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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



When the Taliban swept into power in Afghanistan one year ago this month, they said a democratic institution could stay - the media. It's a change from their last time in power when they took over radio stations and banned TV. But the Taliban still have opinions about what media in the country should say, and that affects the work that local journalists do. NPR's Steve Inskeep has been asking, who's included in the Taliban's Afghanistan? He watched employees of an Afghan TV network produce their evening news.


STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: A sign in this windowless room says edit department. Eleven people cluster around computer screens, tweaking the different stories for the broadcast that starts in 26 minutes.


INSKEEP: Upstairs, the head of TOLOnews has an office overlooking the brightly lit set.


INSKEEP: You look through the Venetian blinds and you see a red and blue and white studio.

Khpowlwak Sapai was running this place last year when the Taliban drove into Kabul. His first problem was staff members who left the country, or at least the profession.

KHPOWLWAK SAPAI: We lost more than 90% of our colleagues after 15 August, 2021.

INSKEEP: More than 90%.

SAPAI: More than 90% - all of our reporters, all presenters, all producers within 10 days after the collapse.

INSKEEP: He had to hire an almost entirely new staff. He was lucky to find people from other news organizations that went out of business entirely. Journalism here is hard.

SAPAI: You have to run day and night.

INSKEEP: You have to run because there's so much work, or you have to run for your own security?

SAPAI: For both.

INSKEEP: A display case at TOLOnews holds dusty cameras and microphones carried by TOLO journalists who were killed in years past. Now that the Taliban are in power, the challenge to journalists has changed. The few remaining outlets have to live under a group they once considered a mortal threat. The Committee to Protect Journalists says reporters from several organizations were beaten or jailed for pursuing stories the authorities disliked. And Taliban leaders sometimes visit TOLO TV to give instructions.

SAPAI: We do not have any verified media law.

INSKEEP: There is no law?

SAPAI: There is no law. That is the big problem for us.

INSKEEP: The Taliban threw out the old government's media law, meaning nobody knows their rights or the red lines. In its place is a vague warning not to broadcast anything against Islam or national security, yet TOLO has continued to broadcast critical voices.

SAPAI: If we do not do that, then why we should exist?

INSKEEP: The United Nations recently blamed Afghanistan's new rulers for extrajudicial killings. TOLO programs analyzed and debated that report. One day, the Taliban ordered the network to stop playing popular foreign TV dramas that included women on screen. The Taliban also ordered TOLO not to say why the shows disappeared. Sapai decided his news program had to report this fact.

SAPAI: Because it was a sensitive story.


SAPAI: For that, I myself wrote the story.

INSKEEP: And the anchor said it on the air, over here in the studio.

SAPAI: Then I was arrested, as was the anchor who was just doing the story. He was arrested that night.

INSKEEP: The anchor was arrested for saying your words.

SAPAI: My words.

INSKEEP: And you had to go negotiate his freedom. How long was he held?

SAPAI: He was for 24 hours in custody.

INSKEEP: Sapai himself was held for an hour. This spring, the Taliban said women must resume covering their faces in public. And this included TOLO journalists on camera.

SAPAI: I myself was suggesting, we cannot go ahead anymore. We should close.

INSKEEP: You were ready to shut down the network.

SAPAI: To shut down the channel.

INSKEEP: But in a management meeting, company lawyers pushed back.

SAPAI: They came with a little bit different suggestion. They were saying that why we feel men are sitting and making decisions regarding the more than a hundred women journalists in the company? Let's leave the decision up to them.

INSKEEP: TOLO's women journalists met and decided they would cover their faces with COVID face masks so they could keep working. Male journalists performed an act of solidarity.

Is this right that there were some male anchors who also went on the air masked?

SAPAI: Yes - for four days.

INSKEEP: On the day of our visit, Sapai turned to a computer screen showing a list of stories scheduled for the 6:00 news.

SAPAI: Look. Look. Look. Look. Look. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12.

INSKEEP: In the bright lights below, the anchor settled in behind his desk. If there was a movie about TOLO TV, he could be played by Alec Baldwin.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: The lead story came from a female correspondent masked but still on the scene of an international conference on Afghanistan.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: A later story told of girls in school - or rather, out of it. When the Taliban announced last spring that girls were banned from middle and high schools, the anchor wept on the air while giving the news.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: And Sapai's team kept following it.

SAPAI: Nearly every day, we are trying to have a story on school. We are finding the angle - looking for a new angle. We did around 400 stories after the day they announced that the school will not be open.

INSKEEP: Today's school story is by the regular education reporter. She is 23-year-old Toba Walizada.

How long have you worked at TOLOnews?

TOBA WALIZADA: (Through interpreter) After the collapse, I came here.

INSKEEP: She came from another network that did not survive the change in power.

Why did you stay in journalism?

WALIZADA: (Through interpreter) Because I would like to continue my struggle here. It's very hard for me to leave behind everything and go. If I leave, who will be the voice of Afghanistan?

INSKEEP: Has your reporting on the schools made the government unhappy?

WALIZADA: (Through interpreter) Oh, 100%.

INSKEEP: She says the authorities don't understand why she keeps covering the same story.

WALIZADA: (Through interpreter) The Ministry of Education always closes the door in my face. I'm always calling the deputy spokesman for the Islamic Emirate. He tells me, I have told you already - there's nothing new to say.

INSKEEP: But tonight she has yet another fresh angle. Not for the first time, an Afghan ulema - a group of religious scholars - called for girls to be admitted to school.


WALIZADA: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: Her story may not be the news the Taliban wanted to hear, yet the self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate could hardly complain about news coverage of Islamic scholars. A few more facts appeared on screens across Afghanistan.

CHANG: That is NPR's Steve Inskeep in Kabul. His coverage continues tomorrow on Morning Edition, where he tries to answer the question, why are some Afghan women still working while others are not?



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.