Australian journalist Lynne O’Donnell has covered Afghanistan for the past 20 years, working for publications and news organizations such as Foreign Policy, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.
But during a trip this month to Kabul, Taliban officials came to the guest house where she was staying and threatened to detain her unless she retracted her reporting, O’Donnell told VOA on Thursday.
O’Donnell said they took her to their headquarters and dictated an apology that they forced her to share on social media. And while she was later released and told she could remain in Afghanistan, O’Donnell said she chose to leave, flying to Islamabad, Pakistan, on Wednesday.
Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi told VOA that O’Donnell had been denied permission to work in the country “due to her open support for armed resistance against the current government” and for “falsifying reports of mass violations.”
O’Donnell “lied about her presence in Afghanistan,” the statement said. But officials offered to let her stay if she could produce evidence to “substantiate any of the claims in her report.”
The statement alleged that O’Donnell offered to make an apology via social media and said the Taliban welcomed “journalists that adhere to the principles of journalism.”
O’Donnell denies that she was in the country illegally, saying the Afghan Embassy in London issued her a visa. She said she also applied for a media visa at Kabul International Airport.
“At no time did I misrepresent myself professionally,” she said.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: What reason did the Taliban give for detaining you?
O’Donnell: They said that they did not recognize me as a journalist, and they wanted to berate me over stories that I have written over the past year. They wanted me to tweet a confession that I know nothing about Afghanistan or Afghan culture, and that I had made up all my stories.
Agents of the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) came to my guest house, and they took me to headquarters, where they kept me for about four hours. They told me that they would put me in prison unless I tweeted a confession, which they dictated to me and tweeted. And then they made me say on video that I made everything up, that I know nothing about Afghanistan.
After they felt they had done what their bosses wanted to do with me, they took me back to my guest house. They told me that I was free to stay, that I could go anywhere in the country that I wanted to, that they would facilitate me.
When I told them where I wanted to go, they said no. And so, I thought that it was best that I leave [the country].
VOA: Was it your choice to leave?
O’Donnell: I left of my own volition.
I haven’t heard from my driver since I was taken into custody by the Taliban. And people who I met with before the intelligence agency [incident] told me that they have been detained and interrogated by the Taliban.
So, I feel that the surveillance systems of the Taliban are getting more sophisticated, that they’re learning as they go how to tighten their grip on information and people’s feeling of freedom to speak their mind. I felt that they had compromised my phone, that they were monitoring my movements.
VOA: What has been the focus of your reporting in Afghanistan?
O’Donnell: I have been reporting on and off on Afghanistan since 2001. I was in Mazar-e-Sharif [capital of Balkh province] when the Americans invaded in October 2001 as retaliation against the Taliban for their collusion with al-Qaida in the attacks of September 11. And I spent time as the bureau chief for two of the world’s biggest news agencies.
I went back last year to report on the final months [of the war in Afghanistan] and left on August 15, just hours before the Taliban came into Kabul and took control. I hadn’t been back since. So, I wanted to see for myself what the situation is now.
I told the Foreign Ministry spokesperson exactly that. And I also told the intelligence agents who interrogated me and detained me, and were abusive and forced me to make a false confession about my activities. I was sincere in all of my dealings with them.
VOA: Tell us about your tweet on July 19, which said, “I apologize for three or four reports written by me accusing the present authorities of forcefully marrying teenage girls and using teenage girls as sexual slaves by the Taliban commanders.”
O’Donnell: Well, I didn’t write it. It was dictated to me, and it was approved by people on the phone who my interrogators were in touch with, for approval of the content of the tweet. They dictated to me what they wanted. When I did it, I gave it to them. They sent it to their boss, who then edited it, made it longer, made it say exactly what he wanted to say.
VOA: The Taliban accused you of making up sources. How credible are your sources?
O’Donnell: They said all the people I quoted in my stories were fictional and didn’t exist. One of the stories they were particularly incensed by was in Foreign Policy in July 23 last year. Every name in that story is genuine. I have notes. I have voice recordings of the interviews, video recordings of the interviews, and a lot of verification. And they said to me, “Give us all the material.” So, I said, “That’s your job. You want to verify it, you go and verify it.”
Then, with a story about LGBTQ people published a couple of months ago, they decided I had made up the names, I had made up the quotes. And they said to me, “There are no gays in Afghanistan.” [An official] said to me, “If I see anybody is gay in Afghanistan, I will kill them.” Then, they asked me why I called them [the Taliban] extremists. I said, “Well, saying that there’s no gays in Afghanistan is kind of a fairly extreme position to take.”
VOA: Many people are happy you are out safely. But some on social media say you are not impartial and use unreliable sources. What is your response to them?
O’Donnell: Everybody is entitled to their opinion. That’s what freedom of speech and thought is all about. And this was the basis of the conversation and the accusations that I endured when I was in the Taliban’s custody. They clearly hadn’t read the stories. They decided that my reporting is a reflection of my own opinions and my biases, but it’s not.
If you’re quoting somebody, you’re quoting what they think and what they say, and you’re reflecting their opinion. It’s not me. I’m a reporter. I am not a commentator. And if they can’t tell the difference between reporting and commentary and opinion, then the problem is with them. I can’t help what people who use social media say about me, either. I know the veracity of my own reporting.
Ayaz Gul in Islamabad contributed to this report, which originated in VOA’s Pashto Service.