Reflections on Covering Afghanistan

The Life of a Journalist under Taliban Rule

By Khojasta Sameyee

I started working as a journalist in 2014 when my family launched a radio station, where I produced radio programs aimed at empowering women. Four years later, I established a women-led newspaper. A team of seven, we wanted to tell the varied stories of women living in Afghanistan. 

Working as a journalist in my country wasn’t easy. We faced security threats, gender discrimination, and lack of cooperation from government officials. But, despite all of these challenges, we succeeded in building a strong team within just a couple of years – we had active social media channels, a dynamic website and we produced our own video reports. 

Before August 2021, we had everything: Freedom of speech, independent media, and a newly-grown democracy. Schools and universities were open for both boys and girls. Women were working in different fields and had their own, fledgling rights. Alongside running my newspaper, I planned to celebrate the publishing of a book I wrote with my brother called, “The Mountains Have Witnessed”. I was also going to complete my MBA.

This dream didn’t last long. It disappeared with the Taliban, when I lost my country and everything I had. 

The day the Taliban took over Kabul, it was a sunny Sunday. I was at home, busy with my university assignments. At around 11:00 am, I started getting calls from my newspaper colleagues. They said that the Taliban had entered Kabul. At first, I didn’t believe them. But then I received texts from my classmates, and phone calls from my brother and father: They were all in shock and said that people were trying to flee. Taliban vehicles with white flags had entered the city, and national army forces were leaving their Humvees in the streets and changing out of their military outfits into civilian clothes. 

I started to cry. I knew that everything we had worked for was over.

For almost two weeks, I didn’t leave home. I was scared of the new restrictions the Taliban had imposed on women, especially active women who had a role in the development of society. But eventually I had to go out. I needed to close the newspaper’s office because the Taliban were conducting door-to-door inspections. I called a few colleagues and, disguised, we went to the office to collect our equipment. Alongside shuttering the office, I had to delete our website and social media accounts to protect the female journalists. I also burned most of the documents and awards I received during my career. 

We were all sad, frustrated and hopeless. We didn’t know what the future held; where fate would take us. 

I stayed in Afghanistan for three months under Taliban rule. During that period, many female journalists, activists and protesters were tortured, arrested and killed.

Alia Azizi, Head of Herat Women’s Prison and a member of the ethnic Hazara minority, never returned home after heading to work on October 2, 2021. Despite her family’s repeated requests for the Taliban to examine the case, her disappearance remains shrouded in mystery. 

Hanifa Nazari, another civil activist, and critic of the Taliban regime, was shot in the forehead near her home. 

Frozan Safi, a social activist, and three of her colleagues were assassinated by the Taliban in Balkh.

Freedom of expression was one of the most significant achievements of the past two decades of democracy in Afghanistan. According to Reporters without Borders some 40% of Afghanistan’s media has closed since the Taliban took over – 80% of women journalists have lost their jobs. 

In late November, 2021, my family and I left Kabul for Qatar, where we stayed for nearly a month. After that, we headed to the United States where, finally, we started a new life in one of the cities of Virginia. 

I started work as an interpreter, and recently received a fellowship from the International Women Media Foundation (IWMF). Soon, I hope to re-open my newsroom in the United States to serve Afghan people who don't have ready access to accurate information. As I reflect on my new life, and the situation back at home, I am convinced of the importance of ongoing commitment from western organizations. There are deadly consequences for journalists based in Afghanistan who defy the Taliban. By supporting Afghan journalists working abroad, western newsrooms can help counteract the spread of the Taliban’s lies, and uphold the values of truth and free speech.