MILLIONS OF AFGHANS tuned in to Tolo, an Afghan television network, to watch an interview on August 20th with Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her women’s-rights activism after she was shot by the Pakistani Taliban. Soon afterwards a Taliban spokesman visited Tolo’s offices in Kabul for a two-hour discussion. But rather than complain or issue threats, he promised that the new government would respect the freedom of the press.
Earlier another spokesman was interviewed on Tolo by a female anchor, a first for the Islamists. At press conferences the Taliban’s officials have answered tough questions (“Have the Afghan people forgiven you?”) that might get a journalist in Saudi Arabia thrown out of the room. Whether the Taliban have mellowed since their last time in power is an open question. But their initial tolerance of Afghan television is part of a campaign to persuade the world that they have.
It is not surprising that the Taliban, like other Islamist groups, use social media effectively. The group’s head spokesman tweets some 50 times per day. (The Taliban check phones for offending social-media posts at checkpoints. Afghan activists have been scrubbing their accounts.)
The question is whether the Taliban can embrace old-fashioned TV, which they attempted to ban during their first stint in power in the 1990s. Television viewership has grown enormously in Afghanistan over the past two decades. For most Afghans it matters more than the internet. And unlike social media, which often isolates users in ideological bubbles, Afghan TV is mostly a moderating force.
Television is now entrenched in Afghan society, as it was not when the jihadists last took over. Far more people voted in the finals of “Afghan Star”, a music competition resembling “America’s Got Talent”, last year than in the national election. “There is nothing else to do,” says Saad Mohseni, the head of Tolo: “People all gather round the TV and discuss the shows for hours. It’s like the US in the ’50s.” Nearly 70% of Afghans watch TV, according to a 2019 survey by the Asia Foundation, while only 30% have internet access.
Taking the tube away would be politically costly. In 2008 the then government attempted to ban a popular Indian soap opera, “Because the Mother-in-Law Was Once the Daughter-in-Law”, which the culture minister considered overly racy. Fans were outraged. Tolo fought the ban in court. The government backed down.
Mr Mohseni, who is based at Tolo’s headquarters in Dubai, is doing all he can to keep production going. Many Tolo presenters and reporters have fled Afghanistan, but they have been replaced by new recruits, including two women. Mr Mohseni expects the Taliban to censor shows or shut down facilities, and has been working out how to move production to neighbouring countries and to Europe. Afghans can watch shows from other countries via satellite. The Taliban could smash their TV sets, as they did last time, but that was a different era: Tolo was launched in 2004. Prime-time shows can attract 10m-12m viewers, about a third of the population.
While Tolo is holding the line on its news reporting, it is ceding ground on the entertainment front. In expectation of new Taliban rules, it has stopped showing two Turkish soap operas, as well as shows that feature singing. It has filled the time by lengthening the 6pm news from 30 minutes to an hour and by airing cricket matches and a historical series about the Ottoman Empire. Massood Sanjer, head of programming, is testing the waters by airing music accompanying Sufi poems. Complaints about the soaps’ cancellation are pouring in, but this time Tolo can hardly expect a chance to defend itself in court.
Many Afghans think the Taliban will gradually tighten the reins. Contrary to assurances by the militants’ leaders, a Tolo journalist was recently beaten up by apparent Taliban soldiers and his camera confiscated. And despite their proclamations of more liberal intentions, the Taliban may ultimately take drastic measures against Tolo. Yet if the Taliban does not demarcate some space for TV, it may have to face the wrath of Afghan viewers. Censoring or banning television would certainly undermine its campaign to convince the world that it has joined the 21st century—or at least the 20th.