Taliban guards are seen in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on February 5, 2023. The Taliban recently restricted access to the U.S. Congress-funded broadcasters RFE/RL and VOA. (Shafiullah Kakar/AFP)

Access to VOA and RFE/RL websites restricted in Afghanistan

New York, February 13, 2023 – Taliban officials must cease censoring news outlets in Afghanistan and restore unfettered access to the websites of the U.S.-Congress funded broadcasters Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

The websites of both outlets are inaccessible on three of Afghanistan’s privately owned telecommunications providers—Afghan Wireless, Roshan, and Etisalat Afghanistan—but remain accessible to users of the state-owned telecom company Salam, according to a report by VOA, a statement by RFE/RL, and two journalists inside the country who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.

That VOA report, published February 9, said users in different Afghan provinces had experienced issues accessing the websites for at least two weeks. The Taliban’s Ministry of Information and Culture previously banned VOA and RFE/RL’s radio transmissions on December 1, 2022.

“The restrictions on access to VOA and RFE/RL’s websites inside Afghanistan reflect an escalated attack on press freedom and the Afghan people’s right to information,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The Taliban must lift all restrictions on access to online news media inside Afghanistan and cease their relentless campaign of media censorship.”

The broadcasters’ websites remain accessible to those using virtual private networking software, according to the journalists who spoke with CPJ.

That VOA article cited a source at one of the telecommunication providers saying that the company had received a direct order from the Taliban.  

The Taliban-controlled Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority directed telecommunication providers to block access to the website of Radio Azadi, the Afghan branch of RFE/RL, on orders by Taliban officials, Radio Azadi head Qadir Habib told Amu TV, citing sources within the regulator.

CPJ emailed the regulator and contacted Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid for comment via messaging app, but did not receive any replies.

In August, CPJ published a special report about the media crisis in Afghanistan, showing a rapid deterioration in press freedom since the Taliban took control of the country in August 2021, marked by censorship, arrests, assaults, and restrictions on women journalists.