community has resulted in a more educated and more informed population.
Controlling this generation is very hard for the Taliban. And we have some very outspoken advocates of Afghanistan around the world. So that kind of makes me hopeful about the future and gives me the dream that the Taliban regime cannot continue forever. There will be an end to it, and we will regain our country.
Watch Samiullah Madhi and Charles Sennott, the founder of the Ground Truth Project and Report for America, discuss The Pen vs. the AK-47: The Future of Afghan Media under the Taliban at a recent Shorenstein Center event.
Banner image by Ahmad Masood