When Taliban fighters invaded Kabul on the evening of August 15, the executives of Afghanistan’s largest independent TV network had to make a difficult decision: stay on the air or go dark.
Tolo continued to broadcast, but like the rest of the country’s TV and radio stations, it now faces a difficult and uncertain future under the Taliban, whose return has sparked fear through the media.
The Islamist terror group killed and threatened journalists throughout its 20-year insurgency.
During their 1996-2001 regime, TV and most entertainment were banned, and there was no media to speak of.
The Taliban takeover “puts us in a very, very difficult situation…to continue our work or not,” Lotfullah Najafizada, the director of Tolo News, told AFP in a telephone interview.
“As a 24/7 news operation, we didn’t even have an hour to take a break and reconsider.”
Tolo stayed on because it had a duty to break the news, he said, and also because it would have been an “almost impossible” task to negotiate a resumption with the Taliban if the network had been shut down.
The Taliban leadership has asked the Afghan media to operate normally.
An official even sat down for an interview with a female host on Tolo News, trying to convince people that the Taliban will be gentler this time around.
But many Afghans, including in the media, are not convinced.
“We’re scared, I’ll be honest with you, we’re nervous,” Saad Mohseni, CEO of Tolo’s parent company Moby Group, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) of Dubai.
“Everyone has sleepless nights, but what the viewer experiences is not that different.”
‘My family is under threat’
The Taliban victory has plunged Afghanistan’s independent media into crisis.
According to watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), about 100 retail outlets have suspended operations.
The Pajhwok news agency said many had to close their doors due to the financial crisis caused by the Taliban takeover.
It has also forced many women out of the industry.
RSF said there are only 76 female journalists left working for outlets in the Afghan capital – a huge drop from the 700 reported last year.
Outside of Kabul, it added, “most female journalists have been forced to stop working”.
There have also been reports of harassment, intimidation and violence.
In a shocking incident, a group of Taliban fighters broke into the private Afghanistan TV studio.
They stood behind the anchor’s desk with assault rifles as their commander read out a statement urging viewers not to fear the group.
Such threats have forced dozens of Afghan journalists to flee, including Beheshta Arghand, who left just days after the groundbreaking Taliban interview on Tolo News.
“My family is threatened by the Taliban because of me,” she told diplomats in Qatar on Wednesday.
The catastrophic changes follow two decades of explosive growth for independent Afghan media.
After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, dozens of TV channels and more than 160 radio stations were established with Western aid and private investment.
And Moby Group’s flagship channels, Tolo TV and Tolo News, the most watched channels in Afghanistan, embodied that cultural revolution.
They brought programs to Afghans that would have been unimaginable under the Taliban, from an “American Idol”-esque singing contest to music videos, soap operas and even Afghanistan’s first presidential election.
Most dramatically, Tolo and other Afghan networks gave space and opportunities to women, who were excluded by the Taliban from public life, education and workplaces.
Now there is the fear of a rollback.
Tolo’s Najafizada told AFP that the company’s entertainment arm has already withdrawn some content.
The Taliban have not yet issued formal guidelines to the media and the media has relied mainly on self-censorship to avoid upsetting the Islamists.
Some also plan for contingencies.
The Moby Group is considering options to operate from abroad if Tolo is cracked down.
CEO Mohseni has said orders such as a ban on female journalists or censorship would be a “red line”.
Meanwhile, the company is busy hiring staff to try to fill the gap left by the dozens of employees who left after the fall of Kabul.
“The sad thing is to lose so much capacity, to see a generation of people we invested in, who could have done so much for the country, forced to leave,” Mohseni told the CPJ.
“Unfortunately, this brain drain will take us another two decades to build that kind of capacity.