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Taliban targets a major achievement of the U.S. war in Afghanistan: the private media

It was a cruel twist when many Afghans learned of last week's deadly Taliban bombing of a bus carrying workers of the country’s largest private broadcaster directly from the Tolo TV network. 

The spread of private media has been one of the only clear successes in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led international coalition invaded in 2001 and toppled a Taliban government. Tolo, which airs a mix of news coverage and original entertainment, has dominated the market since its launch in 2003.

“We provided people with accurate, fair information and informed them of their rights,” said Shakeela Ebrahimkhel, a veteran Tolo reporter. “We also entertained the public and offered them reasons to celebrate and smile.”

The successes suddenly seem more fragile after the Jan. 20 bombing that killed seven Tolo employees, three months after the Taliban issued a threat to the network and 1TV, Afghanistan’s second-largest broadcaster.

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The media have gone through a massive boom in a country where low literacy rates make radio and television the prime sources of information. When the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001, TV and secular radio were banned and there were only 15 news outlets; there are now hundreds of radio stations, dozens of private television broadcasters and, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,000 news outlets operating nationwide.

Tolo claims more than half the Afghan TV market share. Its most popular programs are game shows, including “Afghan Star,” an American Idol-like singing competition, and “Sad Saniya,” or 100 seconds, a trivia contest. 

The bombing struck a bus carrying employees of Kaboora Productions, the unit of Tolo’s parent company, Moby Group, that produced both programs. A graphic designer, video editor, set decorator, three dubbing artists and a driver were killed.

“These people were truly the breadwinners of their households,” Ebrahimkhel said.

Although the secular values reflected in the programs might be anathema to the Taliban — and many conservative Afghan Muslims — analysts say the channels ran afoul of the insurgent group not because of their entertainment programming but because of news coverage.

The insurgent group accused Tolo and other media of airing “false reports” that Taliban fighters had raped women at a female hostel last fall in Kunduz during the group’s brief takeover of the northern city. Taliban leaders also reportedly were incensed that, a few weeks later, the deaths of at least 10 of their fighters in the northern province of Badakhshan, allegedly at the hands of Afghan security forces, did not receive adequate media coverage.

The anger dates at least to 2014, when, after an attack on Kabul’s Serena Hotel that killed journalist Ahmad Sardar and his wife and two children, dozens of Afghan journalists refused to cover the Taliban’s news releases or statements for 15 days.

One analyst who studies the group’s relations with the media said the Taliban felt after that incident that reporters were taking sides.

“Since 2014, the Taliban have been increasingly upset at what they see as one-sided coverage of the conflict,” said the analyst, who asked not to be named for security reasons. “They feel as if they are not being treated equally as a player in the conflict.”

Although journalists have been attacked before in Afghanistan — more than 40 reporters have been killed since 2001, according to watchdog groups — they did not until recently feel directly targeted by insurgents.

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After the Taliban issued a general threat against media outlets in December 2014, the United States Institute of Peace, in a report on media in Afghanistan, wrote last year: “While the threat is taken seriously, media directors believe the more serious threats against journalists today come from government officials, law enforcement, and power brokers.”

But last October, after the Kunduz incident, the Taliban issued a direct threat to the news staffs of Tolo and 1TV “due to their disrespectful and hostile actions” toward the group.

Reporters rejected the claims of bias.

“We criticize everybody — the government, strongmen, everyone — not just the Taliban,” said Ebrahimkhel. “This is our job.”

Abdullah Azada Khenjani, news director at 1TV, said he believes the Taliban could also attack other media houses in a bid to wage “psychological war.”

“The Taliban has shown repeatedly that they are in direct opposition to the modern advancements that have come to Afghanistan over the last 15 years,” Khenjani said.

He also said the demographic makeup and worldviews of the networks’ staffs — mostly young people who value free expression — likely irk the hard-line insurgents.

“These are people who never want to go back to the Taliban’s way of life, and that upsets them,” Khenjani said.

Both networks had increased security measures and warned their employees following the threat in October. Giant concrete blocks were erected outside the entrance to Tolo’s Kabul headquarters, and workers were placed on high alert and told to restrict their movements.

Still, the seven employees were killed — and more than two dozen injured — while taking a bus  to work.

“If the Taliban did have an issue with our coverage, there are means by which to address it,” Ebrahimkhel said. “But murdering these seven people was not it.”

Latifi is a special correspondent. Staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.

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