Afghanistan’s most popular private television network made the decision to remove its risqué Turkish soap operas from its broadcasting schedule, replacing them with programs less likely to upset the Taliban.
Tolo News voluntarily removed music shows and soap operas after the Taliban has issued vague directives that media must not contradict Islamic laws or harm national interest. Instead, the dramas have been replaced by a Turkish TV series set in the Ottoman era featuring more modestly dressed actresses.
Saad Mohseni, the CEO and chairman of Moby Group, which owns Tolo, said the network made the decision to replace the shows on its own because “we didn’t think that they’d be acceptable to the new regime.”
The Taliban have been allowing journalists into Afghanistan from Pakistan, and they allow media outlets to continue operating, but they are also under the same vague guidelines. Local media may make self-censorship decisions similar to Tolo to avoid repercussions.
For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.
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 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 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 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.
Mohseni 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 U.S. 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 U.S. government spent huge sums of money on the project as the foundation of democracy, he noted on CPJ’s website.
Initial U.S. 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.
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 Taliban beating and threatening journalists.
“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.
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.”