Can Afghanistan’s Leading Broadcaster Get Rid of the Taliban?

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Over the past two decades, Afghan broadcaster Tolo has been known for provocative programs such asBurka Avenger,“which one animated superhero uses martial arts to destroy the bad guys trying to shut down a girls’ school.

Millions of Afghans also watched obscene Turkish soap operas, the popular “6:00 News” and reality show “Afghan Star” It features female singers dancing energetically in Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol”.

But since the Taliban took over the Afghan capital of Kabul on August 15, something else has been added to Tolo’s usual roster: educational programs on Islamic morality. Whether the pop music menu and female television presenters will survive the Taliban’s new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be a barometer of the rebels’ tolerance for dissident views and values.

“Honestly, I’m still surprised we’re continuing to work,” he said. Saad Mohseni, Tolo’s co-owner is an Australian-Afghan former investment banker who founded the Moby Group, which owns Tolo, in 2002. “We know what the Taliban represents.”

Eager to gain international legitimacy, the Taliban have sought to rebrand themselves as more moderate since attacking Kabul, offering amnesty to their former rivals and urging women to join the government. They pledged to support media freedom, on the condition that media outlets adhere to “Islamic values”. Even a Taliban spokesperson Appeared on the Tolo news program Hosted by a female anchor a few days after the group took over Kabul.

But journalists and human rights defenders say there are ominous signs that a fierce media crackdown is underway. Taliban fighters Capturing an estranged journalist from the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, he shot dead one of his family members and seriously injured another, according to this publisher.

Mr Mohseni said Ziar Khan Yaad, a Tolo journalist and a cameraman were beaten at gunpoint by five Taliban while reporting on Wednesday. He said the Taliban jumped out of a Land Cruiser and confiscated their equipment and cell phones.

The Taliban also barred at least two female journalists from their jobs on the state television Afghanistan Radio Television. And the female anchor in Tolo, who made global headlines in an interview with a Taliban spokesperson, has since fled the country along with many other journalists.

Many Afghan social media influencers also disabled their Facebook and Twitter accounts and went underground.

Hatice Emin, a presenter for the public broadcaster, said in a phone call that one of the militants took her place at the station the day the Taliban entered Kabul.

the Taliban too Afghan women warned He said it may be safest for them to stay home until rank and file Taliban fighters are trained not to abuse them.

“We are in a very bad situation,” Amin said, adding that male journalists are now afraid to sit next to their female colleagues or even talk to them. “There is no place for us here anymore,” he said.

Tolo rose to prominence as the US took advantage of Afghans’ pent-up news and entertainment hunger following the 2001 US overthrow of the Taliban and the rebels’ ban on independent news, music and movies. Today, Tolo is Afghanistan’s largest and most popular broadcaster, with channels in Pashto and Dari, watched by an estimated 60 percent of Afghans who watch television and listen to the radio.

In 2003, armed with a $220,000 grant from the US government, Mr. Mohseni founded a radio station called Arman FM, which plays Afghan and Indian pop music. Mr. Mohseni recalled that American philanthropists thought he was “crazy”: he barely had electricity in Afghanistan and there were no shampoo or soft drink companies to advertise. But within months, Arman became a national sensation as listeners blasted the station from loudspeakers on the streets of Kabul.

Today, the Moby Group has approximately 500 employees in Afghanistan and broadcasts in South, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Longtime Afghanistan watchers say it’s hard to underestimate Tolo’s influence in shaping Afghanistan’s wasteful media culture. “Tolo was a pioneer,” said Andrew North, a former BBC journalist who trains Afghan journalists. “They came and made a mess and everybody followed him.”

In January 2016, the Taliban targeted Tolo when a suicide bomber crashed his car into a bus carrying Tolo TV employees. killed seven personnel and injured 15. The Taliban accused Tolo of “promoting obscenity, irreligion, foreign culture and nudity”.

Mr. Mohseni stressed that this time, the Taliban will face a tough challenge to suppress the news media in a country that has been radically transformed over the past 20 years.

Afghanistan, which the Taliban conquered this month, has a vibrant media culture with nearly 170 radio stations across the country and dozens of television stations in Kabul alone. They broadcast everything from stunning news documentaries to game shows. Social media also offered a cacophonous outlet for debate and opposition.

“The media in Afghanistan has been one of the greatest achievements in the last 20 years,” Mr. Mohseni said. “We’re in a dangerous, difficult neighborhood, but you were able to express yourself.”

Mr Mohseni said a wholesale restriction on news media would also be difficult in the age of TikTok and Twitter. He noted that about 60 percent of Afghans are 25 years old or younger and come of age with mixed classes of boys and girls; uncovered women; and Snapchat.

“Today’s Taliban are savvy. They control or ban smartphones and WhatsApp in remote villages. They can track their phones,” he said. But the country has changed, the population is young, and the Taliban won’t be able to suddenly cut people off the program and tell them the world is flat, even though they know it isn’t.”

Massoud Sanjer, the content director of Tolo’s entertainment arm, recalled that during the last Taliban rule, he had watched foreign films like “Braveheart” by installing a banned satellite dish on his roof, hidden behind a concrete wall.

“Afghans know how to adapt to circumstances,” he said.

Mr. Mohseni said that after entering Kabul, the Taliban visited Tolo’s compound, confiscated all state-issued weapons and offered them protection. He said that Tolo politely refused.

He added that although many female journalists had fled, some continued to report on the ground, despite asking them to stay at home.

A review of the latest news in Tolo’s popular “6 PM News” news showed some signs of self-censorship, although Tolo said the news content was not censored. Stories of what a future Taliban government might look like are obviously absent or underplayed, as are profiles of Taliban leaders.

Still, Tolo did not hesitate to report the bad behavior of the Taliban or the Afghan opposition, including the resistance movement in Panjshir and the thousands of Afghans desperately trying to escape.

Lutfullah NecefizadaThe director of Tolo News said in an interview that after Kabul fell, there was an internal debate at the broadcaster about whether to be shut down. However, he said that the decision to stay on the air has been taken.

“The shutdown would have been an explanation to the Taliban,” he said. “We don’t take daily orders from the Taliban,” he added. “We publish what we think is news.”

But Afghan journalists and advocates of free media fear that the arduous advances may soon disappear.

Samiullah MahdiJournalists like him have spent 20 years trying to build a pluralistic media industry, denying opportunities abroad, said a former Tolo executive and lecturer at Kabul University. Now, many are fleeing, including himself.

“Microphones and cameras versus AK-47s,” he said. “This is a tough battle.”

Faced with this reality, Mr. Mohseni said he had prepared a contingency plan. If closed, it would broadcast Tolo from Europe or the Middle East.

Isabella Kwai contributed to the reporting.



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