The United Nations last week raised concerns over Taliban crackdowns on protests and the journalists covering them. Two journalists from Etilaat Roz newspaper were arrested and beaten with iron rods.
The newspaper and other media houses say, though, that it’s not clear if the heavy-handedness of some local police commanders is sanctioned by the Taliban’s media wing, which has actually shown a more engaging side, even welcoming foreign journalists.
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The Taliban have also allowed some women presenters to remain on the air at the country’s most popular and hard-hitting broadcaster, Tolo TV. In recent years, millions of Afghans have tuned in for its talk shows, Turkish soap operas and wide-ranging news coverage. But under Taliban rule, its very existence could now be in question.
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Saad Mohseni heads the MOBY Group, the media company that owns Tolo News in Afghanistan. He recently arrived in the US and spoke with The World's host Carol Hills from New York about the current situation in the country under Taliban rule.
Carol Hills: First off, can you describe how much freedom and independence Tolo News had before the US departed from Afghanistan?
Saad Mohseni: Well, it wasn't absolute. Like any country, we have to abide by local laws. So, we obviously pushed the envelope as much as we could on social, cultural and political issues. You know, relative to the region, I think Afghanistan had the freest market when you compare Afghanistan to India, the Middle East, Central Asia, all of Africa and even some countries in Eastern Europe. So, media was a true success story in Afghanistan.
In what way did Tolo really push the envelope in Afghanistan when it started?
We had female hosts and DJs and presenters, and that in itself in the early days was a big challenge to the status quo. Don't forget, in 2001, there was no television; radio stations just used to air religious songs. So, by just coming on air in 2003 and having female DJs and then presenters on television in 2004, that in itself sort of helped change things on the ground. And of course, our entertainment-type programs, our soap operas, all of these things sort of incrementally changed the way that people saw themselves.
What about now, since the Taliban have taken over? What sort of freedom of movement does your staff have now?
Afghanistan seems a lot more secure. So, you can actually travel quite easily right across the country. Nonetheless, they have to be careful because, you know, local authorities have their own policies. On the news side, there's probably not much difference in terms of our reporting. On the entertainment side, because we have five networks, we've pulled all music clips for a period. We've started again with fairly conservative music, classical music performed by men. And we also have pulled some of the risqué shows, like Turkish soap operas. But we've tried to keep things as they were as much as possible. It may not be easy, especially on the entertainment side, but we are trying.
On the news side, right now, if you tune in to Tolo, will you see female anchors and female reporters?
Absolutely. Absolutely, you'll see female reporters. You will see female presenters for both news and the entertainment programs, like the morning show, and so forth. And you will see us covering all sorts of issues: people being critical of the Taliban's policies vis-à-vis women, sporadic fighting across the country, a lot less now than, say, a couple of weeks ago when there was real resistance in Panjshir. And we have these debate programs. It's quite interesting that there are women inside the studio criticizing the Taliban, there are women outside the country, sort of defending the Taliban. It's a really interesting environment. The Taliban are being pushed to respond to the way that, you know, they're treating women. And by being challenged, they have to, in some ways, come up with their policies. More and more they're holding press conferences. I'm not saying they're as transparent as they should be, but we're seeing some signs that maybe they're reacting to things.
We know that when the Taliban first entered Kabul last month; they went to your offices and took away all the state-issued weapons that your staffers were using to protect themselves. The Taliban fighters then offered their own protection. Your staffers turned that offer down. What was that moment like?
It's very scary. I mean, I was getting live feedback from our guys on the ground, and we were not sure how they would react. But they came in and, I think their job was to confiscate anything that belonged to the state — weapons, vehicles, residential dwellings, office space. So, they had clear instructions to do that. But they were respectful. They didn't come into the actual building. They actually just roamed the compound and they left soon after. And then, of course, subsequent to that visit, we had a visit from their media commission members. That was a lot more civilized. And since then, we have this ongoing relationship with them, mostly with the media commission folks. They're sort of being forced to address certain issues, kicking and screaming. They run the country now, and that's a fact that we cannot ignore while we run our TV networks.
But do they interfere with your programing or come to your offices or question what you're broadcasting or want approval of things?
Not yet. And I don't think it's because they're wonderful, open-minded individuals who wish to see free media prosper. It's mostly because I don't think they have the bandwidth. They probably will draft their own version of media laws, they will issue directives. So, a long way to go.
We've seen a lot of violence directed toward journalists in the past week in Afghanistan, with journalists beaten and flogged. Aren't you concerned about that? I mean, how are you keeping your own people safe?
You know, you have no guarantees. We had a couple of journalists beaten up two weeks ago. And we told them all, you're not going to move, you have to stay put. We can't risk you going out and being exposed to this really new and wild environment. It's like the Wild West sometimes. These guys have been trained to kill and destroy, not to police a city of 7 million people.
What about your female hosts? How are you dealing with them or providing protection for them?
It's difficult. It's challenging. For example, they issued this edict that female employees of the government should not go to work for a period until they sort out security and everything. And then all of a sudden, we have to deal with this challenge of explaining to Taliban security personnel at checkpoints that these women didn't work for the government. They work for a private organization. Just communicating that we felt was a challenge. But somehow, we managed to get our girls into the studios. And now, most of our female employees can go out and do vox pops on the streets, can go and interview officials and ministries. But there's always the likelihood that someone's going to issue an edict tomorrow and things can change completely.
What's your biggest worry today?
The safety of our staff from being able to continue. I hate to think that some of our gains over the last two decades will be lost. And once people lose hope that somehow, you know, the fear is that we will go back to the mid-1990s.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.