Despite the lack of free press in Afghanistan, a female-led news website continues to report on women’s lives under the Taliban.
The London headquarters of Rukshana Media is intentionally nondescript. From this secret location, the news website is informing readers about what life is like for Afghan women under Taliban rule. “I grew up in a country where, right now, being a woman is a crime,” founder Zahra Joya (pictured) tells monocle. “And being an independent journalist? That is double the crime.” On a drizzly winter afternoon, the scene feels a long way from Kabul, where Joya went to university and began working as a journalist during the US occupation. Despite her family’s wishes that she become a lawyer, Joya founded Rukshana Media (named after a teenager who was stoned to death having been accused of adultery) in 2020, just a year before the Taliban returned to power. Fearing for her life, Joya accepted an invitation from the British Embassy to settle in the UK.
In London, Joya directs a team of some 20 staffers, including 10 journalists, the majority of whom are female, reporting secretly from inside Afghanistan. The news website features stories about how badly women are treated in Afghanistan but also on the more positive ways in which they have organised to resist what Joya calls “a gender apartheid”. There are pieces about the teacher who broadcasts lessons to young girls via Youtube, a girl who helps her peers apply for scholarships abroad and a group of women who gather at unsociable hours to exercise outdoors (the religious police will often disperse women from public spaces).
Joya’s team operates under the threat of severe punishment and even death. In March 2023, three teenage Afghan girls were killed while working for a broadcaster in Jalalabad. Their struggle is part of a wider assault on press freedom. The number of journalists fleeing persecution has escalated worldwide: the Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded a 227 per cent increase in the number of exiled journalists over the past three years. This comes at a time when disinformation on social media, growing political polarisation and the rise of populism has led to widespread distrust in the media. The most obvious example is in the US, a country in which freedom of speech is constitutionally enshrined and where more than half of the population now believes that the national media is lying to them. Whether you lay the blame for this on failing news agencies or disillusioned consumers, Joya’s story is a reminder of the power of journalism and why the profession needs protecting.
“You have no idea when you leave your house in the morning whether you will be coming back home at night”
Joya’s fearless crusade against gender discrimination began in 1996 at the age of five, when she dressed up as a boy and called herself Mohammed so that she could continue her schooling despite the Taliban ban on female education. “When I see so much injustice around me, [I think that] you have to do something, you must tell the story, you must criticise, you must take a picture,” she says. When asked about the state of journalism in the UK, she says that there is no comparison to the risks reporters face in Afghanistan. “You have no idea when you leave your house in the morning whether you will be coming back home at night,” she says. “You must say goodbye to your family, you must hug your mum and your dad and the person you love.”
All good journalists, she believes, have one thing in common: the urge to tell the truth. This core principle can get lost in the noisy media landscape but journalists such as Joya continue to risk their lives in the service of it. “Journalism is not a job; it’s a responsibility,” she says as our conversation comes to an end. “We should all take it seriously.”
Monocle comment: It’s easy to become jaded by media that often treats news as entertainment. But a free press is a privilege. Support independent journalists in parts of the world where careers – and lives – are under threat.