Washington / islamabad - The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the Afghan Taliban's decision to ban FM transmissions of two U.S.-funded news media and urged an immediate resumption of their broadcasts.
The Islamist Taliban government's ban went into effect December 1. A day earlier, the Taliban's Ministry of Information and Culture said it had received complaints about programming content but shared no specifics.
In a statement, the press freedom watchdog called on the Taliban to "cease their intensifying crackdown" on media in Afghanistan.
"This latest crackdown on media clearly shows the Taliban is going back on their word about guaranteeing press freedom in Afghanistan," said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ Asia program director.
Despite ban, broadcasters still reach listeners
The ban on FM and medium-wave transmissions in the country came months after the Taliban stopped TV broadcasts by Voice of America, also known as VOA. The broadcasters still have shortwave and medium-wave transmissions from outside the country reaching Afghan listeners, as well as digital and satellite operations, but the in-country FM transmissions were considered critical for reaching large, local audiences.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a spokesperson for the Taliban foreign ministry, explained in written comments to VOA why the group is banning the broadcasters.
'VOA and Azadi Radio failed to adhere to these laws, were found as repeat offenders, failed to show professionalism and were therefore shut down,' Balkhi wrote.
VOA and RFE/RL routinely cover issues such as human rights, girls' education, press freedom, economic troubles, and the deep humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. They present a variety of views, including those critical of the Taliban.
In a written statement, VOA's Afghan Service Chief Hasib Alikozai rejected the allegations about the programming and said the agency had not received any complaints about the content.
"These are made-up reasons for taking our stations off the air. The truth is that we were effective in our reporting of issues, which local media outlets could not cover because of their fears of retribution by the Taliban,' Alikozai said.
The Biden administration has also condemned the Taliban's decision. In an interview with VOA, John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communication, said the Taliban's suppression of free media will hinder its goal of seeking legitimacy.
"We're going to continue to stand up ... for freedom of the press and for the right of citizens around the world to be able to access press and news information," Kirby said.
It has been almost 16 months since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, and no country has recognized their government.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West, who is traveling in Asia to discuss humanitarian support for the country, said Afghans need access to independent media.
VOA has said it will continue programming for Afghan audiences.
"Removing VOA from the domestic airwaves will not silence us. It will only increase the importance of serving the captive audience inside Afghanistan," wrote Acting Director Yolanda Lopez.
Leadership of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty - also known as RFE/RL - also rejected the Taliban's criticism and said the broadcaster will not change its editorial line to stay on air.
"We know from experience that our audiences make great efforts to find us. The truth cannot be completely suppressed," said RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly.
In March, the Taliban stopped VOA's Ashna TV news shows, which had been broadcast on Afghan National Television, Tolo, Tolo News and Lamar for a decade, VOA Pashto reported.
Many VOA programs are anchored by women. The Taliban have banned women from appearing on television without covering their faces.
Since the Taliban reclaimed power in August 2021, dozens of private television channels, radio stations and print media have ceased operation because of economic hardships and Taliban restrictions.
According to the press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 219 video, audio and print shops have closed in Afghanistan since the reestablishment of Taliban rule. Before then, 547 media outlets operated in the country, RSF said.