Taliban fighters walk toward journalists during a protest in Kabul on December 28, 2021. (Photo Mohd Rasfan/ AFP)

Afghanistan’s intelligence agency emerges as new threat to independent media

On January 19, the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) publicly called on Afghan media to refrain from publishing and broadcasting what it termed “false news and baseless rumors.” The warning amounted to the first public acknowledgement of something that Afghan journalists already knew: a tough new cop was on the beat.

The emergence of the GDI – an intelligence agency formerly known as the National Directorate of Security (NDS) – comes against the backdrop of a reported internal power struggle between the Taliban’s southern and Haqqani network factions for control of the six-month-old regime. For Afghan reporters, it has brought an increasingly hard edge to the Taliban’s treatment of the media, suggesting it could be entering a chilling new phase in its clamp down on the strikingly robust media scene that emerged in the two decades after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.  

When the Taliban took Kabul last August, media policy initially was managed by civilian institutions: the Ministry of Information and Culture and later, the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

These ministries were hardly bastions of liberalism. Even as Taliban leaders indicated tolerance for the continued operation of independent media, they issued vague guidelines that seemed to compromise these positions, such as their two-pillar media strategy, projecting a “press-friendly image” internationally while actually ratcheting up pressure on reporters and their outlets.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid (center) addresses a press conference in Kabul on August 24, 2021, after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. (Photo Hoshang Hashimi / AFP)

The first set of restrictions on Afghan media came on August 17, 2021, just two days after the Taliban’s takeover of the capital, Kabul. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid broadly announced a framework for Afghan media operations, which he termed “suggestions.” He stressed that “no broadcast should contradict Islamic values, reporting should be impartial and there should be no broadcast against national interests,” according to media reports.

On September 19, 2021, the Taliban-controlled Government Media and Information Center (GMIC) announced 11 new publishing rules, including directives that journalists should coordinate with the GMIC when preparing content.

The Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued more restrictive directives on November 21, banning women from appearing in Afghan television dramas and ruling that female journalists and presenters must wear hijab – headscarves covering their heads and necks – on screen.

However, the GDI’s January move into the spotlight did not come out of the blue. It followed media reports on the agency’s night raids and arrests of women protesters in Kabul and cases documented by CPJ of GDI’s involvement in extralegal detention and harsh interrogation of journalists and media owners. (CPJ has not been able to locate contact information for the GDI, but officials have previously dismissed these reports as “false news and baseless rumors.”)

Afghan women shout slogans at a Kabul rally to protest against Taliban restrictions on women, December 28, 2021. Reuters/Ali Khara

The GDI’s predecessor, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), was accountable to the now-defunct Afghan parliament and government leaders for its primary mission of counterterrorism and foreign intelligence operations. The Taliban’s GDI has shifted its main focus to domestic affairs, including actively suppressing media and civil society activists and the detention, torture and even killing of former Afghan government military and civilian officials, according to three former government intelligence operatives who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation.

The GDI’s leader is Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, the Taliban’s deputy minister of intelligence from 1996-2001, and a supporter of acting deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar, a prominent member of the southern faction of the Taliban. According to the United Nations Security Council, Wasiq was in charge of handling relations with Al-Qaeda-related foreign fighters in Afghanistan and known for his “repressive methods” against Taliban opponents in the south of Afghanistan during the 1990s.  

However, current and former intelligence operatives told CPJ that supporters of the rival Haqqani network, led by acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, now dominate the GDI. Tajmir Jawad, the deputy intelligence director who manages GDI’s daily operations, is described in news reports and intelligence analyses as a top Haqqani network commander and two of CPJ’s Afghan intelligence sources said that the majority of GDI appointees are Haqqani associates. Haqqani himself is designated a “global terrorist” and wanted by the FBI for questioning about attacks that include the 2008 bombing of Kabul’s Serena hotel.

The Taliban has now imposed an unwritten, unannounced security regime on journalists operating across Afghanistan, according to several journalists and media executives, who spoke with CPJ on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal from the group. These sources said that all Afghan and foreign reporters are required to have an accreditation letter from the office of the Taliban’s spokesperson, who, according to the journalists, takes his orders from the GDI. (CPJ asked Taliban deputy spokesperson Ahmadullah Wasiq for comment via messaging app, but did not receive any response.)

CPJ has reviewed these permission letters, which are addressed to any “security official” of the Taliban. The letter names the reporter and the agency or media organization they work for and states that they have permission to visit different parts of the city for reporting purposes. The letter provides a Taliban phone number for additional confirmation of the journalist’s identity.  

Afghan journalist Abdul Qayum Zahid Samadzai was detained, interrogated, and beaten by GDI operatives. (Photo: Abdul Qayum Zahid Samadzai)

On February 1, GDI operatives ordered Abdul Qayum Zahid Samadzai, a reporter with the independent Pakistan-based 92News Media Group, to stop reporting without such a letter. Earlier, agents had beaten and interrogated him during a 36-hour detention, accusing him of spying for foreign governments.

Having accreditation doesn’t necessarily guarantee protection for journalists. Three reporters told CPJ that they had faced arrest, physical abuse, and interrogation despite having obtained the letters.

Iranian freelance photojournalist Ibrahim Alipoor, for example, was arrested by the GDI a day after he entered Kabul on November 13, 2021. Alipoor told CPJ in a phone interview shortly after his eventual release that he entered Afghanistan on a visa issued by the Taliban at the Islam Qala border crossing of Afghanistan and Iran and visited Herat, Ghor, and Bamiyan provinces during a seven-day trip before arriving in Kabul. Alipoor said he had permission letters for these areas from provincial and district level information and culture directorates of the Taliban.

In Kabul, Alipoor visited a friend’s house before he could get a permission letter from the Taliban’s spokesperson office and find a hotel. Within hours, he was arrested during a night raid by the Taliban’s intelligence forces and transferred to the counter-terrorism directorate of the Taliban’s intelligence agency, according to people familiar with his case. They, like many other sources, talked to CPJ only on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal.

The operatives kept Alipoor handcuffed and blindfolded for three days at the directorate, where he was verbally harassed by numerous Taliban members with access to his cell. A vegetarian, he told CPJ that his meals comprised only a cup of tea and a small piece of stale bread.

He was transferred to another detention center, where he lost consciousness from hunger. Blindfolded and handcuffed, he was interrogated for hours when he came round. His three questioners verbally abused him, accusing him of spying for foreign countries and not listening to his responses. The interrogation stopped after they reviewed his documents, including visa, passport, press cards, and his permission letters from the Taliban, and he was transferred to a cell with three other prisoners. He was released three days later.   

Other Afghan journalists say they’ve faced similar detention, interrogation and beatings by GDI agents since the Taliban takeover. One reporter told CPJ his interrogators regularly stood on his toes until he passed out from the pain. (CPJ was unable to obtain a contact number for comment from the GDI.)    

Ariana News TV journalist Waris Hasrat was arrested by the GDI in January, 2022. (Screenshot/Ariana News TV)

On January 31, 2022, men who identified themselves as Taliban members detained Waris Hasrat, manager of political programs, and Aslam Hijab, a reporter at the independent broadcaster Ariana News TV, according to three journalists and media executives. These sources said that the journalists were arrested by the GDI and held at the agency’s counterterrorism directorate before being transferred to Bagram prison north of the city.

At the prison, Taliban interrogators beat the journalists several times and immersed one of the journalist’s head in a bucket of water. The journalists were questioned about Ariana news programs, the station’s programming guidelines, and which countries or groups were behind their shows. The interrogators called the shows anti-Taliban regime propaganda, the journalists and media executives said.

In another case, senior media executives told CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation against their Kabul staff that they regularly receive messages from Taliban intelligence operatives who threaten to revoke the organization’s operating license and arrest their reporters for criticizing the Taliban.

Another journalist detained by the GDI for seven days told CPJ that journalists are under daily surveillance by intelligence operatives. The journalists said they are told to continue their work, but only to report issues that portray the Taliban in a positive light.

Media executives said the GDI also used other methods to try to control reporters. Several told CPJ that Jawad Sargar, the deputy director of the GDI’s directorate of media and publication, contacted them regularly and called or visited their Kabul offices to tell journalists what they should be programming. One journalist told CPJ that Sargar has tried to hire reporters to criticize certain journalists and activists on TV. Sargar did not reply to CPJ’s request for comment sent via a messaging app.

A number of other Afghan journalists who have been arrested, threatened, or beaten by members of the GDI or other Taliban agencies refused to talk to CPJ, even off the record, fearing the GDI digital surveillance and telephone-tapping capabilities.  

A recent survey by the Afghanistan Journalists Federation, reviewed by CPJ, found that before the fall of Kabul around 4,090 Afghan male journalists and 979 female journalists were active in Afghanistan. Six months later, an estimated 2,091 male journalists and 243 female journalists are still working in the country. In every respect, Afghanistan’s once thriving media ecosystem is declining rapidly under Taliban rule.