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Afghan media brace for what’s next under Taliban rule

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Afghanistan’s most popular private television network has voluntarily replaced its risky Turkish soap operas and musical shows with softer programs tailored to the country’s new Taliban rulers, who issued vague directives according to which the media must not contradict Islamic laws or harm the national interest.

Yet independent Afghan news stations are keeping the female presenters on air and testing the limits of media freedom under the group, whose activists have killed journalists in the past but have promised an open and inclusive system since their arrival. in power in August.

As the world closely monitors for clues as to how the Taliban will rule, their treatment of the media will be a key indicator, along with their policies towards women. When they ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they imposed a harsh interpretation of Islam, barring girls and women from school and public life, and brutally suppressing dissent.

Since then, Afghanistan has seen a proliferation of media and women have made strides within the confines of deeply conservative society.

As the first sign that the Taliban is trying to soften its reputation as an extremist, one of its officials unexpectedly entered the studios of the private company Tolo News, just two days after taking control of Kabul in mid- August. He sat down for an interview with presenter, Behishta Arghand.

The 22-year-old presenter told The Associated Press she was nervous when she saw him walk into the studio, but his demeanor and the way he answered questions helped her feel a bit comfortable.

“I just told myself that this is the right time to show the whole world, Afghan women do not want to go back. They want … to move forward, ”she said.

Arghand fled the country after the interview, unwilling to take any chances on the Taliban’s promises of greater openness. She is temporarily in a complex in Qatar for Afghan refugees.

She is one of hundreds of journalists – many considered the best in their fields – who left the country after the Taliban took control, as part of an exodus of more than 100,000 Afghans.

Yet her interview with the Taliban official marked a notable change from the activists’ 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 a video of girls attending school in the provinces. They also held press conferences after taking control of Kabul, responding to questions from local and international media.

Saad Mohseni, CEO and Chairman of Moby Group, owner of Tolo News, said he believed the Taliban tolerated the media because they understood they had to win hearts and minds, convince the political establishment to play a role and consolidate their power.

“The media are important to them, but what they do to the media in a month or two remains to be seen,” he said from Dubai, where Moby Group has an office.

Although the United States and its allies failed to create a stable democracy in Afghanistan, it did manage to create a thriving press, said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The US government has spent huge sums of money on the project as the foundation of democracy, he noted on the CPJ website.

The first American grants helped launch Tolo, which started as a radio station in 2003 and quickly spread to television. The Pashto and Dari language broadcaster employs 500 people and is the most watched private network in Afghanistan.

Known for his news and entertainment programs, Tolo decided on his own to take music shows and soap operas off the air because “we didn’t think they would be acceptable to the new regime,” Mohseni said. . Romantic dramas were replaced by a Turkish television series set in the Ottoman era, with actresses dressed more modestly.

The Afghan state television channel RTA has withdrawn its female presenters from its antennae until further notice. The independent, female-run channel Zan TV has stopped broadcasting new programming.

Private news channel Ariana, however, kept its female presenters on the air. Tolo had a host on his breakfast show Thursday, and the network has a news anchor and several reporters.

Since taking control, the Taliban have beaten and threatened journalists. In one known case, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said Taliban militants were going door to door to chase one of its journalists, killing a family member and seriously injuring another.

“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 been featured on the BBC, among others.

Although he also left Afghanistan with his family, he said that a generation of citizen journalists are more empowered than ever.

“If we can’t (come back), that doesn’t mean we will abandon Afghanistan. We will work on Afghanistan wherever we are. … Global connectivity is the new normal, ”said Sarwary.

Meanwhile, the Taliban allow journalists to enter Afghanistan from Pakistan and allow media to continue operating in Kabul, albeit under disturbing guidelines. They stipulated that reporting should not contradict Islamic values ​​and should not challenge the national interest.

Such vague rules are typical of authoritarian states in the Middle East and Central Asia, where they have been used to silence and prosecute journalists. To work, local media may need to practice self-censorship to avoid repercussions.

Afghanistan has long been dangerous for journalists. CPJ says 53 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001 and 33 of them since 2018.

In July, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters photographer was killed while covering clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. In 2014, a journalist from Agence France-Presse, his wife and two children were among nine people killed by armed Taliban while dining in a hotel in Kabul.

Almost two years later, in 2016, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted Tolo employees on a bus, killing seven and injuring at least 25 people. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, calling Tolo a tool of decadent Western influence.

Mohseni said he was worried when the Taliban invaded Kabul and is “not necessarily positive”.

“But I’m just thinking, well, let’s wait and see. Let’s see how restrictive they will be,” he said. “There is no doubt that they will be restrictive. The question is how restrictive they will be.”

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Associated Press editors Tameem Akhgar in Istanbul, Turkey, and Bram Janssen in Doha, Qatar, contributed.

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