Alarming reports out of Afghanistan over the last few weeks paint a grim, and violent, picture of the Taliban’s growing aggression toward journalists — despite promises to uphold freedom of the press since their takeover of the country in late August.
Now, journalists in Afghanistan say they’re also being targeted on private messaging apps like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, as members of the Taliban use the platforms to send death threats to journalists, either directly or through friends and family.
Three Afghan journalists, all of whom asked to be identified by a pseudonym for their and their families’ safety, told Rest of World that leaving these platforms is only a temporary, and impractical, fix.
“I was scared. … I took [their threats] really seriously,” Jamshid, a 34-year-old journalist from Herat, told Rest of World, after receiving a voice memo from the Taliban on WhatsApp, warning him to stop reporting “propaganda” or else face consequences. “[They’ll say], ‘We know your family. We know where you live. We know how many kids you have.’ It’s very dangerous. You can’t say anything to them, and there’s no government to support you.”
A few days later, they sent him another message, telling him to stop working with female journalists at the Afghan Women News Agency.
“They said a good girl should stay home and be at the service of her husband,” he said.
Journalists who spoke to Rest of World also said the Taliban often use apps like WhatsApp and Telegram because they know journalists typically turn off DMs on Twitter and change Facebook Messenger settings to avoid this type of harassment.
“The environment of WhatsApp and Telegram are really not safe,” Farid, a 38-year-old journalist who works at Arezo TV, a network based in Mazār-e-Sharīf, told Rest of World.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, apps like WhatsApp and Telegram allow for a certain level of anonymity. They’re also widely popular among Afghans, with Telegram channels often hosting thousands of subscribers. Jamshid said a Telegram news channel he co-created, which had 93,000 subscribers, came under threat this month when the Taliban gave them a deadline to cease posting news there. He said the team shut down the channel a few days ago under the condition that the Taliban release a journalist they had detained.
Because Telegram allows users to operate solely with usernames, it can be difficult to identify the Taliban in channels with large numbers of subscribers or when they pose as sources.
Direct messages are also a vector attack. “Everyone has the [phone] number of the journalists, so the Taliban do too,” Jamshid told Rest of World. Farid said that the Taliban employ agents to gather information about journalists and their family members. Once the Taliban have a journalist’s number, they’re able to DM them on these private messaging apps.
Mustafa, a reporter at Radio Free Europe, said his organization urged the team to switch to using Signal for security purposes. Signal’s built-in settings allow messages to be kept between the recipient and intended sender. It also allows users to send messages that self-destruct after a certain amount of time has passed, a feature that Telegram and WhatsApp have only when a user enables the “secret chat” or “disappearing messages” option.
Although Afghans have had access to Signal for some time, the journalists who spoke to Rest of World said it’s only gaining traction now. “Most of [my] friends are changing their apps from WhatsApp and Telegram to Signal because they still feel the Taliban aren’t familiar with Signal,” Farid said, noting that the app overall provides more security compared to competitors.
Signal and Telegram’s press offices did not respond to Rest of World’s multiple requests for comment.
While reporting in Herat this May, Mustafa received a call from a Talib authority who told him to stop reporting high casualties in the area. “You need to be in touch with us,” he recalls the Talib telling him. “Also you don’t need to use the official authorities or government as your news sources.”
Even after the 39-year-old changed his number and updated his WhatsApp contact information, he still received messages from the Taliban. In one message, they invited him to pay them a visit. Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson for the Taliban, also found his info and began adding him to group chats on WhatsApp.
“The Afghan journalists are being very careful and wary because that’s really needed right now,” Courtney Radsch, former advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists said. “We don’t know what type of surveillance and technology the Afghan government has, but we know that Pegasus and surveillance software has the potential to target phone numbers.”
Farid said that he’s received secondhand threats from the Taliban through a friend for years. Last year, he said his friend received a message on Telegram asking him to warn Farid. “They told him I am their target, that killing [me] is very easy for them, and they can destroy [me] in a moment,” he said. “It was the first time I received threats through a friend.”
The threats continued, and Farid spent a little over a year in hiding. This past January, a reporter in Herat received a private message from the Taliban’s intelligence network, which was upset about Farid’s dogged reporting on Afghan migrant workers who were killed by Iranian guards last year.
“[The Talib’s] wording was really aggressive, rude, and impolite,” Farid said. “‘We can put the gun to your head, and we can shoot a bullet … lots of tactics to kill you.’”
Journalists say a possible solution might be to tighten privacy settings on these messaging platforms so that strangers are not able to reach out with threats.
“Every journalist expects to be, virtually, in a safe environment,” Farid said. “It would be very good for journalists in countries like Afghanistan to not receive messages from unknown people. On the other hand, it’s very important to trace these people who are using WhatsApp and Telegram to threaten journalists.”
Jamshid says journalists in the country are put in a precarious position.
“It’s clear the Taliban are an ignorant group, but their access to technology makes them powerful,” he said. “What can we do? They have guns, but they don’t have hearts and minds.”
Mustafa thinks that regardless of which social media platform they use, the Taliban seem to find a way to harass and threaten them.
“If they want to target you and shoot you, they will do that,” he said.