Afghan civilians could have reported the incidents of theft and looting on a WhatsApp helpline set up by the Taliban but Facebook shut it down.
Facebook announced shutting down the Taliban’s WhatsApp accounts on Tuesday, two days after the insurgent group seized control of Afghanistan following the United States’s swift withdrawal.
Soon after capturing the capital city Kabul, the group set up a grievance helpline on the messaging service, which was mainly meant to address the victims of violence and looting.
As Facebook blocked the helpline, many Afghans criticised the move.
Haroun Rahimi, an assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan said he doesn’t think banning the Taliban on Whatsapp is helpful for Afghans.
“Taliban are saying they have changed. We need to hold them to account for those promises,” Rahimi told TRT World.
“Banning the ways Afghans can communicate with the TB spokesman will not help Afghans and the world engage with the Taliban to pressure, incentivize, and encourage them to respect women’s and minority rights and create inclusive government,” he said.
Besides blocking the Taliban’s official Whatsapp channels, the tech giant said the ban on the armed group’s Facebook webpage will continue to remain in effect.
Prior to Facebook buying the messaging app in 2018, it had already banned the Taliban on its own platform.
A Whatsapp spokesperson told AFP that the company was obligated to act in line with the sanctions and a team of Afghan experts was helping to monitor the situation as it evolves.
“Facebook does not make decisions about the recognized government in any particular country but instead respects the authority of the international community in making these determinations,” Facebook said.
First reporting the story, the Financial Times said Whatsapp came under pressure to block the group from its services.
The Taliban is not included on the State Department’s list of sanctioned terrorist organisations. However, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the organisation as a Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) entity in July 1999 by an executive order by the former US president Bill Clinton.
It means, “any transaction or dealing by US persons or within the US… is prohibited” including “any contribution of funds, goods, or services”.
The Taliban’s usage of the messaging service was long known, and prompted the Afghan government to threaten to block the service in the past. The group released statements and communicated with journalists via the app.
It’s unclear why Whatsapp moved to ban the Taliban now, after three years under the wings of Facebook.
At his first press conference in 20 years, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid blamed Facebook for limiting freedom of speech by banning them from all of its platforms as he answered questions on Tuesday.
A New York Times reporter, Sheera Frenkel said on the same day that Facebook’s move came just right after publication’s question to the company on the company’s position on the spokesperson of Taliban.
“Yesterday, we sent Facebook, YT, and others accounts belonging to the Taliban spokesman. We asked for comment, and they responded by removing them. Today, the Taliban spokesman is complaining of censorship,” Frenkel said in a tweet.
The Taliban is widely known for its human rights violations, particularly affecting women. But, the group has been projecting a more moderate image in an attempt to seek international legitimacy.
While many remain doubtful that the group will be able to follow its own promises of not limiting the freedoms of Afghan citizens, many criticised Whatsapp for depriving the civilians of one of the few resources they could have used for communication.
Hasib Noor, an Afghan-born American Imam, also reacted to the move saying that an entire city of six million announced a safety protocol only for it to be shut down.
“How *dare* Whatsapp shut down a complaint line for the only way that people were *reporting crimes* in an insecure situation? People could die!,” he reacted in a tweet.
Masuda Sultan, the founder of a non-profit called Women for Afghan Women, said her office has been looted by 30 criminals who posed as members of the Taliban.
“The complaints commission is asking to speak to them and may come to our office soon,” she tweeted on August 16 as praised the Taliban initiative before it was blocked.
Youtube and TikTok have also banned Taliban-affiliated accounts while Twitter accounts of the group’s leadership remain active.