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October 4, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:38am

Tolonews TV station boss speaks out: ‘How can we save Afghanistan journalism?’

By Charlotte Tobitt

The boss of an Afghanistan TV news station has warned there is “no strong hope for economic survivability” for the country’s independent media outlets over the next few months.

Lotfullah Najafizada, head of the nation’s largest private broadcaster Tolonews TV, said current events following the Taliban takeover are impacting the advertising market and therefore giving the media an extra challenge on top of aggression from the new regime.

“I think that’s probably something that the international community, and journalists who have now chosen to live abroad, should think about – how can we save Afghan journalism, because it would be a pity to lose it like this,” Najafizada said, noting it would come after major achievements in the past 20 years.

Speaking on an online panel hosted by ReNews on Thursday about the future of journalism in Afghanistan to raise money for the Rory Peck Trust, Najafizada warned that the “future is uncertain”.

“We don’t know. But to me it looks like it’s going to deteriorate day by day.”

Najafizada left Afghanistan on 14 August, a day before Kabul fell, to prepare for his channel’s transition away from the capital in the weeks and months before the Taliban was expected to take power. He has been “stuck outside” the country ever since.

Afghanistan in media

CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward and Lotfullah Najafizada, director of TV at ToloNews TV in Afghanistan. Picture: ReNews event screenshot 30 September 2021

Some Tolo programming stopped as soon as the Taliban took power but overall the channel remained on air. Najafizada said: “We thought if we stop it would have been impossible for us to start broadcasting again soon.

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“And then the Taliban showed up at our office within 24 hours. And since then we have been receiving instructions and the Taliban would like to see more concessions from media, which is really alarming.”

The Taliban has recently issued instructions to media including warnings against criticism of the regime or stories contradictory to Islam.

“I think these are really concerning because they’re basically asking that we can broadcast only things that they like,” Najafizada said. “In the provinces, it’s even more serious. They have asked journalists to consult with the local or the provincial head of cultural department about their stories, their story ideas and then, after their approval, they can go and file that story.”

Reports of beatings of journalists, including a journalist and cameraman from Tolo TV and two journalists from the Etilaat Roz newspaper, have been causing serious concern.

Neamat Naghdi, 28-year-old video reporter and Taqi Daryabi, 22-year-old video editor, who both work for Etilaat Roz newspaper and were4 beaten by the Taliban during incarceration, show their bruises, at the newspaper office in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 9, 2021. Picture: WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters

Najafizada said this environment left little room for argument with the Taliban. “I’m afraid there isn’t much happening in terms of us trying to convince them to change their mind.”

CNN’s Clarissa Ward, who reported from Kabul as it fell to the Taliban on 15 August, urged international media to use their privileged position to keep the story on Afghanistan and make sure the Taliban “walk the walk” having promised to be a different group than they were 20 years ago.

Ward (pictured) confessed the Taliban could be “very scary” and, even with western journalists, can move extremely quickly from being “perfectly cordial and polite to quite vicious and nasty”.

“When you are confronted with them on the ground it can be very disconcerting, frankly, and so for any journalist that is troubling and has implications in terms of press freedom but also in a more sinister way… in terms of seeing colleagues get hurt,” she said.

She agreed the “writing is very clearly on the wall” in terms of what the Taliban’s “real vision is for media’s role going forward”. She has heard complaints from senior Taliban leaders that the media only covers negative stories and said it is clear they want the media to be an extension of their own propaganda.

Asked whether there would still be interest in stories from Afghanistan in the US following the withdrawal of troops, Ward said Americans are “definitely engaged” with some of the key issues such as women’s rights.

“I’ve always been of the school of thought as a journalist – when people would tell me ‘oh Americans aren’t interested in foreign news’ – Americans are interested in good stories.

“A good story, a good character, a fascinating insight into a world which is full of people who are human and who are brave and who anyone around the world even if they’ve never visited Afghanistan can connect with. So it’s up to us to go the extra mile and find those great characters in those great stories that can make something happening across the world feel vivid and real and allow people to feel that sense of connection and empathy and ensure that Afghanistan stays in the news.”

Ward added that international journalists have a “real responsibility” to use their privilege, in a position of relative safety compared to Afghan journalists, to hold the Taliban accountable.

“We’ve seen the Taliban talk the talk and we need to make sure that we are around long enough to ensure that they walk the walk,” she said. “And if they’re not going to then that needs to be part of the story too because… often the way the news cycle works [is] when the world’s attention moves elsewhere, that’s when an oppressive regime or a corrupt dictatorship, whatever it might be, will take that moment to engage in nefarious activity.”

She added that it was a big challenge due to the security situation and liquidity crisis making it hard to get money into the country to pay salaries, bills, drivers and fixers, but that “it’s a commitment I really believe we all need to make”.

Picture: CNN/Screenshot

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