"The Taliban dictated the questions I had to ask them"

Afghan journalist explains fundamentalist coercion of the media

3 min
Journalist Mirwais Heidari Haqdoost with armed Taliban on TV set

BarcelonaMirwais Heidari Haqdoost is reluctant to talk on the phone. He feels more comfortable writing messages on WhatsApp. He does not want to expose himself even more. This weekend his image went around the world: he appeared in a programme of an Afghan television channel with seven men armed with Kalashnikovs behind him. They were watching him while he was doing an interview with a Taliban commander. Or rather, while he was pretending to do an interview. "Before I started, they dictated all the questions I had to ask", he explains via WhatsApp. They also told him how he should present the programme. Naturally Haqdoost didn't resist. On the contrary, he tried to act as professionally as possible. His life was at stake.

Haqdoost works for Afghanistan TV, a relatively new private channel. It is owned by Yunus Qanooni, a former mujahideen who took part in the war in the 1990s and was recycled as a politician with the arrival of international troops in Afghanistan. He said the Taliban surrounded the TV station's building in Kabul as soon as they occupied the capital and took all the station's vehicles. "When they tried to enter the building, the head of the TV station tried to stop them but they beat him up", he said. He said the group of Taliban who appeared on screen with Kalashnikovs were the third group to occupy the station.

Mirwais Heidari Haqdoost during the broadcast of the programme with the armed Taliban behind him.

"In the name of God, I welcome the audience of this morning show. The former president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has fled the country taking a lot of money with him and leaving the people abandoned. Instead, the mujahideen will now try to make life in the country peaceful and equal for everyone", Haqdoost began the show, looking into the camera and seemingly calm, despite having seven armed men at his back. The Taliban now call themselves "mujahideen," which means "freedom fighters", in the media.

"The Taliban say they will not retaliate against anyone and will create an inclusive government", the presenter added in Dari, one of Afghanistan's two official languages, before switching to Pashtun - the language spoken by the Taliban and the Taliban's ethnic population in Afghanistan - and firing the first (agreed) question at the radical commander sitting to his left: "Why have you been fighting for 20 years?"

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan salutes the Muslim audience and the Afghans who are proud of their country", the Taliban commander began, but not before pronouncing two verses from the Koran. "For twenty years America occupied our country, aggravated the situation and failed our people. That is why we have fought", he replied, reading the response from a piece of paper.

"Press freedom and the right to information have been one of the great successes of the past 20 years", says Najib Sharifi, head of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), who is prepared to speak out because he has already managed to flee Afghanistan and fears that everything that has been achieved so far will soon be ruined. The last two decades have seen a proliferation of television and radio stations in Afghanistan, including 24-hour news channels.

No women, no music

According to Sharifi, the Taliban tried to give an image of moderation during the first days after their arrival in Kabul. For example, they even agreed to allow a woman journalist to interview a Taliban commander on a TV station. Now, however, he says women journalists have disappeared from the media. The Taliban forbid them to work. "There is no music on TV or radio, and even some soap operas featuring women have been suppressed", he said. Journalists are obviously banned from criticising the Islamist movement and some of them have been assaulted while out on the streets looking for information.

Sharifi said he left Afghanistan because if he had stayed, the Taliban would have killed him. In an interview Haqdoost gave this week to Afghanistan International after appearing on screen with the armed Taliban, he said with conviction that he is staying in Afghanistan because he is committed to information and freedom of the press. On the other hand, via WhastApp, he says something else: "I have to leave this country. Can you help me?"