In spite of Taliban promises of a “free and independent” media, journalists and media workers have faced detention, physical abuse and torture since the group took over Afghanistan six weeks ago.
Now a new set of media regulations issued earlier this week by the Taliban has journalists and rights workers worrying that the group is moving towards outright censorship of the media – reviving memories of its repressive rule in the 1990s.
The 11 directives include a requirement that: “Media outlets will prepare detailed reports in coordination with the Government Media and Information Center (GMIC),” which is currently headed by Mohammad Yusuf Ahmadi, a former spokesman for the group during their 20-year rebellion against the US occupation.
The media did face challenges under previous Afghan administrations, including the government of former President Ashraf Ghani, which often came under criticism for its lack of transparency and hostile attitudes towards the media.
Despite these difficulties, though, Afghanistan had the distinction of having a higher press freedom rating than Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
But since the takeover, journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to operate under the Taliban’s so-called “Islamic Emirate”.
Sami Mahdi, a well-known television journalist who recently published a report on the state of the media under Taliban rule, says the group has been sending very clear signs about its attitude towards the media since their August 15 takeover.
“From the day the Taliban took over Kabul, the media has been facing a lot of pressure and violence from the Taliban side … Just for doing their daily job,” Mahdi said, referring to recent reports of violence and intimidation against covering demonstrations and interviewing daily labourers.
Mahdi said this reliance on force and aggression, “sends a clear message to the media, that they should become the Taliban’s mouthpieces,” if they want to survive.
More than 150 media outlets have already closed due to fear of increased intimidation from the Taliban and a lack of funding since international governments cut off assistance to Afghanistan in the wake of the fall of Kabul.
To Afghan journalists, the new guidelines are the first direct sign of the Taliban trying to muzzle the nation’s once-thriving media.
Sherin, a female journalist who fled to Europe after experiencing firsthand hostility from the Taliban, says, the rules are another example of the group’s leadership saying one thing and their forces on the ground acting another way.
“They make these beautiful, flowery pronouncements, but then their men act with physical violence and abuse,” said Sherin, who asked to be given a pseudonym for fear of retribution against her family still in Afghanistan.
On August 17, two days after taking power, the now-Deputy minister of information and culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, said, “Private media can continue to be free and independent, they can continue their activities.”
Eight days later, reports of a news team – a journalist and cameraman for TOLO TV, the nation’s largest private broadcaster – being beaten and had their phones and cameras confiscated by armed Taliban began to circulate.
Particularly concerning for media workers are the vague, cryptic wording of the 11 points.
Sherin and Mahdi both pointed to the first rule, which states, “stories contradictory to Islam” should not be published or broadcast. Though former Afghan governments had similar regulations in their media laws, the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam leaves both journalists with questions and concerns.
“What is contrary to Islam and what is not is a big topic of debate,” says Mahdi.
‘No respect for ordinary citizens’
He fears that the Taliban’s lack of clarity in the 11 points will be used to cast a wide net when the group wants to come after the media. “This leaves a lot of space for personal interpretation. They will use it to limit freedom of expression,” Mahdi said.
Sherin, who works mainly as a video and photojournalist, is concerned about how these parameters will affect her ability to choose her sources, especially women. Even under the former government, women would often be criticised for something as simple as their attire, but now she wonders if the Taliban’s constant references to women’s clothing will affect who is heard and who is seen.
“If I take a photo or video of a woman who is not wearing what the Taliban considers to be proper and Islamic, is her entire opinion discounted, am I still allowed to publish her thoughts?”
Sherin was also disturbed by one of the regulations, which says journalists “should not insult national figures”.
As someone who has witnessed firsthand the Taliban’s abuse of people on the streets of Kabul, Sherin says this directive shows the “clear separations” the Taliban has created in Afghan society. “The people that they disrespect themselves by beating and abusing on the streets. What about them? Who are they?” she asked.
She said this rule, when paired with their actions towards the general populace, makes it clear that “they have no respect for ordinary citizens” and that they “can be abused and mocked” while high-profile figures, including the Taliban leadership, should be afforded an extra level of dignity and respect.
Sources speaking to Al Jazeera also pointed out the fact that the Taliban themselves have already engaged in what could be considered insulting behaviour.
Last month, a Taliban commander received widespread online condemnation after he went on live television and called the people of Panjshir, the province home to the nation’s sole armed resistance against Taliban rule, “nonbelievers.”
Likewise, the group has been accused of defacing roundabouts dedicated to former Mujahideen leaders Ahmad Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq in Kabul. All of these instances have been seen as signs of disrespect by many people in Afghanistan, which seems to go against the Taliban’s own regulations.
Mahdi was also disturbed by the two final regulations, which refer to media outlets “preparing detailed reports” in coordination with the Government Media and Information Center and that the body has “designed a specific form to make it easier for media outlets and journalists to prepare their reports in accordance with the regulations”.
In the past, the GMIC was mainly used as a strategic centre where government spokespeople could come to hold press conferences and much less of a clearinghouse for the government’s interaction with the media.
“Why should the media prepare detailed reports in coordination with a government body?” said Mahdi, who was the host of some of the nation’s most-watched chat and debate shows.
He fears that all of this reliance on the GMIC will be used as a “very obvious and very clear way of censorship and influencing media content.”
Another Afghan journalist, now in Turkey, agrees with Mahdi’s assessment, saying the new rules make it “quite obvious that Taliban want the media to only publish their propaganda”.
He said the regulations will likely keep any remaining journalists in the country from reporting on political issues in fear of angering the Taliban. Already, journalists have lamented that their travels across the country now have to receive approval from the Taliban, who often accompany the reporters in their reporting trips under the guise of security.
One former government official, now in Europe, said the new parameters reminded him of, “the kinds of restrictions they have in Iran. It’s clear now, that the Taliban want that kind of system in Afghanistan”.
Steven Butler, the Asia programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, says he too is most worried about the implications of journalists having to cooperate with the Taliban government as part of their work and that while the other provisions are unwelcome but could possibly be subject to more lenient interpretations, that seems “unlikely.”
The points about coordination with the Taliban-run government, including a form to assure compliance, “suggest that the government expects journalists to be producing news stories in concert with the Taliban”, Butler said.
“These regulations are so broad and sweeping that the media are unlikely to know what is allowed and will therefore say very little at all – which is the entire point,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“These rules would effectively sound the death knell for Afghan media.”
For Sherin, the new constraints, along with stories from her colleagues still in the country, have solidified her decision to stay in Europe.
“It’s become clear that it is not realistic for me to return to work in that kind of situation.”
Western News – Expert insights: Why social media companies need to be reined in – Western News
In September, the Wall Street Journal released the Facebook Files. Drawing on thousands of documents leaked by whistle blower and former employee Frances Haugen, the Facebook Files show that the company knows their practices harm young people, but fails to act, choosing corporate profit over public good.
The Facebook Files are damning for the company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp. However, it isn’t the only social media company that compromises young people’s internationally protected rights and well-being by prioritizing profits.
Harvested personal data
Harvesting and commodifying personal data (including children’s data) underpins the internet financial model — a model that social psychologist and philosopher Shoshana Zuboff has dubbed surveillance capitalism .
Social media companies make money under this model by collecting, analyzing and selling the personal information of users. To increase the flow of this valuable data they work to engage more people, for more time, through more interactions.
Ultimately, the value in harvested personal data lies in the detailed personal profiles the data supports — profiles that are used to feed the algorithms that shape our newsfeeds, personalize our search results, help us get a job (or hinder) and determine the advertisements we receive.
In a self-reinforcing turn, these same data are used to shape our online environments to encourage disclosure of even more data — and the process repeats.
Recent research confirms that the deliberate design, algorithmic and policy choices made by social media companies (that lie at the heart of surveillance capitalism) directly expose young people to harmful content. However, the harms of surveillance capitalism extend well beyond this.
Our research in both Canada and the United Kingdom has repeatedly uncovered young people’s concern with how social media companies and policy-makers are failing them. Rather than respecting young people’s rights to expression, to be free from discrimination and to participate in decisions affecting themselves, social media companies monitor young people to bombard them with unsolicited content in service of corporate profits.
As a result, young people have often reported to us that they feel pressured to conform to stereotypical profiles used to steer their behaviour and shape their environment for profit.
For example, teen girls have told us that even though using Instagram and Snapchat created anxiety and insecurity about their bodies, they found it almost impossible to “switch off” the platforms. They also told us how the limited protection provided by default privacy settings leaves them vulnerable to unwanted “dick pics” and requests to send intimate images to men they don’t know.
The surveillance capitalism financial model that underlies social media ensures that companies do everything they can to keep young people engaged.
Young people have told us that they want more freedom and control when using these spaces — so they are as public or private as they like, without fear of being monitored or profiled, or that their data are being farmed out to corporations.
Teenagers also told us how they rarely bother to report harmful content to the platforms. This isn’t because they don’t know how, but instead because they have learned from experience that it doesn’t help. Some platforms were too slow to respond, others didn’t respond at all and some said that what was reported didn’t breach community standards, so they weren’t willing to help.
Removing toxic content hurts the bottom line
These responses aren’t surprising. For years, we have known about the lack of resources to moderate content and deal with online harassment.
Haugen’s recent testimony at a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing and earlier reports about other social media platforms highlight an even deeper profit motivation. Profit depends on meaningful social engagement, and harmful, toxic and divisive content drives engagement.
Basically, removing toxic content would hurt the corporate bottom line.
Guiding principles that centre children’s rights
So, what should be done in light of the recent, though not unprecedented, revelations in the Facebook Files? The issues are undoubtedly complex, but we have come up with a list of guiding principles that centre children’s rights and prioritize what young people have told us about what they need:
- Young people must be directly engaged in the development of relevant policy.
- All related policy initiatives should be evaluated on an ongoing basis using a children’s rights assessment framework.
- Social media companies should be stopped from launching products for children and from collecting their data for profiling purposes.
- Governments should invest more resources into providing fast, free, easy-to-access informal responses and support for those targeted by online harms (learning from existing models like Australia’s eSafety Commissioner and Nova Scotia’s CyberScan unit).
- We need laws that ensure that social media companies are both transparent and accountable, especially when it comes to content moderation.
- Government agencies (including police) should enforce existing laws against hateful, sexually violent and harassing content. Thought should be given to expanding platform liability for provoking and perpetuating these kinds of content.
- Educational initiatives should prioritize familiarizing young people, the adults who support them and corporations with children’s rights, rather than focusing on a “safety” discourse that makes young people responsible for their own protection. This way, we can work together to disrupt the surveillance capitalism model that endangers them in the first place.
Kaitlynn Mendes, Professor of Gender, Media and Sociology, Western University; Jacquelyn Burkell, Associate Professor, Information and Media Studies, Western University; Jane Bailey, Professor of Law and Co-Leader of The eQuality Project, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa, and Valerie Steeves, Full Professor, Department of Criminology, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa
Trump Plans to Regain Social Media Presence With New Company – Bloomberg
The former president’s new enterprise will be in operation by the first quarter of 2022, according to a press release from the Trump Media and Technology Group. It says it plans to start a social media company called Truth Social. The moves, if all goes according to plan, would occur well ahead of the 2022 mid-term elections.
Protesters denounce Netflix over Chappelle transgender comments
About 100 people protested near Netflix Inc’s headquarters on Wednesday against the streaming pioneer’s decision to release comedian Dave Chappelle’s new special, which they say ridicules transgender people.
Netflix staff members, transgender rights advocates and public officials gathered on a sidewalk outside a Netflix office blocks away from the company’s main 13-story Sunset Boulevard building in Los Angeles.
Demonstrators held signs proclaiming, “Trans Lives Matter” and “Team Trans” and chanted slogans like “What do we want? Accountability,” “When do we want it? Now.”
Netflix staff were outnumbered by members of the public, but the precise number was not clear. Netflix employees had called for a walkout.
Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos acknowledged in interviews before the walkout, “I screwed up” in how he spoke to Netflix’s staff about Chappelle’s special, “The Closer.”
Sarandos previously defended the decision to air the show, saying Chappelle’s language did not cross the line into inciting violence. Netflix posted record subscriber numbers on Tuesday,
“While we appreciate the acknowledgement of the screw-up, in his own words, we want to actually talk about what that repair looks like,” said Ashlee Marie Preston, a transgender activist who came out in support of the Netflix employees.
Joey Soloway, creator of “Transparent,” a now-ended streaming series on rival Amazon that had a transgender character, talked about the line that separates edgy jokes and harmful speech.
“People say to me, as a comedian, where’s the line?” said Soloway. “The line is anything that makes it worse.”
Not everyone supported that message. “…The idea that a small, angry mob can shape entertainment and silence people’s speech is terrifying,” said counterprotester Dick Masterson.
While employee protests against corporate policies have become common in Silicon Valley, this is believed to be the first such action at the pioneer streaming video company.
The controversy over “The Closer” is playing out against the backdrop of a company-wide diversity effort that began in 2018, after Netflix’s former head of communications was fired for using a racial epithet in company meetings.
“It doesn’t feel good to have been working at the company that put that out there,” Netflix software engineer Terra Field wrote in a Medium post, referring to “The Closer.” “Especially when we’ve spent years building out the company’s policies and benefits so that it would be a great place for trans people to work.”
(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles; editing by Kenneth Li and Cynthia Osterman)
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