The year 2022 has seen a relentless tightening of fundamental rights in Afghanistan, a process that began after the Taliban took over when NATO forces suddenly pulled out in August 2021. The latest was the ban on women getting a higher education.
Behind the scenes, Afghan journalists, especially women reporters and editors both within the country and in exile, have continued with the dangerous work of keeping the world informed about what is happening in their country.
Here is a post from Zan Times on 18 December ‘In the last 48 hours, five women and girls attempted or died by suicide in Nimraz and Ghor provinces, according to hospital registrations. Two teens died in Ghor while three attempts occurred in just one 24-hour period in Nimraz…’
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The story was written by Mahsa Elham (a pseudonym) in Zan Times, a volunteer-run newsroom by Afghan journalists in exile. Its editor is Zahra Nader.
I had met Zahra in Kathmandu in 2016 at a media conference co-hosted by the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal (CIJ) and the Global Investigative Journalism Network in Kathmandu. Since then, Zahra’s life, and indeed the life of most Afghans, especially its women, has turned upside down.
It is difficult to imagine that such human rights violations and atrocities are being committed in this day and age in countries like Afghanistan and Burma. The Taliban and its precursor guerrillas fought off two world superpowers, yet they are so scared of women that they have tried to kill and muzzle them, deprive them of education and confine women to their homes.
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Zahra’s message to me on Twitter was an attempt to show that they are continuing their valiant work as journalists, no matter the risk and challenges they face every day to their lives. Zahra wants the content of Zan Times to be spread as widely as possible.
Zahra says: ‘Zan means ‘woman’ and Zan Times is our way of resisting the Taliban, and speaking our truth.’
Indeed, since it was launched in August 2022, Zan Times has produced more than 50 stories, covering human rights violations, especially those affecting women, LGBTQ community and the environment. Zan Times can be followed on Twitter (@ZanTimes), Instagram (zantimes2) and Facebook (Zan Times).
Zan Times works with journalists inside Afghanistan and in exile, and five of the seven journalists working clandestinely within Afghanistan are women. Other journalists like Zahra herself are abroad.
One story from inside Afghanistan earlier this month related how people whose relatives were detained by the Taliban for months have been told that their loved ones are dead.
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Fact checking is an important part of journalism, so is the protection of sources. So how does Zan Times do this? Zahra replies by email: ‘We are using what I call community reporting. Our colleagues are mostly reporting on what is happening in their communities. We do not publish news unless two independent sources confirm it. It is very difficult to work as a journalist in Afghanistan as it has been criminalised under the Taliban. However, we do not run stories that we are not sure of its authenticity. We have journalists on the ground as well as our own connections and network in Afghanistan. We use pseudonyms to protect identities.’
Zahra, 32, has lived through four regime coups in Afghanistan in her life time. During the first take over by the Taliban she was just 6 years old. She belongs to the Hazara community, which has been specifically targeted by the Taliban. She and her family were forced to take refuge in Iran, where she was denied the right to education because she was a refugee.
Lack of education as a child created a huge void in Zahra’s life and she had a traumatising childhood. In a voice recording sent to me from Canada, where Zahra is spending her days in exile, she recounted why she felt a need to start Zan Times: ‘Once again my childhood trauma has returned when I see millions of Afghans denied the right to education again, I am now in exile in Canada as I cannot return back to my country.