KABUL, Afghanistan — In a cramped, windowless room at the headquarters of Afghanistan’s main news channel, a group of young editors rush against a six-hour deadline.
One plays with the audio for a story about the year-long closure of girls’ secondary schools. Another tinkers with images of Taliban leaders at an international conference. These are stories that will be featured on that evening’s TOLOnews show.
When the Taliban returned to power last year, few expected Afghanistan’s first 24-hour news channel to survive. When the group was first in power, in the 1990s, radios mainly broadcast Islamic programs and propaganda, and televisions were banned. After being overthrown in 2001, the Taliban spent the next two decades staging deadly attacks, often against journalists. In 2016, seven TOLO TV employees were killed by a Taliban suicide bomber.
Despite this history, the Taliban let this democratic institution survive. But every day is a struggle for the journalists who still work there.
TOLOnews was barely able to cover the Taliban’s sudden government takeover last year.
“We lost over 90% of our colleagues after the government collapsed,” said Khpowlwak Sapai, the network’s leader. Many TOLOnews reporters, producers and editors were among the tens of thousands of Afghans who frantically fled the country days after the fall of Kabul.
Sapai was only lucky in that he was able to hire new staff from over 200 outlets that closed shortly after the Taliban returned. Some closed under the pressure of draconian reporting restrictions, others ran out of funding amid the country’s economic collapse.
One of the unemployed young journalists hired by Sapai was Toba Walizada, 23, an education reporter for the network, who has spent the last year tirelessly covering the Taliban’s ban on middle and high schools for girls. .
Over the past year, Walizada has produced hundreds of stories about school closures, and authorities don’t understand why she continues to cover the same story.
“The Ministry of Education always shuts the door in my face,” Walizada said. “I always call the deputy spokesperson for the Islamic Emirate and he always tells me, ‘I told you before, there’s nothing new to say.'”
“I would like to continue my fight here… if I leave, who will be the voice of Afghanistan?”
Her story that airs tonight is a new angle for her beat. An Afghan ulama – a group of Muslim scholars – called for girls to be admitted to school.
This may not be the development the Taliban want to hear, but the self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate could hardly complain about the media coverage of Islamic scholars.
Vague rules and red lines
For journalists still working in Afghanistan, the red lines are not always clear. The Taliban’s media law simply warns against broadcasting anything that is “un-Islamic” or involves national security.
Over the past year, there have been numerous accounts of raids, beatings and detentions of Afghan journalists across the country who pursued stories that authorities did not like, according to the Committee for the Protection journalists.
None of this has stopped TOLOnews from airing critical voices.
When the United Nations released a report accusing the Taliban of extrajudicial executions, TOLO programs analyzed and debated the findings.
When the Taliban ordered the network to stop airing popular foreign TV shows featuring women and ordered TOLO not to explain why the shows disappeared, Sapai decided that its news program owed viewers some tell them why some of the shows were disappearing. Sapai and the presenter who broke the news were briefly arrested for defying Taliban orders.
In the spring, the Taliban issued an edict ordering women, including journalists on camera, to cover their faces in public. The network’s female reporters decided they would keep the order by wearing COVID masks so they could keep working – and in an act of solidarity, their male colleagues also wore masks on air.
And tonight, they are ready to go back on the air.
With a few minutes to spare before the six o’clock broadcast, a TOLOnews presenter in a sharp navy suit and perfectly styled hair takes a seat behind a desk in the brightly lit studio.
A producer counts down and the broadcast begins. It is a woman who delivers the editorial on the Taliban’s participation in an international conference. TOLO audiences may not see her face behind the mask, but they will hear her voice as she explains where the Taliban’s Afghanistan might be heading next.