An Afghan government request that female television presenters don headscarves and avoid heavy make-up angered journalists on Tuesday, who said the move was proof authorities expected the Taliban to regain a share of power.
Afghan and U.S. officials have been seeking peace negotiations with the Islamist group ousted over a decade ago as a means to ensure stability after foreign combat troops leave, though the talks are in a very fragile state.
In a letter distributed to media, the Ministry of Culture and Information said it had received complaints from members of parliament and families that female news presenters were not observing Islamic and cultural ethics.
All female news presenters must avoid heavy make-up and wear a headscarf, Minister Sayed Makhdoom Rahin told Reuters by telephone, adding this applied to state and private TV stations.
The ministry's plea came as a surprise to some Afghan media. All female anchors appear with their heads covered, sparking suggestions the directive was designed to impress the Taliban by pandering to their ultra-conservative views.
Since we are at the beginning of serious peace and reconciliation talks, the government wants to show they are like the Taliban, said Zarghoona Roshan, a radio journalist for 10 years before she joined media development group Nai.
The request itself is useless, Roshan added, adjusting her two-toned black and grey headscarf. Nai, which also tracks media infringements, estimates there are around 120 female TV presenters across the country.
Nai's executive director Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar said the government had been piling pressure over the past year to restrict content and keep the public away from the facts they need.
We have concerns, fears, that this pressure is the beginning of media limitation and this is because of the Taliban. They are paving the way for them, he said.
Khalvatgar cited numerous examples of pressure on the press over the last year, including throwing acid on a veteran Afghan journalist and preventing a Turkish soap opera from being aired.
While Afghan women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work since the Taliban was toppled in 2001, their plight remains severe and future uncertain as Afghan and U.S. officials seek to negotiate with the hardline group.
As the 2014 deadline looms for foreign combat troops to return home, some activists in and outside Afghanistan fear that women's rights may be sacrificed in the scramble to ensure the West leaves behind a relatively stable and peaceful state.
U.S. officials said last week they wanted to accelerate the talks so peace negotiations can be announced at a NATO summit in May. The Taliban's announcement last month that it was opening a political office in Qatar was seen as a prelude to peace talks.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Ron Popeski)
(Updated to remove extraneous word)