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Afghan TV Pioneer Absorbs Taliban's Blows As Picture Dims For Free Media

A cameraman films a news anchor at Tolo News studio.

After years of tuning into Tolo programming for hard-hitting news and the exploits of their favorite soap-opera character, Afghans are seeing a stripped-down and covered-up version of news and entertainment.

Since the Taliban's return to power in August, two of Afghanistan's major broadcasters -- the sister networks Tolo TV and Tolo News -- have literally had to roll with the punches delivered by the Taliban authorities and been left with little option but to comply with strict new regulations imposed by the extremist group.

Despite the Taliban's promises to allow free media, the variety and scope of offerings have dimmed under its thumb. While the Tolo networks owned by the Moby Group are not alone in being forced to abide by new marching orders, their status as pioneering and dominant players on the Afghan media scene has put them in the spotlight.

The differences are often in what is not seen. News broken by Tolo has been overshadowed by reports of the beatings of Tolo journalists. A reputation for wide-ranging political roundtables has been eclipsed by international alarm over the disappearance and arrest of a participant who voiced criticism of the Taliban. And the hair of female presenters has been covered up and foreign broadcasting and popular music shows forced off the air.

Tolo News director Khpalwak Safai acknowledged in written comments to RFE/RL that some programs were cut, but said that "we as a news channel always have enough news content and analysis" and were able to replace lost programming.

"We are operating independently so far, are choosing our daily agenda on our own, and producing stories very independently," he said of Tolo News, specifically.

Safai himself was at the center of international outcry in March when he along with two colleagues were detained when the Taliban moved to enforce a previous order banning foreign entertainment programs, with Turkish and Indian soap operas squarely in the line of fire.

Safai, along with Tolo News presenter Bahram Aman and Tolo TV legal adviser Nafey Khaleeq, were caught up in a 48-hour sweep that resulted in the detentions of journalists and media representatives and the closure of four media outlets -- Khawar Radio, Khawar TV, 24 TV, and Haft TV.

Documents sent to media outlets by the Taliban's Intelligence Ministry, acting on an order at the beginning of the year by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, demanded that foreign programming be taken off the air. While Ariana TV and Zhwandoon TV had complied immediately, the representatives of Shamshad TV, 1TV, Arezo TV, and Tolo TV were summoned.

While Shamshad signed off, representatives of the three others held out until they could consult their respective managements, earning them a night in interrogation rooms equipped with blankets, prayer mats, and copies of the Koran. After signing the documents, they were released the next day.

However, a Tolo News report on the incident prompted a half-dozen armed Taliban intelligence officers to raid the station's Kabul headquarters the next evening, resulting in the detention of Sapai and his colleagues, including Aman, who was kept overnight. In the meantime, the network's website was forced to remove the coverage.

Afghan children watch the Indian family series called Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi at a guest house in Kabul in 2006.
Afghan children watch the Indian family series called Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi at a guest house in Kabul in 2006.

In the wake of the raid, the popular Indian soap opera Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (The Mother-In-Law Was A Daughter-In-Law Once, Too) disappeared from Tolo TV's lineup.

The long-running drama, whose broadcast rights had been purchased by Tolo TV and dubbed into Dari, had been lauded for providing a window into family relationships that viewers could relate to. The loyal following of the main character, Tulsi, a young bride from a poor family who married for love but was tormented by her mother-in-law, made the series Afghanistan's most popular television program ever.

In Tulsi's place, viewers can choose from new educational programming focused on Islamic values. Popular music programs were previously left on the cutting floor, although episodes of the reality show Afghan Star and the animated series Burqa Avenger -- in which a teacher in Pakistan dons a burqa to disguise her efforts to fight corrupt politicians and militants bent on shutting down her school -- are still listed among the network's programs.

The Taliban had foreshadowed the scrutiny the media was to face in early January, when it came under criticism for its detention of Kabul University professor Faizullah Jalal. The law and political science professor had openly engaged in a heated live debate with Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem on Tolo News. During the back and forth, Jalal accused the Taliban of stifling free speech and called Naeem a "calf," an insult in Afghanistan that means stupid. That came after Naeem questioned Jalal's sanity and alleged he was a communist.

Faizullah Jalal gives an interview at Tolo News.
Faizullah Jalal gives an interview at Tolo News.

Following Jalal's detention, which was condemned by Amnesty International and other rights watchdogs, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that he had been detained for inciting violence against the Taliban through social media.

Jalal was released after four days, telling RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that he had been well-treated but "encouraged" to "reflect the realities" of Afghan society in his commentaries.

Tolo TV had been targeted by the Taliban long before the extremist group regained power. In 2016, at least seven staff members were killed and 15 others wounded when a suicide bomber attacked a minibus carrying Tolo employees in Kabul. At the time, the Taliban accused the network of "promoting obscenity, irreligiousness, foreign culture, and nudity."

Just weeks after the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, Tolo News journalist Ziar Yaad and his cameraman were beaten by Taliban militants as they reported on poverty in the capital.

The incident contributed to suspicions that the Taliban would not live up to pledges made by spokesman Mujahid that its rule would be different than its first stint in power from 1996-2001, when the Islamist group banned television, movies, and most other forms of entertainment as immoral and was infamous for its oppression of women and massacre of ethnic and religious minorities.

Only state-owned radio, the Taliban's Voice of Shari'a, existed under the previous regime, and its programming was dominated by calls to prayer and religious teachings.

In his August 17 press conference, Mujahid said that journalists "should not work against national values," but that private media would "remain independent" and women would be allowed to work "in accordance with the principles of Islam."

The same day, Tolo News presenter Beheshta Arghand made global headlines and emerged as a sign of the Afghan media's resistance to censorship when she donned a head covering, sat at the same desk with a Taliban official, and conducted a live interview with Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, a Taliban media spokesman.

The interview was cited as a sign that the Taliban would present a more moderate face. But days later, Arghand fled the country, saying as she boarded an evacuation flight with family members that she would come back if the Taliban lived up to its promises and she would not be under threat.

On the last World Press Freedom Day, marked on May 3, Afghanistan was among the deadliest countries in the world for journalists. From 2017 to 2021, at least 45 journalists -- including from Tolo and Radio Azadi -- were killed.

So far in 2022, no journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, but the harassment, detention, and beating of journalists have soared in recent months, raising alarm among media watchdogs.

The Taliban's ascension to power "radically changed the landscape," according to Reporters Without Borders, with "serious repercussions for the respect of press freedom and the safety of journalists, especially women," causing Afghanistan to slide 34 spots to 156th out of 180 countries in the organization's annual World Press Freedom Index.

Lotfullah Najafizada, who was the only Afghan journalist to take part in wide-ranging civil society discussions with the Taliban in Norway in January, described the dire situation for the free press in Afghanistan today.

"We've got dozens of incidents since last August where the Taliban have been pressuring and harassing at times, arresting and also torturing journalists and media professionals," Najafizada said by phone. "These are, to me, systemic attacks."

Lotfullah Najafizada (file photo)
Lotfullah Najafizada (file photo)

Najafizada said the Taliban's capture of Kabul "was the end, basically, of a democratic system in which the media had a constitutional guarantee and protection."

The Taliban, according to Najafizada, sees the Afghan media "from a position of ownership," forcing journalists, editors, and media owners to react to the group's orders.

Najafizada does not believe it is possible for free and independent media to exist in Afghanistan under the current circumstances, stressing that improving the situation would require the Taliban engaging with other Afghans in a political process that would address all interconnected rights issues, including girls' education, women's rights, freedom of movement, and the right to protest and travel freely.

However, while he expressed doubt about the Taliban's intentions, Najafizada lauded the bravery of Afghan journalists and their efforts to push boundaries.

"I think it is important for journalists to stay in the country. It is important for journalists to keep reporting," Najafizada said.

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    Michael Scollon

    Michael Scollon is a senior correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.