Afghanistan’s most popular private television network has voluntarily replaced its risque Turkish soap operas and music shows with tamer programs tailored to the country’s new Taliban rulers, who have issued vague directives that media must not contradict Islamic laws or harm the national interest.
Still, independent Afghan news stations are keeping female presenters on the air and testing the limits of media freedom under the group, whose militants have killed journalists in the past but have promised an open, inclusive system since coming to power in August.
As the world watches intently for clues on how the Taliban will govern, their treatment of the media will be a key indicator, along with their policies toward women. When they ruled Afghanistan between 1996-2001, they enforced a harsh interpretation of Islam, barring girls and women from schools and public life, and brutally suppressing dissent.
Since then, Afghanistan has seen a proliferation of media outlets, and women have made some strides within the restrictions of the deeply conservative society.
In a first sign, the Taliban are trying to soften their extremist reputation, one of its officials unexpectedly walked into the studios of the privately owned Tolo News just two days after taking control of Kabul in mid-August. He sat down for an interview with the female anchor, Behishta Arghand.
The 22-year-old anchor told The Associated Press that she was nervous when she saw him enter the studio, but his behavior and how he answered questions helped put her at ease a bit.
“I just said to myself this is a good time to show for all the world, Afghan women don’t want to go back. They want... to go forward,” she said.
Arghand fled the country after the interview, unwilling to take any chances about the Taliban’s promises of greater openness. She is temporarily in a compound in Qatar for Afghan refugees.
She is among hundreds of journalists — many seen as the best in their field — who left the country after the Taliban takeover, part of an exodus of more than 100,000 Afghans.
Yet her interview with the Taliban official marked a notable shift from the militants’ first time in power when women had to cover themselves from head to toe and were stoned to death in public for adultery and other alleged offenses.
This time, the Taliban shared a video of girls going to school in the provinces. They also have held news conferences after taking control of Kabul, fielding questions from local and international media.
Saad Mohseni, the CEO, and chairman of Moby Group, which owns Tolo News, said he believes the Taliban are tolerating the media because they understand they have to win hearts and minds, convince the political establishment to play a role, and consolidate their rule.
“The media is important to them, but what they do to the media in a month or two months’ time remains to be seen,” he said from Dubai, where Moby Group has an office.
Although the US and its allies failed to create a stable democracy in Afghanistan, they did succeed in creating a thriving press, said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. The US government spent huge sums of money on the project as the foundation of democracy, he noted on CPJ’s website.
Initial US grants helped launch Tolo, which began as a radio station in 2003 and rapidly expanded to television. The Pashto- and Dari-language broadcaster employs 500 people and is the most-viewed private network in Afghanistan.
Known for its news and entertainment programming, Tolo decided on its own to remove music shows and soap operas from the airwaves because “we didn’t think that they’d be acceptable to the new regime,” Mohseni said. The romance dramas have been replaced by a Turkish TV series set in the Ottoman era, with more modestly dressed actresses.
Afghanistan’s state broadcaster RTA pulled its female presenters off the air until further notice. The independent female-run Zan TV has ceased showing new programming.
The privately run Ariana news channel, however, has kept its female anchors on the air. Tolo had a female host on its breakfast show Thursday and the network has one female news anchor and several female reporters.
Since taking control, there have been reports of the Taliban beating and threatening journalists. In one known case, the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said Taliban militants going door to door in a hunt for one of its journalists shot and killed a member of his family and seriously injured another.
“We have to make sure that Afghan journalism stays alive because people will need it,” said Bilal Sarwary, a longtime journalist in Afghanistan whose work has appeared on the BBC, among others.
Although he also has left Afghanistan with his family, he said a generation of citizen journalists are more empowered than ever.
“If we can’t go (back), it does not mean we will give up on Afghanistan. We will work on Afghanistan from wherever we are. ... Global connectivity is the new normal,” Sarwary said.
Meanwhile, the Taliban are allowing journalists to enter Afghanistan from Pakistan and allowing media outlets to continue operating in Kabul, albeit under ominous guidelines. They have stipulated that news reports must not contradict Islamic values and should not challenge the national interest.
Such vague rules are typical for authoritarian states across the Middle East and Central Asia, where they have been used to silence and prosecute journalists. In order to operate, local media may have to practice self-censorship to avoid repercussions.
Afghanistan has long been dangerous for journalists. CPJ says 53 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001 and 33 of them since 2018.
In July, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer from Reuters was killed covering clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. In 2014, an Agence France-Presse journalist, his wife, and two children were among nine people killed by Taliban gunmen while dining at a hotel in Kabul.
Nearly two years later in 2016, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted Tolo employees on a bus, killing seven of them and wounding at least 25 people. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, calling Tolo a tool of decadent Western influence.
Mohseni said he was concerned when the Taliban overran Kabul and that he remains “not necessarily positive.”
“But I’m just thinking: Well, let’s just wait and see. Let’s see how restrictive they will be,” he said. “There’s no doubt they’ll be restrictive. The question is how restrictive.”