Over the past two decades, the Afghan broadcaster Tolo has been known for provocative programs like “Burka Avenger,” in which an animated superheroine uses martial arts to vanquish villains trying to shut down a girls’ school.
Millions of Afghans have also tuned in to its racy Turkish soap operas, its popular “6 P.M. News” and the reality show “Afghan Star,” featuring female singers dancing energetically on Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol.”
Since the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Aug. 15, however, Tolo’s usual lineup has been supplemented by something else: educational programming about Islamic morality. Whether its menu of pop music and female television hosts survive in the Taliban’s new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be a barometer of the insurgents’ tolerance for dissenting views and values.
“To be honest, I’m still surprised we are up and running,” said Saad Mohseni, Tolo’s co-owner, an Australian-Afghan former investment banker who started Moby Group, which owns Tolo, in 2002. “We know what the Taliban stand for.”
Keen to gain international legitimacy, the Taliban have been seeking to rebrand themselves as more moderate since they stormed Kabul, offering former rivals amnesty and urging women to join the government. They have vowed to support media freedom, on the condition that outlets subscribe to “Islamic values.” A Taliban spokesman even appeared on a Tolo news program hosted by a female anchor just days after the group captured Kabul.
But journalists and human rights advocates say there are ominous signs that a violent media clampdown is underway.
Taliban fighters hunted a journalist from the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle who had already left the country, fatally shooting a member of his family and seriously injuring another, according to the broadcaster.
Ziar Khan Yaad, a Tolo journalist, and a cameraman were beaten by five Taliban fighters at gunpoint while out reporting last week.
The Taliban have also barred at least two female journalists from their jobs at the public broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan. And the woman who hosted the Taliban spokesman on a Tolo news program is no longer at the network.