Afghan broadcaster Tolo has been known for the past 20 years for provocative shows like “Burka Avenger” (Avenger of the Burka), in which an animated superhero uses martial arts to defeat villains who want to close a girls’ school.
Millions of Afghan viewers also followed his daring Turkish soap operas, the popular news program “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 Aug. 15, the station’s programming has been complemented by something different: educational programs on Islamic morality.
Whether their usual menu of pop music and female hosts survive in the new Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be a barometer of the insurgents’ tolerance for dissenting views 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 the Taliban stands for.”
Eager to be legitimized on the international stage, the Taliban, ever since it invaded Kabul, has sought to transform its image, offering amnesty to former rivals and encouraging women to participate in government. The group has pledged to support press freedom, on condition that media outlets subscribe to so-called “Islamic values”. Days after Kabul’s capture, a Taliban spokesman even appeared on a Tolo journalism show hosted by a female anchor.
But journalists and human rights advocates say there are grim signs of an ongoing violent crackdown on the media. Taliban fighters chased a journalist from German broadcaster Deutsche Welle who had already left the country, shooting one family member and seriously injuring another.
Mohseni said a Tolo journalist, Ziar Khan Yaad, and a cameraman were beaten by five armed Taliban while working on a story last Wednesday. The Taliban reportedly got out of a Land Cruiser vehicle and confiscated the journalists’ equipment and cell phones.
And the Taliban has already barred at least two female journalists from working at public broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan. The female Tolo anchor who made world headlines interviewing a Taliban spokesperson has since fled the country, along with other journalists. Many Afghan influencers on social media have deactivated their Facebook and Twitter accounts and gone underground.
Interviewed by telephone, Khadija Amin, anchor of the public broadcaster, said that on the day the Taliban entered Kabul one of the militants took her place at the broadcaster.
The Taliban have also warned Afghan women that it may be safer for them to stay at home until the group’s ranks have been trained not to mistreat them. “We are in a terrible situation,” said Amin. According to her, male journalists are now afraid to sit next to their female colleagues or even talk to them. “There’s no more room for us here.”
Tolo rose to prominence after the US toppled the Taliban in 2001, slaking the Afghan public’s pent-up thirst for journalism and entertainment after the insurgents’ ban on independent news, music and film. Today, Tolo is the largest broadcaster in the country. Its Pashtun and Dari language channels are watched by an estimated 60% of Afghans who watch TV or listen to the radio.
In 2003, supplied with a $220,000 grant from the US government, Mohseni opened a radio station, Arman FM, which played Afghan and Indian pop music. He recalls that his American benefactors thought he was “crazy”: there was barely electricity in Afghanistan, and there were no shampoo or soft drink companies that could be advertisers. But in a matter of months, Arman became a national sensation. Loudspeakers played the station’s programs in the streets of Kabul.
Today Mohseni’s Moby Group has about 500 employees in Afghanistan and broadcasts its programming throughout Central and South Asia and the Middle East.
Long-time observers in Afghanistan say it would be difficult to underestimate Tolo’s influence in shaping Afghan media culture. “Tolo was the pioneer,” said Andrew North, a former BBC journalist 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 others. The Taliban accused Tolo of “promoting obscenity, irreligiosity, foreign culture and nudity.”
Mohseni pointed out that this time the Taliban will find it difficult to crack down on the news media in a country that has undergone radical transformations over the past 20 years. The Afghanistan the Taliban conquered this month has a vibrant media culture. There are about 170 radio stations across the country and dozens of TV stations in Kabul alone. They broadcast from journalistic documentaries to game shows. Social media also provide an unorthodox platform for discussion and dissension.
“The media has been one of Afghanistan’s greatest achievements in the last 20 years,” said Mohseni. “It’s dangerous, we are in a high-risk region, but people need to have a chance to express themselves.”
For him, widespread crackdown on the news media would also be difficult in this era of TikTok and Twitter. Mohseni pointed out that about 60% of Afghans are 25 years old or younger and have come of age in classrooms with students of both sexes. They grew up living with unveiled women and Snapchat.
“Today’s Taliban are smarter. He 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 will not be able to suddenly deprogram people and tell them that the earth is flat.”
Masoud Sanjer, director of content for Tolo’s entertainment sector, recalled that during the last Taliban regime he was able to watch foreign films like “Braveheart” by installing a prohibited satellite dish on his roof, hidden behind a concrete wall.
Mohseni said that after entering Kabul, the Taliban went to Tolo headquarters, confiscated all state-provided weapons and provided protection for the station, an offer politely rejected.
According to him, although many female journalists have fled, some continue to report in the field, ignoring calls to stay at home. While Tolo’s journalistic content is not being censored, Mohseni said, a review of recent coverage by “6 PM News” reveals some signs of self-censorship. There are no reports on what form a future Taliban government might take, or they are extremely discreet. The same applies to profiles of group leaders.
Still, Tolo has not shied away from reporting cases of Taliban misbehavior or Afghan dissent, including the resistance movement in Panjshir and the thousands trying to escape the country. Tolo News director Lotfullah Najafizada said that after the fall of Kabul there was an internal debate over the advisability of closing it. But the decision was made to stay on the air.
“Closing the station would have given a signal to the Taliban,” he said. “We do not receive daily orders from the Taliban. We cover what we consider to be news.” Even so, journalists and advocates of the free press fear that hard-won advances could disappear in a short time.
Samiullah Mahdi, a former Tolo manager and professor at the University of Kabul, commented that journalists like him spent 20 years striving to build a pluralist journalism industry, turning down job opportunities abroad. Now many are fleeing, including himself.
“Microphones and cameras facing AK-47s — it’s an uphill battle,” he said.
Facing this reality, Mohseni said he has already drawn up a contingency plan. If Tolo is closed, it will broadcast its programming from Europe or the Middle East.