The Gap between Official and Unofficial News in the Emirate System

By: Samad Payenda

Governments make great efforts to present an official image of governance, livelihood, work, and life in the society under their control. Those who seek the people’s vote and run the government for a certain period, and operate in a system that is not based on personal preference, take various actions and form a cabinet and an administration to present a situation which meets the minimum needs of the society and have enough evidence for the day of answering and returning to the ballot boxes. Through state media and government-affiliated advertising networks, they emphasize their achievements more than they actually are while concealing their faults and problems. However, in those societies, power and media are not solely and exclusively in the hands of the government, but opposition parties, institutions, and people not affiliated with the government are able to some extent to express their opinions about ongoing events, criticize the government, and challenge its propaganda.

In societies where the government is not formed by the will of the people, and a group takes power by force and deceit or in collusion with outsiders, the rulers expend large amounts of money to manipulate the populace and stifle the unofficial media and those who provide uncensored information to the people. As a result, the voice of the people is silenced, and in the areas where the rulers can reach, the dissemination of any “unofficial” information is prohibited. Over the past two years, the Taliban have not hesitated to use oppression to suppress the media, attempting to coerce the media with torture, imprisonment, and threats to be silenced, compliant, or leave the country. Unlike the first round of Taliban rule, it is not possible to close all news outlets now. Therefore, we can still have both official and unofficial reports from Afghanistan under the control of that group that goes against the will of the Taliban. The media in exile can still reflect the realities of people’s lives, however, this possibility is becoming more limited every day because, on the one hand, repression and censorship are becoming more pervasive, and on the other hand, the connection of the exiled media with the Afghan environment is becoming weaker. Social networks and virtual contact, which are accessible all over Afghanistan, are the sole hope for critical media to resist the pressure of Taliban censors.

Access to free media is as essential as access to bread and water, as the dissemination of false and biased information can have a detrimental effect on people’s emotions and mental health, leading to distorted perceptions and dangerous delusions in the long term. To illustrate this, we will examine some of the news stories that have been published by the Taliban and non-Taliban sources in Afghanistan recently, to explore how the ruling party has suppressed news that contradicts the official narrative, and how they have created a false impression of the current state of affairs in the country.

On June 4, 2023, the top five news stories on the Farsi page of the Taliban-run Bakhtar News Agency included the public’s cooperation in the fight against plastic in Baghlan Province, the journey of pilgrims from the southwest region to Saudi Arabia, the granting of coal mining licenses to fourteen individuals in Baghlan, the beautification of an intersection in Kabul, 238 million Afghanis income from the last two weeks in Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), and Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi’s promise to two Samangani mullahs to construct a madrasa and a clinic.

On that page, there was no news regarding the ongoing closure of girls’ schools, the prevalence of hunger, suicides, immigration, prisoners, and broken families; however, Afghanistan was portrayed as a normal country where “Emirate” officials were occupied with beautifying roads, collecting revenues, extracting mines, and constructing schools and health clinics. To comprehend the propagandistic nature of these pieces of news, one must first analyze the content of the aforementioned news and determine if there is a concealed agenda behind them. Subsequently, one must compare the news published from non-Taliban sources to this news.

The news reported that Taliban Administrative Deputy Prime Minister Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi had met with a number of Samangani scholars, during which he expressed his desire to establish schools and health centers in remote areas of the country at a convenient time. The accompanying photograph of the meeting showed three mullahs sitting and drinking tea, with one wearing a long beard, white turban, white traditional attire, and a dark vest sitting behind the table, and two individuals wearing similar outfits sitting in front of him. This similarity in clothing, turban, beard, and vest was not coincidental; Hanafi was in fact meeting with two people who looked like him, although the news was written as a “meeting with a number of scholars”. It was further reported that the two mullahs described the situation in Samangan Province to Hanafi as satisfactory, but complained that the “previous government” had not paid attention to schools and health clinics in remote areas. It appears that the two Samangani mullahs had come to Hanafi to ask for the construction of a local madrasa and a clinic in their village, in order to benefit from the official budget. In reality, the news was about a conversation between three mullahs regarding a school and a clinic in a village.

The two mullahs who expressed satisfaction with the situation cannot be seen as representative of the people of their village, as non-Taliban official news published by aid sources and active institutions in Afghanistan speaks of hunger, lack of education, and unprecedented unemployment among the people of Afghanistan, including in the northern provinces. Furthermore, news from the north of Afghanistan has reported that the World Food Program (WFP) has distributed cash and food to eight thousand families in only three districts of Faryab, which does not serve as evidence for the satisfactory situation reported by the two mullahs, as a number of deserving and hungry people are likely still waiting for assistance in the same districts. Additionally, foreign institutions have recently distributed food items to ten thousand families in Jawzjan and Samangan, which was reported by the two mullahs to have a main problem of a lack of madrasas. Thus, non-Taliban news indicates that people are hungry, while Taliban news outlets report that people do not have religious schools.

News of the Taliban has recently reported “millions of profits” from the DABS, claiming that the company is a major source of income. AFN238,000,000 in two weeks appears to be a substantial sum, yet it is misleading. The money reported as revenue is not the surplus of consumption or the result of deducting expenses from the revenue, but rather the money that DABS employees typically collect from consumers, and often less than the amount they pay to neighboring countries for the electricity consumed. Hasht-e Subh Daily quoted DABS officials, noting that Afghanistan imported electricity worth $260 million from neighboring countries last year. The Taliban concealed this information and instead reported the amount of money collected in a certain period of time. The outflow of $260 million from a country whose rulers count all days of the week based on the arrival of packages of forty million dollars or other clandestine packages, and where ordinary citizens are elated by the arrival of lorries full of flour and oil from aid agencies, is a considerable amount. The Taliban and other militants who have been engaged in destroying electricity poles, attacking development projects, destroying roads, killing teachers, and closing schools for the past 40 years are responsible for the nation’s backwardness and starvation. Collecting electricity bill money is neither an art nor good news. By silencing the free media, the Taliban manipulate the news and make the national media a source of disseminating falsehoods and manipulating emotions.

The Taliban recently reported on the beautification of the intersection of the Panjsad Family neighborhood in Kabul, which was celebrated as a major event of the day. A ceremony was held to mark the completion of the project, and Mawlawi Khalid Sajestani, deputy of Civil Services and Environmental Protection of Kabul, inaugurated a newly built monument at the intersection. The cost of the project was five million Afghanis (approximately $57 US dollars), funded by Ahmadyar Group. Is this a significant enough event to be placed at the top of important news and advertised? Furthermore, the news reported that a number of students met Mawlawi Abdul Rashid, the mayor of Kabul, and presented him with a certificate of appreciation for his services. However, honoring those responsible for the destruction of Afghanistan and those whose main task is making barrel bombs and suicide training, under the guise of decorating crossroads, is not a sign of progress. In the vicinity of these intersections, there are numerous people who are hungry, living in discolored, waterless, and substandard houses, with women and girls imprisoned and fathers and mothers living in fear and worry.

The fourth significant news item from the Taliban is the granting of 14 mining licenses. Upon reading the headline of the news, one may be under the impression that something major has taken place and that fourteen new mines have been contracted to private companies. However, upon further examination of the details of the news, it becomes clear that the Taliban Ministry of Mines and Petroleum (MoMP) has authorized the extraction of 14 tons of coal from 14 zones. This means that fourteen individuals have been given permission to hire ten to fifteen people each and collect coal from the mountain. The contractors of the Taliban are thus 14 individuals, not 14 companies.

Under normal circumstances, the local departments and relevant directorates should process these permits, rather than the government dealing with individuals. Instead, the mining contract should be handed over to a company, which would then hire people for each job, which is not a common practice in the Taliban administration. For example, two village mullahs from Samangan came to meet the Taliban leaders to get a school permit, and individual contractors from other provinces came to the Taliban Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to get contracts. The Taliban media reported on the granting of mining permits to individuals or the conversations they had with the village mullah. The aforementioned coal mines are mostly located in the provinces of Baghlan, Samangan, and Sare Pol. However, another incident in Sare Pol, which was not covered by the Taliban media, was the poisoning of 70 male and female students from first to sixth grades along with their two teachers in the Sancharak district of Sare Pol province on June 3, 2023. Sare Pol is a neighbor of Samangan, which, according to two mullahs of the village, is facing a shortage of religious schools. In these two provinces, hundreds of girls schools are closed, and teachers and university professors are facing numerous restrictions and pressures from repressive institutions. Every day, new restrictions are imposed on students and teachers of schools. The residents of Sancharak said that a number of armed Taliban were seen in the area before the students were poisoned.

In commemoration of World Environment Week, Mawlawi Mohammad Anwar Mustaqim, the mayor of Puli Khumri, launched a oneweek plastic collection campaign in the city, entitledFighting Plastic“. A photograph was released showing municipal employees and some Taliban agents collecting garbage from the side of the road in plastic packages. Environmental pollution is a major issue in Afghan cities, with the lack of garbage collection and water and sewage disposal systems making life difficult in some areas.

During cold seasons, those without access to electricity and gas are forced to burn coal and wood, resulting in unbearable pollution in densely populated cities, particularly Kabul. Establishing a system to collect and transport plastic and other waste materials requires skilled and educated individuals to lead the effort, as well as support from the government and a society where people are not deprived of education and employment. Holding a multi-day public cooperation show is not enough to create a clean environment for the city. While collecting some plastic in a basket is a good action, the problem is that in a normal office, this issue is placed in the news section of the provinces with the title of “public cooperation for plastic collection” without elaborating on the major goal of collecting plastics. By reading this title, one may assume that an unprecedented plan or initiative has been taken to prevent the use of plastic or environmental pollution caused by its excessive use. If a government allocates an amount in its annual budget for research into the introduction of a suitable alternative to plastic, it can rightfully claim to be fighting the environmental consequences of plastic use. However, people’s priority should be to fight against illiteracy, lack of schooling, poverty, and lack of government support.

It is of utmost importance to combat a group that openly advocates against schools and universities, and wherever it finds an opportunity, it establishes a religious school. Recently, the Taliban in Jalalabad constructed a madrasa in a building that had been left over from the era of Amanullah Khan, the Afghan king who was passionate about education. This is a symbolic action against the Afghan people‘s aspiration for education that is not based in a madrasa. The Taliban‘s claim of fighting for a cause does not align with their antischool, antiwomen, antiwork, and antifreedom stance.