Yesterday, the Taliban held a press conference in Kabul. While many of the journalists who cover Afghanistan were familiar with the official who led the briefing—Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s top spokesperson—they had never before seen him in the flesh. Sharif Hassan, a New York Times reporter in Kabul, noted that, for over a decade, Mujahid has been “more responsive and active” than the entire press team of Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, who just fled the country. “I have spoken with him and texted him a lot,” Hassan said, of Mujahid. “But this is the first time I am seeing his face.” Not that we should necessarily talk in the singular here. Reporters have long speculated that “Zabihullah Mujahid” is a pseudonym used by a group of Taliban representatives; some felt that the man on stage in Kabul looked suspiciously young for a longstanding fixture of the Taliban leadership. “We are all accepting this is THE Zabihullah Mujahid,” Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, said. “Maybe he isn’t?”
At the press conference, the Taliban sought to present a new face to the world, metaphorically as well as literally, even if caveats and uncertainties abounded. Mujahid insisted that the new government intends to respect women’s rights (within the framework of “Islamic laws”), allow for freedom of the press (within the framework of “Islamic values” and “national unity”), and forgive those who worked with international forces and the prior government. In one exchange that went viral online, a reporter raised freedom of speech, and Mujahid replied that they should ask their question of Facebook (which had earlier confirmed that the Taliban will remain banned across its platforms). “LOL,” Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted. “Also not wrong.” Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, tweeted that “the Taliban spokesperson has taken more questions from US media in recent days than the President of the United States.” Other international observers described the presser as “savvy.” Major Western news outlets carried Mujahid’s assurances in banner headlines (which struck some critics as credulous). The Associated Press situated the briefing within the Taliban’s broader push to “reassure world powers and a fearful population.” Politico Playbook declared: “The Taliban PR blitz begins.”
In fact, the Taliban PR blitz began a long time ago. “The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement,” an International Crisis Group report concluded, in 2008. “Using the full range of media, it is successfully tapping into strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers.” The Taliban’s propaganda tools have included pamphlets, cassette tapes, sermons in mosques, and DVDs; as time passed (and in spite of its reputation for Luddism), the group honed its digital output—updating a website with statements in various languages, posting tweets from the battlefield, and using social media as a recruitment tool, not just in Afghanistan but in the wider region, too. (It even tried to launch an Android app, but Google refused to host it.) As far back as 2010, the Taliban was using its messaging to portray itself as a government in waiting, including by making reassuring noises about women’s rights, while undermining the US-backed administration. “There is such a thing as a good story, not in the moral sense, but in the sense that a story grips you and pulls you along, that it has a dramatic climax, that it paints good and evil in clear terms, that it satisfies some deep craving in the listener,” Vanessa M. Gezari wrote for CJR, in 2011. “The Taliban know how to tell a good story.” (The story grew so strong that the US eventually created a psyops unit to counter it.)
The Taliban’s media footprint has only grown since last year, when the Trump administration struck a withdrawal agreement with the group. Experts told the Times that the deal helped legitimize the Taliban on the international stage—the same paper even published a conciliatory op-ed by its deputy leader—even though, in reality, the group was speaking from both sides of its mouth, emphasizing peace in some of its communications and militarism in others. During peace talks in Doha, Qatar, a Taliban negotiator visited the hotel room of a Times correspondent to talk, and share cookies and dried fruit. The Taliban also granted access to women journalists in Doha, including some from Afghanistan. Yesterday, Beheshta Arghand, a female anchor on TOLOnews, in Kabul, interviewed a Taliban official on air. Women journalists—from both domestic and international media—were also allowed to ask questions at Mujahid’s briefing.
The reality of the Taliban, of course, belies this softening of the group’s media presentation. As NBC’s Richard Engel has noted, the group has so far been relatively tolerant of international journalists in Kabul because it has a victorious story to tell; it also wants to avoid, to the extent possible, international pariah status as it sets up a government. But the group’s repressive tactics are already amply on display. Female journalists may be allowed on TOLOnews for now, but the Taliban already suspended women who work for Afghanistan’s state media. “The Taliban is the Taliban,” Khadija Amin, one of the journalists affected, said yesterday. “They have not changed.” As I’ve written recently, the group brutally laid waste to press freedom as it advanced across Afghanistan during the early stages of the US pullout. The Taliban may be “telling the world what it wants to hear,” but “outside Kabul, the situation is starkly different,” Frud Bezhan, who covers Afghanistan for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, wrote yesterday. “When the world’s focus shifts, that’s when Afghans will see the real Taliban— the one committing rights abuses and rolling back freedoms in cities/provinces outside Kabul.”
This is not to say that the Taliban is a monolith—the group’s orientation is more complicated than Western media coverage often portrays, and different leaders and factions have different priorities. There is legitimate uncertainty as to just how repressive the new Taliban regime intends to be, and there’s room for nuanced reporting that teases that out. But the question, ultimately, is one of shades of terrible, no matter what the Taliban’s spinners might say. As the BBC’s Yalda Hakim put it yesterday, creating mystery around the character of Mujahid then presenting a face, and moderate voice, to the press was doubtless part of the Taliban’s script—and yet she found it “hard to reconcile” yesterday’s rhetoric with the “bloodthirsty” texts she’s received in Mujahid’s name in the past. At yesterday’s briefing, Mujahid sat in a seat occupied, until recently, by Dawa Khan Menapal, the head of press relations for the fallen government. Two weeks ago, Taliban fighters assassinated Menapal; Mujahid himself confirmed the killing. A journalist pointed out to Mujahid that he was in Menapal’s seat. Mujahid responded that the previous government had started the fighting.
“The real takeaway from the Taliban presser was the courage of Afghan journalists,” Yogita Limaye, also of the BBC, observed afterward—“asking tough, direct questions of a group known to target people from the profession, rebutting when answers were evasive, asking more pointed questions when answers were vague.” Unlike Mujahid, the Afghan reporters standing up to ask tough questions won’t have the luxury of obscuring their identity when it suits them to do so.
Below, more on Afghanistan:
- Unusual outreach?: Recently, Suhail Shaheen, another Taliban spokesperson, called the BBC’s Hakim while she was live on air and proceeded to give an impromptu interview. Yesterday, Shaheen spoke on air with Roi Kais of Kan News, an Israeli channel. Observers stressed that it was remarkable for the Taliban to have engaged with Israeli media—but Shaheen later claimed that he didn’t know he was doing so. Kais identified Kan News, but did not mention the channel’s location; Shaheen insisted in the interview that the Taliban would not harm minorities, including the last known Jewish person to be living in Afghanistan.
- Taliban bans: After Facebook revealed that it would continue to ban accounts representing, or sympathizing with, the Taliban across its platforms, on the grounds that the group is “sanctioned as a terrorist organization under US law,” other social-media companies moved to clarify their stances on the group. Twitter said only that it would “remain vigilant” in policing violent content on the platform. YouTube suggested that the Taliban is not banned on its platform, but later said that it would “terminate” accounts linked to the group, also citing US sanctions.
- Getting out: Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that an American reporter and a dozen or so of the paper’s Afghan staffers and family members were evacuated from the country on a US military flight. Dozens more journalists who worked for major US news organizations appear still to be stranded at Kabul’s airport, however, while countless others haven’t even made it that far. Writing for the New Yorker, David Rohde details how he has tried, and so far failed, to help the family of Tahir Luddin—a US-based Afghan journalist who helped Rohde escape from Taliban captivity, in 2009—themselves escape from Afghanistan now. Luddin’s wife “assumed that I could save their lives, just as Tahir had saved mine,” Rohde writes. “The uncomfortable truth was that, despite three months of effort, I had made no progress.”
- “Accountability”: For Rest of World, Hajira Maryam spoke with Sara Wahedi, who founded an app called Ehtesab (which means “accountability” in Dari and Pashto) to provide users with updates on the security situation in Kabul. “Despite the company’s single-minded focus on security, the Ehtesab team was caught off-guard by the sudden collapse of the Afghan government,” Maryam writes. “Wahedi said her Kabul-based team is working around the clock monitoring and providing security updates across the city. But the nature of their service also makes it a target for any sort of crackdown.”
Other notable stories:
- In a cover essay for Harper’s, Joe Bernstein critiques the ways in which the press, among other institutions, thinks about disinformation. “Is social media creating new types of people, or simply revealing long-obscured types of people to a segment of the public unaccustomed to seeing them? The latter possibility has embarrassing implications for the media and academia alike,” Bernstein writes. “An even more vexing issue for the disinformation field, though, is the supposedly objective stance media researchers and journalists take toward the information ecosystem to which they themselves belong… That the most prestigious liberal institutions of the pre-digital age are the most invested in fighting disinformation reveals a lot about what they stand to lose, or hope to regain.”
- CNN’s Kerry Flynn spoke with women and people of color who have recently been appointed to lead major newsrooms—part of a diversification effort at the top levels of the news business that hasn’t always penetrated further down. “Diversity doesn’t stop with, like, Obama becomes president and somehow everyone is like, ‘Racism is over,’” Danielle Belton, the editor in chief of HuffPost, said. “If you don’t fill in the reporter roles, the social editors, people who work in sales and audience, and all these other different roles within the news organization… you don’t actually have a diverse newsroom.”
- For Popula, Kate Harloe convened a roundtable with Osita Nwanevu, of the New Republic; Victor Pickard, of the University of Pennsylvania; and Mike Rispoli, of Free Press, to discuss whether the “journalism crisis” is really a crisis of capitalism. “Premises about the extent to which markets make sense and work all the time are now collapsing,” Nwanevu said—enabling a more ambitious conversation around public funding for news.
- Members of the NewsGuild of New York voted overwhelmingly for a dues increase—the first in the union’s history. “This referendum was about more than just our finances,” Susan DeCarava, the guild’s president, said. “It was about our vision for building a fighting, member-led union.” As Bloomberg has reported, some prominent journalists at the Times opposed the increase, after taking issue with the guild’s budgeting practices.
- Ariana Pekary, CJR’s public editor for CNN, details a “stark divide” in how the network’s daytime and primetime programs covered a major recent climate report from the United Nations. Daytime anchors discussed the report when it was published, but “the coverage dropped off” as nighttime hosts, who tend to be more opinionated, took over. “During primetime, nearly every show led with the same topic: CNN’s foil-du-jour, Ron DeSantis.”
- Poppy Harlow, a weekday anchor on CNN, is taking a break to enrol in a yearlong program at Yale Law School—a move inspired, in part, by her coverage of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Harlow will appear on air occasionally before returning full-time in the spring. In other media-jobs news, Sharon Houston is retiring as president of NBC News Channel. And Michael Moore now has a Substack, because of course he does.
- The Daily Tar Heel, a newspaper at the University of North Carolina, reports that Susan King, the dean of the university’s journalism school, will soon step down after nearly a decade in post. Recently, King tried to add Nikole Hannah-Jones, of the New York Times Magazine, to the school’s faculty, but UNC’s board of trustees stalled on granting tenure, under political pressure. Hannah-Jones ultimately joined Howard University instead.
- RTHK, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, announced that it will air programming from Chinese state media in the name of promoting “patriotism.” China has recently tightened its grip on Hong Kong’s media, and RTHK has not been immune, despite its stated editorial independence. Ronson Chan, who chairs the Hong Kong Journalists Association, told Voice of America that RTHK has become “a government department.”
- And last week, a gunman in Plymouth, England, killed five people. It was Britain’s first mass shooting since 2010. Plymouth is my hometown, and it was surreal for me to see the gun-coverage debates I’ve written about so often in this newsletter play out in such a different context, so close to home. Many national news outlets splashed pictures of the gunman, but the local Plymouth Herald chose not to do so, instead centering the victims, one of whom was related to a Herald journalist; staffers at the paper also criticized what they saw as intrusive reporting practices on the part of national journalists, and promised to give residents “space to grieve” before trying to interview them. Edd Moore, a local editor, spoke about his approach with Press Gazette’s Charlotte Tobitt. It’s worth a read.