For many journalists, the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in 2021 signaled a return to censorship and repression.
The Taliban said they would support media rights but quickly issued directives that analysts say amount to prior censorship.
Restrictions on women’s movements resulted in large numbers of female journalists being forced to quit work, hundreds have gone into exile or seen their media outlets shutter, and at least three journalists are currently in prison.
More recently, the Taliban moved to block radio broadcasts from VOA and its sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Veteran broadcaster Shaista Sadat Lami joined VOA in the early 2000s. In an interview with VOA, Sadat Lami recalls how journalists led the way to a freer Afghanistan and describes the efforts to keep audiences informed since the Taliban returned to power.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: You started at VOA in radio and were among the first female journalists to go on TV in Afghanistan in Western clothing. How was that experience?
Sadat Lami: VOA management decided that it’s time for our Afghan service to have a TV show. … It was right after the fall of [the] Taliban. There were very few women on air. It was one of the topics we sat down and discussed. “What are we going to do? Nobody is without a scarf on air.”
[Our editors] asked, “Do you want to go with no scarf and Western clothes?”
My answer was simply “Yes.” Because this is how I am in my day-to-day life. This is how I do things, how I live. I don’t want to be somebody else when I’m in front of the audience. I want to be myself.
We were a little nervous, expecting a negative reaction. But we were surprised at so many positive reactions from people, especially women.
This was a big moment for Afghanistan, a moment of change from a dark era. People were deprived of information. And then progressing to (reporting on) human rights and women’s rights. It was just outstanding for us.
VOA: What were some topics you were able to discuss at that time that hadn’t been easy to discuss, at least during the Taliban era?
Sadat Lami: Pretty much the topics at that time that were challenging to cover are the same as now: religion, the status of women in Afghanistan, human rights and security.
The Taliban want to show the world that they are in control … but when you look at the situation in Afghanistan, it’s very fluid. People don’t know what will happen next because there have been so many attacks by Daesh [Islamic State militants] and so many different terrorist groups are active in Afghanistan right now.
Also, women have been through so much during the first era of [the] Taliban and now. You know, their future is very dark.
These are the topics that were being discussed then, and are still being discussed.
VOA: During the years of war, did any of you receive threats or backlash from the Taliban or others?
Sadat Lami: Only from the Taliban. But people were always happy. Songs are composed for our talents on air now. We have audio of callers talking about how great these programs are because of how they impact people’s lives.
[Once] a caller contacted us from a refugee camp and said, “This is a dire situation. We want the UNHCR to come and see what we need.”
The next day, we invited an official to our program and we opened the line. We were bombarded with phone calls, people saying what they need.
That’s an impact. We have this very special connection with our audience.
VOA: Let’s talk a little bit more about the press freedom situation. How was it at its peak and how has it changed?
Sadat Lami: With the arrival of [the] Taliban, Afghanistan lost its crowning achievement: press freedom.
Afghanistan was considered one of the best in the region, better than Iran, better than Russia, better than China. And we were very proud of this achievement.
Now, it’s gone.
Journalists are forced to self-censor or cease activities altogether because if they reveal the truth, they may be faced with some sort of consequence.
[When the Taliban blocked] our FM channels, their explanation was that we were violating the journalistic codes and regulations and rules.
But after 40 years of service, VOA’s Afghan audience, they trust us. And this trust made [the Taliban] fear for what we reveal—and that is the truth.
We didn’t want to follow their directives. We wanted to tell the truth.
During the ’80s listening to VOA was a crime. People still did it. It’s the same situation. Even if it is difficult for people to listen to us easily just by switching a button, they still try to find us.
They trust us and they want to hear us, and no matter what they will find us.
VOA: Tell me a little bit about the period around the time the Taliban took over in August 2021. What was the situation like for the team?
Sadat Lami: [At first] it was not difficult to get reports from the ground because we had all our stringers active within the country in different provinces. What was difficult was to know the situation. Even officials didn’t know what was going on. How long they would last, will the Taliban come or not. So, there were a lot of questions.
But right after the arrival of the Taliban, we were very afraid for our stringers on the ground. That was a very difficult time. Their safety was our No. 1 priority.
But [we also had] our commitment to our audience, our promise to provide news and information.
So … we told [our stringers] stay low, we don’t want you to be at risk. [From Washington] we got in touch with people on the ground, whoever we thought could provide information: “What is going on? What’s the situation today?” We had to work hard to fill in the gaps.
But it paid off, because now we see our colleagues safe here in the U.S.
VOA: VOA’s Afghan service and bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan won the USAGM David Burke Award for journalists who work in difficult environments. What does this mean to the team?
Sadat Lami: This is such a great achievement. It was long nights, phone calls, tears during these phone calls [to bring our staff to safety]. But we not only did our job, we did it well.
VOA: We know that press freedom around the world matters. Why would you say specifically in Afghanistan right now that it matters so much?
Sadat Lami: 4.2 million children are deprived of going to school — and in rural areas, in provinces like Kandahar, 85% of girls are not able to go to school. That’s a big reason.
A U.N. report says that 23 million people — which is more than half of the population of Afghanistan are faced with acute food insecurity. And during this dark winter that’s a huge reason for us to go forward and to continue our efforts.
Women are not able go and participate in social life and work. That’s a huge reason.
Nobody has a voice now. That’s a huge reason to be a voice for those voiceless people within Afghanistan.