Veteran Afghanistan correspondent Lynne O’Donnell says she has never seen the Taliban more brutal or the millions of people the austere fighters again govern more wretched.
“I really never expected to find it as bad and as awful as I did. It’s a very very sad, unhappy, traumatized, depressed place,” she said after revealing she was forced to retract hard-hitting reports on the fundamentalist Islamic group.
“They’re worse,” she said, commenting on the changes in the Taliban since their first time in power more than 20 years ago.
The Australian journalist was speaking during a phone interview after being ejected from Afghanistan after just four days in the capital, Kabul. The account of her experiences there garnered widespread attention after she was visited by Taliban intelligence officers who she says brought her to their headquarters July 19 and demanded she give up her sources for previous reports.
O’Donnell said she was held in a messy office, where the four officers wanted her to apologize for her work from 2021, focusing on reports on members of the Afghan LGBTQ community and on minors being forced into a life of sexual servitude to Taliban members.
She said she was forced to recant reporting about the Taliban via Twitter, and issue tweets apologizing for three or four reports accusing authorities of forcefully marrying teenage girls.
A second tweet said the stories were “without any solid proof or basis, and without any effort to verify instances through on-site investigation or face-to-face meetings with alleged victims.”
“I was shouted at, I was abused, I was told I had to explain myself and every time I tried to explain myself, I was shouted down again. I was accused of being an agent for government intelligence agencies,” she said. During her four hours of detention, a gunman was always within sight, she said.
O’Donnell said she agreed to meet with the officers under duress, after they threatened to circulate her photograph and details to border patrol points across the country to prevent her from leaving if she refused.
She left the Afghan capital the following day, four days before her original departure flight.
The Taliban have a record of pressuring local journalists to publish favorable reports and threatening them if they are perceived to be too critical.
A Taliban spokesman last week denied that O’Donnell had been detained, but said she was no longer allowed to return to Afghanistan because she was “not doing journalism.”
In statements made to NBC News, Bilal Karimi rebuffed her claims, accusing the journalist of being part of a propaganda campaign launched by "enemies of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."
Another Taliban intelligence official accused her of “planning to provoke” the extremist group to arrest her or take other action against her to cause trouble.
O'Donnell had returned to Kabul on July 16 to see for herself how Taliban rule had reshaped the country since the group retook power last August.
She was on the ground when the U.S.-led invasion displaced the Taliban in 2001, and up to the final hours before the group returned to power last year. She also served as the head of the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse bureaus between 2009 and 2017.
Leading up to and immediately after the chaotic U.S. and Western exit from Afghanistan, Taliban leaders claimed to have moderated since their first time in power in the 1990s.
The country has been in economic, political and social turmoil since then, as many foreign funders left. Aid agencies have warned that millions face hunger and possibly even famine.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have imposed draconian restrictions on the rights of women and girls — forbidding them from working or leaving home without a reason, and forcing them to wear all-encompassing burqas.
O'Donnell aimed her criticism at the Taliban and their rule, in addition to how they treated her.
"They’re more brutal, they’re vengeful, they look for people by name, by categorization: journalist, women’s rights activist ... They’re coming after people," she said in the interview. "They weren't like that the last time around."
O'Donnell's allegations have raised concern among international press rights groups, with the Committee to Protect Journalists issuing a statement calling on the Taliban to end their “campaign of intimidation and abuse” against journalists from Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“The Taliban should apologize to Lynne O’Donnell for her treatment in the country, and allow all journalists work free from fear,” program director Carlos Martinez de la Serna said in a statement.
The episode also highlights the deteriorating state of press freedom in the country in the first year of the Taliban's return to power.
"The O’Donnell story suggests that it is going to be increasingly dangerous for journalists, especially women reporters, to cover human rights violations in Afghanistan, especially violations against women," said Karima Bennoune, a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a former United Nations special rapporteur.
"The Taliban clearly have no comprehension of freedom of expression, including for journalists, and think that they can stop news about their gross abuses from circulating through coercion."
A study on Afghanistan conducted by Reporters without Borders, or RSF, in December found a total of 231 media outlets have had to close down, while more than 6,400 journalists have lost their jobs since Aug. 15, 2021. Among female Afghan journalists, 4 out of 5 were no longer working.
A U.N. report early this month also found six journalists have been killed, including five by self-identified militants of the Islamic State terrorist group and one by unknown perpetrators.
"During the last 10 months, RSF has recorded several abuses against foreign journalists, especially in the first months after 15 August. But this is the first time we hear about the arrest and threat of imprisonment or pressure to repent,” RSF spokesperson Pauline Adès-Mével said.