The Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, emerged from the shadows on Tuesday and devoted part of his first press conference to a rant about Facebook, in which he accused the tech giant of violating the Islamist group’s right to free speech by banning them from all its platforms.
Speaking to reporters in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Mujahid offered vague assurances that women’s rights would be respected, “within the limits of Islam,” before attacking the social media company, which removed user accounts linked to him by The New York Times on Monday.
Journalists, Mujahid suggested, should ask people at Facebook “who are claiming to be promoters of freedom of speech,” why the Islamist movement that seized power from Afghanistan’s elected government is banned from posting on any Facebook-owned platform, including Instagram and WhatsApp.
Taliban spox in their first press conference complaining about Facebook. Absolutely surreal. pic.twitter.com/hYUAeIdqHk
— Evan DeSimone (@MediaEvan) August 17, 2021
Until Mujahid appeared in the Afghan government press center on Tuesday, following the Taliban’s capture of capital over the weekend, he had spoken to reporters on behalf of the group for nearly two decades without ever having been seen by them or photographed.
At one point, a reporter pointed out to the Taliban spokesman that he was sitting in a seat in the briefing room that was occupied just last week by Dawa Khan Meenapal, a spokesman for the Afghan government who was assassinated by Taliban gunmen on Friday.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the criticism from her Taliban counterpart, but provided a statement from the company explaining the rationale for the ban.
“The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organization under U.S. law and they are banned from our services under our Dangerous Organization policies. This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support, and representation of them,” the statement said.
Determinations about which content to remove are made by what the company calls “a dedicated team of Afghanistan experts, who are native Dari and Pashto speakers and have knowledge of local context.”
While those experts are “closely monitoring this situation as it evolves,” the company stressed that “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. Regardless of who holds power, we will take the appropriate action against accounts and content that breaks our rules.”
Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, told Bloomberg News on Monday, “we don’t actually allow any presence, any celebration, any promotion or any representation of the Taliban on Instagram or on any of the Facebook apps.” He added that the company was “proactively” taking down “anything that might be dangerous or that is related to the Taliban.”
— Bloomberg Technology (@technology) August 17, 2021
On its website, Facebook explains that the company divides individuals and groups it considers dangerous into three tiers, with Tier 1 subject to the most extensive restrictions for people, “organizing or advocating for violence against civilians, repeatedly dehumanizing or advocating for harm against people based on protected characteristics, or engaging in systematic criminal operations.”
According to Facebook, Tier 1 includes terrorist organizations. While the Taliban is not on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, some of the group’s leaders were sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2018.
Twitter has refrained from banning accounts maintained in the names of leading Taliban figures, including Mujahid and another spokesman, Suhail Shaheen. Both men frequently speak with reporters, who are among Twitter’s most ardent users, and Shaheen has recently been interviewed by the BBC, CNN and PBS, perhaps illustrating that his social-media presence has also helped amplify his standing with television news producers.
A Twitter spokesperson told CNN that, even though Mujahid and Shaheen have more than 650,000 followers on the network between them, the company plans to “remain vigilant” in enforcing a ban on specific content that glorifies violence.
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