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Afghanistan: Taliban tolerate free speech, however solely by some ‘massive fish’


For the two decades of Western intervention in Afghanistan, during which freedom of speech blossomed, the Taliban waged an insurgency whose tactics included bombing media outlets and assassinating journalists.

Yet after their return to power, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen declared, “We believe in freedom of speech.” Indeed, senior Taliban officials have since submitted to being grilled on TV by some of the journalists they once sought to kill.

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban returned to power professing a belief in freedom of speech. But in practice, they are silencing critics in keeping with their approach to imposing control over Afghan society.

But the example of Naveed Jan, who was killed after social media posts that were modestly critical of the Taliban, illustrates the risks of criticizing the new order in Afghanistan. The Taliban are showing a fierce determination to snuff out dissent. Those Afghans wanting to freely express critical views have been subjected to months of intimidation and fear. Analysts say that’s in keeping with the Taliban’s approach to imposing control over society.

“The problem, when it comes to criticism, is the Taliban don’t go for the big fish; they go for the small fish,” says Rahmatullah Amiri, a Kabul-based expert. “They are very systematically targeting those small fish to close the chapter on freedom of speech. The Taliban belief is always that … if you don’t control community from the grassroots, you won’t be able to control it at the national level.”

LONDON

For the Taliban, apparently, Naveed Jan had proved himself too dangerous to be allowed to live.

Despite limiting himself to modestly critical social media posts after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, the civil society activist was hauled away by the Taliban in late November.

Mr. Jan was never to be seen alive again by his family, who have posted photos of his body online and mourn him as a “martyr of free speech.”

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban returned to power professing a belief in freedom of speech. But in practice, they are silencing critics in keeping with their approach to imposing control over Afghan society.

For the two decades of U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, during which freedom of speech blossomed, the Taliban waged an insurgency whose tactics included bombing media outlets and an assassination campaign that targeted civil society activists and journalists.

Yet in August, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen declared, “We believe in freedom of speech.” Indeed, since taking control, senior Taliban officials have submitted to being grilled on nationwide television channels by some of the journalists they once sought to kill.

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