Threats, insults, beatings, and censorship: Former Ariana News staffers detail dire challenges during a year under Taliban control
For veteran journalist Sharif Hassanyar, the final breaking point came in September last year. The Taliban had ousted the elected government of Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani almost a month earlier, and the last American soldiers had since withdrawn in a chaotic race to get out. As head of Ariana News, an independently owned television station, Hassanyar had initially instructed his panicked staff to stay focused on their work. “We knew that under a Taliban regime all civil liberties would be very limited,” Hassanyar told me. “But despite all of this, I would try to keep the morale of our colleagues high… and encourage our staff to work fearlessly.”
Steadily, pressures grew—directly from Taliban operatives who beat some journalists or visited the homes of others who were in hiding, and indirectly from Ariana executives who would say the station had to self-censor out of caution. Hassanyar himself felt directly threatened, and left the country for Pakistan on September 1. From there, he ran the news operation remotely, still believing it might be possible for the station to continue covering live events as before. When one of his news managers contacted him to ask for guidance on how to cover a protest by scores of Afghan women, Hassanyar instructed him to broadcast the protest live and invite Afghan analysts to discuss it on air.
It didn’t take long for Hassanyar’s cell phone to start ringing. Taliban intelligence officials called several times, demanding that he shut down the broadcast. Hassanyar didn’t cave to Taliban orders right away, but a short time later, bearded Taliban intelligence officials arrived at Ariana’s offices in the Bayat Media Center. They threatened that if live coverage of the women’s demonstration didn’t end immediately, Taliban militiamen would close the gates of the BMC complex and prevent employees from leaving or entering the building.
Afghan American business executive and philanthropist Ehsanollah “Ehsan” Bayat had built the BMC, a five-story building roughly six kilometers (3.7 miles) from the Afghan presidential palace, in 2014. In addition to being the headquarters of Bayat’s media operations, the BMC also houses the Afghan Wireless Telecommunication Company (AWCC), in which Bayat has a majority stake, and which has more than 5,000 employees. With so many people’s livelihoods and safety at stake, Hassanyar—under pressure not only from the Taliban at this point, but also from senior executives from within his organization—ordered his staff to cut off coverage of the women protestors.
A short time later, on September 10, Hassanyar quit Ariana News.
Hassanyar is one of countless Afghan journalists whose dreams of a free media in Afghanistan have come to a rapid end. Many lost their jobs when the Taliban takeover led to economic collapse. Others, like him, have fled the country to escape Taliban repression. Hassanyar gave up his home, leaving behind his father, mother, and several siblings, and he largely relinquished his aspirations to help build a more free and democratic Afghanistan.
Intimidation and harassment
The story of Ariana News, once one of the more influential networks in Afghanistan, reflects the troubles all media in the country now face. Around the time of Hassanyar’s departure, the Taliban—including operatives from the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI)—launched a wave of censorship, threats, intimidation, detention, beating, and harassment of journalists at Ariana News and other outlets. After Hassanyar’s departure, the increased repression caused at least three of his successors as head of Ariana News to flee Afghanistan, too.
Now, a full year after the Taliban takeover, critical news gathering in Afghanistan by local media remains very difficult. It requires patience and courage—a willingness by reporters and TV news presenters to put themselves, their families, and others at risk. In such dire circumstances, it’s perhaps hard to recall that the blossoming of Afghanistan’s media was one of the great success stories of the period when U.S. and international forces oversaw the country.
Thousands of Afghan reporters, including hundreds of women, worked for burgeoning numbers of newspapers, radio stations, and television outlets. International donors, including the U.S. government and military, provided tens of millions of dollars in support. In a country that two decades earlier—during the Taliban’s first stint in power—didn’t allow television or photography at all, large numbers of young people were competing to join the news industry.
Ariana News and its sister company, Ariana Radio and Television Network (ATN), delivered news, music, culture, and even comedy to Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The Bayat business conglomerate established ATN in 2005, almost four years after U.S. and international forces toppled the Taliban in response to the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. ATN was focused on entertainment, soap operas, current affairs, and sports coverage. By 2014—a period of hope and idealism—Bayat decided to create a sister station devoted entirely to news.
He approached Hassanyar, then a senior manager at TOLONews, another independent 24/7 TV station, to help bring the idea to fruition. Hassanyar says Bayat pitched him on the new venture by saying that his aim was to promote freedom of speech and bolster the democratic system.
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- Video: Women journalists under pressure
- Press release
- Download a PDF of this report
Hassanyar was enthusiastic about running the new station, and in turn asked for full authority—free from any intervention by the owner or his business executives—as a condition for accepting the offer. He says Bayat agreed, provided Ariana would not favor any political group, and that newscasters would not directly insult any Afghan. Hassanyar accepted those conditions, and took the job.
Bayat didn’t always stick to his commitment, according to two other former Ariana News executives who did not want to be named, but his interventions were rare in the early years of Ariana News’ broadcasting. In one case, they said, Bayat quashed an investigation into a land issue saying it could undermine contracts he had with international forces and harm his relations with the Afghan government. (When CPJ asked Bayat for comment on this and other matters, a spokesperson declined to provide CPJ’s list of questions to Bayat and instead forwarded to CPJ a written statement from current ATN managing director Habib Durrani. “After more than 17 years of operation in such a fast paced, rapidly changing environment, employees will disagree and have different opinions and perspectives on a wide variety of issues,” Durrani’s statement said in part.)
The two stations began to suffer, however, as the Taliban insurgency was spreading. By 2018, journalists were getting wounded or killed in increasing numbers, and the former executives said Bayat intervened more frequently in coverage. By 2020, COVID-19 was also raging through the country, undermining the economy and hurting business.
Ariana News closed its two provincial stations in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif in 2020 and laid off most of its staff in the two provinces, including many women. According to Hassanyar, former Ariana News head Ali Asghari, and Waris Hasrat, a former political programs manager at the network, ATN and Ariana News had already shed roughly 130 employees by the time the Ghani government fell in 2021, bringing the total number to around 270.
The 2021 Taliban takeover, however, precipitated a full-scale gutting of most Afghan media. According to Hassanyar, several ATN and Ariana News TV presenters and female employees simply left their jobs when Kabul fell on August 15. The full story, however, is more complex. Roya Naderi, who hosted morning programs focused on social issues and was one of ATN’s most popular presenters, told CPJ that she was in the office on that day. Ariana executives told women at ATN to leave the TV station as the Taliban were approaching the city. Naderi told CPJ that when she arrived home, she put on long black clothes, fearing what might happen if Taliban militiamen saw her dressed otherwise—and waited to see what her future would be.
Four days later, Naderi recalls, someone from the HR department of ATN called to ask for her resignation, saying the Taliban wouldn’t tolerate female presenters. She says that even though she and others feared Taliban reprisals, they wanted to return to work because they desperately needed the income. But Naderi says she and many of her female colleagues were forced to resign regardless. (A spokesperson for ATN’s HR department told CPJ by messaging app that it had not fired employees mentioned in this article “due to so called ‘pressure’ from the Taliban,” and disputed that some had been let go.)
Ariana News executives took a different approach than ATN. Representatives of several news outfits, including Hassanyar, had banded together in early 2021 to form a watchdog group called the Afghanistan Freedom of Speech Hub. After the Taliban takeover, they decided they would continue to put women broadcasters on air.
Fawzia Wahdat, a presenter with Ariana News, told CPJ she was able to continue presenting news on-air until November 9 last year. She had worked for Ariana News for about a decade until that point. After the takeover, she says, Taliban intelligence operatives forced Ariana to segregate male and female employees into separate work spaces—an account confirmed by two former senior managers of Ariana News. Ariana’s HR staff, apparently at Taliban direction, instructed female employees to wear long black robes.
During most of the period from 2004 to 2021, “we worked with complete freedom,” Wahdat told CPJ. “But with the Taliban’s takeover, all programs, producers, news writers, and presenters were under pressure… Often, producers would give us specific questions to ask the guests and we could not go beyond those boundaries. However, I could not do that.”
When journalists neglected the unwritten rules, the Taliban would pressure them further. “They told us to support them and their political system in our programs,” says Wahdat. “They would tell us that journalists had campaigned against them for 20 years and now it was time to pay them back by supporting them.” Eventually, Ariana News executives forced Wahdat to resign, she says.
Nasrin Shirzad, another news anchor and presenter of political programs for Ariana News, says she worked non-stop on the day Kabul fell. Even before the Taliban took power, Shirzad’s work as a political presenter and news anchor had not been easy. Conservatives in her home district in the eastern region of Nangarhar disapproved of her work at a TV station. In her home area, “there is no school for girls,” says Shirzad, who was only able to get educated because her parents moved to Kabul. “They don’t like girls outside of the home, let alone on TV.”
Shirzad told CPJ that about a month before the Taliban takeover, police discovered an explosive device planted near her apartment building. Her neighbors blamed her for endangering them because her high profile had made her a target. A day after the fall of Kabul, Shirzad says, members of the Taliban started pressuring Ariana News to fire her. At least some of the Taliban involved were relatives from her home area. Hassanyar recalls that threats were delivered to him as well as Shirzad’s brother.
On August 21, Shirzad said, Ariana managers told her that her life was in danger and that she should stop working for the TV station. Hassanyar confirmed her account, saying that around that time he received a call from someone who identified himself as a distant relative of Shirzad. “They told me that she is not allowed to be on air anymore,” recalls Hassanyar. “They threatened me that if she continues to work at the TV station, they will do anything they want to her and will find me and do anything to me. Shirzad came to me and was crying, asking what she should do. I told her that nothing is more valuable than her own life … I didn’t fire her, but unfortunately she was compelled to leave work.”
Male presenters could still appear on air, but faced censorship. Bizhan Aryan, a news anchor and host of political shows, told CPJ that in a live broadcast on the evening of August 16, he challenged a Taliban spokesman about their policies requiring men to wear beards and women to fully cover their heads and bodies. Ariana News executives later reprimanded him for discussing controversial issues and being contentious toward the Taliban spokesperson. Later, according to Aryan, that part of the interview was removed from the station’s online archive.
Aryan continued to challenge Taliban spokespeople, however. When the head of Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) agency visited Kabul shortly after the fall of the country to the Taliban, Aryan interviewed Inamuallah Samangani, a Taliban spokesperson. He asked him why the Taliban were dealing with Pakistani intelligence and not the foreign minister or some other civilian representative. Aryan then pressed him further about the visit—about Pakistan’s aims for Afghanistan, and about whether Pakistan had caused a delay in the Taliban’s announcement of a cabinet. “That show became more problematic as the managers asked me why I posed such challenging questions to him,” Aryan told CPJ. “They told me that if I continued to pressure the Taliban, they would have no option but to fire me.”
Aryan continued to work for Ariana News until the end of September 2021, after which, he says, he was forced to take leave and then was informed he’d been laid off. After that, he told CPJ, the Taliban continued to harass him by telephone and maintained surveillance of his home, until he fled Afghanistan in March 2022.
Ariana’s managers were also subject to pressure.
Hamid Siddiqui took charge of Ariana News in September 2021 after Hassanyar left the network. “Several times during my tenure as the manager of Ariana News, the Taliban intelligence agency summoned me to GDI headquarters,” recalls Siddiqui, who lasted less than a month in the job. “I tried to refuse, but they threatened to detain me if I didn’t show up. The intelligence operatives there told me not to allow female presenters at the station anymore. I said, ‘I can’t accept that,’ but the then-chief of Taliban intelligence for media affairs, Mashal Afghan, slapped me and told me to shut up and listen to him.” (CPJ attempted to reach Afghan for comment, but was not able to get a response.)
Siddiqui says he asked the intelligence officer why he was acting so rudely. For that, he was detained for three hours, “during which time they beat me up, insulted me and hit me on the head and back many times with their rifles… That same night, the human resources department of Ariana News fired me.”
Another manager took over, but he lasted just 25 days before fleeing to Germany. In mid-October 2021, Asghari became the fourth head of Ariana News in two months. Asghari is a Shiite Muslim and belongs to the Ghezelbash minority ethnic group. The Sunni Taliban labeled him a Hazara—the largest Shiite ethnic group in Afghanistan—and hurled insults at him.
Asghari told CPJ that during his tenure at the helm of Ariana News’ daily operations from October 2021 to May 2022, he was summoned more than 10 times to the Taliban’s intelligence headquarters, where he was questioned about Ariana News and its programs. He says the Taliban had recruited a large number of people—perhaps around 200—to monitor and track Afghan media, an estimate based largely on his visits to the media affairs department of the GDI, led at the time by Jawad Sargar.
Asghari says that at the beginning of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, GDI operatives were mainly focused on pressuring the TV station on what they considered major issues, like the appearance of female presenters or the broadcasting of soap operas. But in the last few months of Asghari’s work, Sargar would micromanage even small matters, showing up at the station to warn that if he did something the Taliban didn’t like, they would arrest, detain, or possibly even kill him. (In response to CPJ requests for comment on this and other accusations, Sargar left CPJ a voicemail saying this was “totally wrong,” and promising to discuss it further. He did not respond, however, to several attempts to reach him again.)
“For example, they would come and tell us to change quotes,” says Asghari. “Nowhere in the world is it acceptable to change verbatim quotes… If we would quote U.S. Special Representative [for Afghanistan] Tom West as saying the ‘Taliban group’ in a news piece, Sargar would come and threaten and intimidate us as to why we used the term ‘Taliban group,’ and then he would order us to change the quote and write ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ instead.”
Sargar would enter Ariana News offices whenever he wanted, and visit all departments of the TV station without notice. He would summon a journalist to a meeting room and order him to take out his phone and other belongings and put them on the table to make sure the meeting was not recorded, Asghari says.
Sargar would never call Asghari by his name. Instead, says Asghari, he’d say, “Hey Hazara,” and when Asghari would argue against censorship, Sargar would jokingly threaten, saying “Hey Hazara, I will kill you one day,” or “You’re a Shiite and shaking hands with you is haram (forbidden).”
Sargar summoned Asghari on March 12, 2022, to the GDI headquarters where another intelligence operative interrogated him about Ariana’s coverage of the National Resistance Front (NRF), an anti-Taliban group. Asghari says his interrogator handcuffed him during the three-hour questioning session, and also sought information about his family members’ past and present jobs and if they were engaged with the NRF.
In a WhatsApp message sent to Asghari on March 18, 2022, reviewed by CPJ, Sargar asked Asghari not to publish anything about meetings between intelligence officers and the media. TOLONews had just broadcast a report that the intelligence agency had asked it to stop airing soap operas, and the Taliban had detained three of its employees. “During the few days we had meetings with media officials, it was a condition that no one could leak these issues,” the message reads, referring to the order to stop showing soap operas. “But TOLONews rebelled. Our controversy arose. We hope that there will be a blackout on such issues and no one would publish the news. Even [news] of the arrest of TOLO officials,” the message reads.
On April 22, 2022, Asghari was walking in the Karte Seh area of Kabul when a Taliban vehicle approached with four armed men. They jumped out and beat him severely with a bicycle lock, he says, calling him a “spy journalist” and an infidel. He suffered head injuries as a result. Asghari decided that he could no longer stay in Afghanistan and fled to another country shortly afterward. He says he still feels unsafe there.
Other Afghan journalists and media executives face similarly hard choices. Keeping the country’s journalistic flame alive can mean bowing to the dictates of the Taliban; leaving the business invariably comes at the price of leaving homes, families, livelihoods, and professions..
For media owners, the financial stakes can also be high.
Bayat, for instance, has large investments in Afghanistan’s telecoms, power, and energy industries in addition to his Ariana properties. His Bayat Group employs more than 10,000 Afghans. Three former Ariana News employees, who did not want to be named, told CPJ they believe that Bayat has censored his television networks since the Taliban takeover because he doesn’t want controversies to threaten the operations of his Afghan Wireless (AWCC,) Bayat Power, and Bayat Energy companies.
ATN’s Durrani did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment on these former employees’ views. In his statement to CPJ, he pledged that Ariana would continue to broadcast while ensuring that the safety and well-being of its staff was always its highest priority. “Despite the country’s economic challenges ATN remains on air and will stay on air for generations ahead,” he said.
The Ariana insiders who spoke to CPJ are less optimistic. Asghari says he was told by former colleagues that Ariana News’ revenues, including paid advertising from AWCC, now cover only about 35% of its expenses, with the rest paid by Bayat.
They also told CPJ that the total number of ATN and Ariana News employees in television, radio, and online has plummeted from roughly 400 people in 2018 to about 60 in 2022. Radio Ariana and Ariana News FM stopped broadcasting six months ago. Ariana News employees, including its online division, now number about 18 people, with only one female employee.
Another challenge for ATN: the struggle to fill the programming void left by the Taliban ban on soap operas and other entertainment programs. According to Hassanyar and Asghari, ATN and Ariana News still operate as two separate stations, but share their content, with ATN heavily reliant on coverage by Ariana News. The former managers fear that the pressure of increasing censorship, threats, and financial constraints might soon force Ariana News to stop broadcasting altogether–leaving ATN a shell of its former self.
For them and many other Afghan journalists, the Taliban’s ongoing insistence that they support the media “within our cultural frameworks” rings particularly hollow.
Waliullah Rahmani is an Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists. From 2016 to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, he was founder and director of Khabarnama Media, one of the first digital media organizations in Afghanistan.