Inside a TV news station determined to report facts in the Taliban's Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan — Inside a cramped and windowless room at the headquarters of Afghanistan's leading news channel, a group of young editors race against a six o'clock deadline.
One fiddles with the audio for a story on the year-long closure of girls' secondary schools. Another tinkers with the images of Taliban officials at an international conference. They are stories that will be featured in that evening's broadcast from TOLOnews.
When the Taliban returned to power last year, few expected Afghanistan's first 24/7 news channel to survive. The first time the group was in power, in the 1990s, radios mostly carried Islamic programming and propaganda, and TVs were banned. After they were toppled in 2001, the Taliban spent the next couple of decades staging deadly attacks, often against journalists. In 2016, seven TOLO TV employees were killed by a Taliban suicide bomber.
Despite that history, the Taliban have let this democratic institution stand. But every day is a struggle for the journalists who still work there.
TOLOnews was barely in a position to cover the Taliban's sudden takeover of the government last year.
"We lost more than 90% of our colleagues after the collapse of the government," said Khpowlwak Sapai, the head of the network. Many TOLOnews reporters, producers, and editors were among the tens of thousands of Afghans who frantically fled the country within days of the fall of Kabul.
Sapai was only lucky in that he was able to hire new staff from the more than 200 media outlets that shut down soon after the return of the Taliban. Some closed under the pressure of draconian reporting restrictions, others ran out of funding amid the country's economic collapse.
One of the young unemployed journalists Sapai hired was 23-year-old Toba Walizada, the network's education reporter, who has spent the last year relentlessly covering the Taliban's ban on middle and high schools for girls.
Over the last year, Walizada has produced hundreds of stories about the school closures, and the authorities don't understand why she keeps covering the same story.
"The ministry of education always closes the door in my face," Walizada said. "I'm always calling the deputy spokesman for the Islamic Emirate and he always tells me, 'I have told you already, there is nothing new to say.'"
"I would like to continue my struggle here ... if I leave, who will be the voice of Afghanistan?"
Her story that's airing this evening is a fresh angle for her beat. An Afghan ulema – a group of Muslim scholars – has called for girls to be admitted to school.
This may not be the development the Taliban want to hear, yet the self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate could hardly complain about news coverage of Islamic scholars.
Vague rules and red lines
For the journalists who still work in Afghanistan, it's not always clear where the red lines are. The Taliban's media law simply warns against broadcasting anything that is "contrary to Islam" or involves national security.
Over the last year, there have been numerous accounts of raids, beatings, and detentions of Afghan journalists across the country who were pursuing stories the authorities did not like, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
None of this has stopped TOLOnews from broadcasting critical voices.
When the United Nations published a report blaming the Taliban for extrajudicial killings, TOLO programs analyzed and debated the findings.
When the Taliban ordered the network to stop playing popular foreign TV shows featuring women, and ordered TOLO not to explain why the shows disappeared, Sapai decided his news program owed it to viewers to tell them why some of the shows were disappearing. Both Sapai and the anchor who delivered that news were briefly arrested for defying Taliban orders.
In spring, the Taliban issued a decree instructing women, including on-camera journalists, to cover their faces in public. The network's female journalists decided they would abide by the order by wearing COVID face masks so they could keep working — and in an act of solidarity, their male colleagues also wore masks on air.
And tonight, they are ready to go on air again.
With minutes to spare before the six o'clock broadcast, a TOLOnews anchor in a sharp navy suit and perfectly coiffed hair settles in behind a desk in the brightly lit studio.
A producer counts down and the broadcast begins. It is a woman who delivers the leading story about the Taliban's participation in an international conference. TOLO's audience may not see her face behind the mask, but they'll hear her voice as she explains where the Taliban's Afghanistan may be headed next.
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