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Madina Morwat was one of many Afghan journalists who lost their jobs when dozens of television and radio stations went on strike after the Taliban captured Kabul last month.
But the 23-year-old reporter quickly resumed her career after taking a job at Tolo News, part of Afghanistan’s largest media company Moby Group, and a channel that symbolizes the rise of liberal media in Afghanistan since the Taliban launched the first came to power after the US invasion in 2001. “Many embassies have asked if I want to leave Afghanistan, but I am committed to working for women and my country,” she said.
Since the hardline Islamic group returned to the Afghan capital in August, Tolo News has continued to broadcast a full schedule. The country’s first 24/7 channel is known for its strong coverage. It brought the news that President fired Ashraf Ghani fled while the Taliban invaded the country and reported on corruption in the military. It also employs dozens of female journalists. His fate under the Taliban is widely regarded as a litmus test of whether the new regime will guarantee basic freedoms.
During the previous term of office of the Taliban from 1996-2001, women were banned from public life, the media was strictly controlled and television and other forms of entertainment were banned.
The Taliban needs international recognition to access aid, and is interested in a more liberal face Western powers. In turn, foreign governments hope that the regime is a system they can work with to prevent an economic crisis that could trigger a flood of refugees and a proliferation of jihadists in the region..
But so far, the outlook seems uncertain. Despite the early promise of senior Taliban figures that Afghans have nothing to fear and that the hardline Islamists did not intend to return to the oppression of the past, Kabul has encountered a conflict of opinion. Armed fighters aggressively paid off protesters and last week defeated and detained journalists, including a Tolo News cameraman, who reported on protests in the capital.
“They are finally kicking us out. . . I half expect it, ”said Saad Mohseni, chairman and CEO of Moby Group, which launched Tolo News in 2004.
But Mohseni said it was time to talk to the Taliban and convince them of the merits of a moderate Afghanistan before hardening their views. “It’s probably the right thing to do to get involved with them,” he said.
Mohseni, a 55-year-old Afghan Australian and son of an Afghan diplomat, was born in London and left a career in finance at Australian stockbroker Tricom to return to Afghanistan and start his media business. Moby Group was launched in 2003 in support of a USAID grant. Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who describes Mohseni as a friend, took a minority stake in the business in 2012.
Tolo’s rise was the announcement of the modernization of Afghanistan’s media landscape following the US invasion. The country boasts dozens of television channels and 150 radio stations before the Taliban regained control.
As the country’s leading broadcaster, with programming in Pashto and Dari, two of the country’s main languages, Tolo and the other Moby television and radio channels, make up 60 percent of Afghanistan’s audience. The reality show “Afghan Star” and Tolo’s evening news program regularly attracts about 12 million viewers, a third of the country’s population. The channels are also available in countries in the wider region.
Tolo immediately put the new regime to the test when he asked Taliban official Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemand to conduct an interview with female news anchor Beheshta Arghand, two days after the Islamists took power. Their exchange went viral worldwide.
Arghand then interviewed human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, an outspoken critic of the Islamic faction’s oppression of women who, as a schoolgirl by the Pakistani Taliban – who declared allegiance to the Afghan Taliban.
But Arghand and more than 50 others among Tolo’s 400 staff have since fled the country for fear of their safety and that of their families.
Fearing that the Taliban would target their homes, “we spent most of our nights in the office” after the takeover, a Tolo journalist who left the country in late August said: “The Taliban are not doing what they say. We must save our lives and our families. ”
Mohseni, who spoke from Dubai, said he would not return to Afghanistan until his security was assured. The Taliban promised Tolo could continue programming, he said, but out of caution he had already taken a few Turkish soap operas and music videos from the air.
Observers say the early days of the new regime gave rise to false hopes for the future of free media.
“The top Taliban leadership sees Tolo as a possible tool they can use to put together their image to their liking in the coming months,” Avinash Paliwal told the Soas South Asia Institute at the University of London. “Given Tolo’s powerful international voice, the Taliban are privileged to soften their image. Those privileges can change. ”
Although it is unclear how long Tolo will be able to stay, Mohseni used social media to denounce the beating of reporters and pay tribute to a journalist who died with the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan in the fight against the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley, the country’s last opposition.
Tolo would continue to work out of Kabul for as long as possible, he said, adding: “There are many other people who want to keep working, and we have hired many new people,” including many women.
But if safety or independent coverage is compromised, operations are relocated. “We have no safety nets, there is no state, government, official police,” he said. “It’s actually nerve-wracking for us.”