Afghan broadcaster Tolo has been known for 20 years for provocative shows like ‘Burka Avenger’, in which an animated superhero uses martial arts to defeat villains who want to shut down a girls’ school.
Millions of Afghan viewers have also followed his daring Turkish soap operas, the popular TV news “6 PM News” and the reality show “Afghan Star” with female singers dancing to the Afghan version of “American Idol”.
But since the Taliban captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, on August 15, the station’s programming has been supplemented with something different: educational programs on Islamic morality.
Whether their usual menu of pop music and female hosts survive in the Taliban-ruled new Islamic emirate of Afghanistan will be a barometer of the insurgents’ tolerance for dissenting opinions and values.
“To be blunt, I’m surprised we’re still up and running,” said Tolo co-owner Saad Mohseni, a former Australian-Afghan investment banker who founded the Moby group in 2002. “We know the ideas that are advocated for. the Taliban. “
Eager to gain legitimacy on the international stage, the Taliban, since invading Kabul, have sought to transform its image, offering amnesty to former rivals and encouraging women to participate in government. The group pledged to support press freedom, provided the media subscribe to so-called “Islamic values”. A few days after the capture of Kabul, a Taliban spokesperson even appeared on a newscast in Tolo hosted by a presenter.
But journalists and human rights defenders say there are grim signs of an ongoing violent crackdown on the media. Taliban fighters chased a journalist with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle who had already left the country, shooting a member of his family and seriously injuring another.
Mohseni said that a reporter from Tolo, Ziar Khan Yaad, and a cameraman were beaten by five armed Taliban while working on a report last Wednesday. The Taliban reportedly got out of a Land Cruiser vehicle and confiscated the journalists’ equipment and cellphones.
And the Taliban have already banned at least two female journalists from working for the public broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan. The Tolo presenter who made world headlines by interviewing a Taliban spokesperson has since fled the country, along with other reporters. Many Afghan social media influencers have disabled their Facebook and Twitter accounts and gone underground.
Asked by phone, Khadija Amin, the public broadcaster’s presenter, said that the day the Taliban entered Kabul, one of the activists took her place at the broadcaster.
The Taliban have also warned Afghan women that it may be safer for them to stay home until the ranks of the group have been trained not to abuse them. “We are in a terrible situation,” Amin said. According to her, male journalists are now afraid to sit next to their female colleagues or even talk to them. “There is no more room for us here.
Tolo rose to prominence after the United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001, easing the Afghan public’s pent-up thirst for journalism and entertainment, following insurgents’ bans on news, music and media. independent films. Today, Tolo is the largest broadcaster in the country. Its Pashtun and Dari channels are watched by about 60% of Afghans who watch television or listen to the radio.
In 2003, with a grant of $ 220,000 from the US government, Mohseni opened a radio station, Arman FM, which broadcast Afghan and Indian pop music. He recalls that his American benefactors thought he was “crazy”: there was hardly any electricity in Afghanistan, and there were no shampoo or soda companies that could be advertisers. But within months, Arman became a national sensation. Loudspeakers broadcast the station’s programs through the streets of Kabul.
Today, Mohseni’s Moby Group has around 500 employees in Afghanistan and broadcasts its programming throughout Central and South Asia and the Middle East.
Longtime observers in Afghanistan say it would be hard to underestimate Tolo’s influence in shaping Afghan media culture. “Tolo was the pioneer,” said Andrew North, a former BBC reporter who taught Afghan journalists. “She arrived, mobilized people, and others followed in her wake.”
In January 2016, the Taliban attacked the broadcaster. A suicide bomber threw his car into a bus carrying Tolo TV employees, killing seven professionals and injuring 15. The Taliban accused Tolo of “promoting obscenity, irreligiosity, foreign culture and nudity.”
Mohseni stressed that this time around, the Taliban will find it difficult to crack down on the media in a country that has undergone dramatic transformations in the past 20 years. The Afghanistan that the Taliban conquered this month has a vibrant media culture. There are around 170 radio stations nationwide and dozens of TV stations in Kabul alone. They broadcast journalistic documentaries on game shows. Social media also provides an unorthodox platform for discussion and dissent.
“The media has been one of Afghanistan’s greatest achievements over the past 20 years,” said Mohseni. “It is dangerous, we are in a high risk region, but people must be given the opportunity to speak out.”
For him, a widespread media crackdown would also be difficult in the era of TikTok and Twitter. Mohseni pointed out that about 60% of Afghans are 25 or younger and have come of age in classes with students of both sexes. They grew up living with unveiled women and Snapchat.
“Today’s Taliban are smarter. It scans or bans smartphones and WhatsApp in remote villages. The Taliban can monitor phones, ”he said. “But the country has changed, the population is young. The Taliban cannot suddenly deprogram people and tell them the earth is flat.
Masoud Sanjer, content director for Tolo’s entertainment sector, recalled that under the last Taliban he was able to watch foreign films like “Braveheart” by installing a forbidden satellite dish on his roof, hidden behind a concrete wall.
Mohseni said that after entering Kabul, the Taliban surrendered to Tolo headquarters, confiscated all state-supplied weapons and provided protection for the station, an offer politely rejected.
He said although many female journalists have fled, some continue to report on the ground, ignoring calls to stay home. Although Tolo’s journalistic content is not censored, Mohseni said, a review of recent “6 PM News” coverage reveals signs of self-censorship. There is no report on what form a future Taliban government might take, or they are extremely discreet. The same goes for the profiles of the group leaders.
Still, Tolo has not shied away from reporting instances of Taliban misconduct or Afghan dissent, including the Panjshir resistance movement and the thousands of people trying to flee the country. Tolo News director Lotfullah Najafizada said that after the fall of Kabul there had been an internal debate over whether to shut it down. But the decision was made to stay on the air.
“Closing the station would have given the Taliban a signal,” he said. “We don’t get daily orders from the Taliban. We cover what we consider news. Yet journalists and press freedom advocates fear hard-won gains will quickly disappear.
Samiullah Mahdi, former director of Tolo and professor at Kabul University, said journalists like him have spent 20 years striving to build a pluralistic journalism industry, turning down job opportunities abroad. Now many are fleeing, including himself.
“Microphones and cameras against AK-47s – it’s an uphill battle,” he said.
Faced with this reality, Mohseni said he had already drawn up an emergency plan. If Tolo is closed, it will broadcast its programming from Europe or the Middle East.