Reporters under fire: Afghan TV station weathers constant Taliban threat

Story highlights

  • After years of threatening the media, the Taliban has begun to openly target journalists
  • Seven journalists from Afganistan's TOLO TV were killed by a suicide bomber in January
  • Journalists at the station say they are now under constant threat from the Taliban

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN)A key maxim of news reporting is to tell, not become it. Nowhere is that tension more pronounced than for Afghanistan's TOLO TV.

After years of threatening the media, the Taliban has begun to openly target journalists, and TOLO has been hit the hardest.
    Seven of the channel's employees, including some working on TOLO's version of American Idol -- Afghan Star -- were killed on January 20 as they were ferried home from work when a suicide bomber targeted their minibus. Another 26 people were left injured by the attack.

    Regular threats

    At a daily news meeting inside TOLO's studios, the threats loom large over proceedings.
    The morning editorial call kicks off with some of the toughest beats on earth. Where else do reporters call in from Kandahar, Kunduz and Herat?
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    The day CNN visited the studio was the first of the Persian New Year, so the agenda is light, fluffy even, by Afghan standards. Who will celebrate what, and where?
    But for Wali Arian, the network's reporter from Kunduz, a city the Taliban briefly overran last summer, most days are tough. His reporting embedded with Afghan forces was not well received by the Taliban, and they have since directly threatened him.
    "I got a message that Taliban soldiers have been ordered to kill me and cut off my head," he said.

    Culture war

    Later that day, across town, inside a vast and recently refurbished hotel, a more glamorous scene unfolds in the opening moments of the final of Afghan Star.
    It is exactly what the West promised Afghanistan it would see more of: glitter, mirror balls, women with their hair exposed, and men dancing to music. Hardly a burst of abandon in the reset of the world, but something risque and dangerous if you live in the same nation as the Taliban.
    You might call this the front line of the cultural war against Afghanistan's conservative insurgency.
    The show is pre-recorded for the safety of all involved. Special forces line the car park outside, alternately threatening journalists about filming them or their positions, and letting children pose with their Kalashnikovs.

    'I don't feel safe'

    Aryana Sayeed, a judge on the show, lived in London most of her life. There it was OK to dress the way she is now, and doing so did not get her death threats on social media.
    She repeats a common refrain about the city, that Kabul has never felt so dangerous as it does now.
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    "I don't feel 100% safe, there's always something in the back of my mind, but we have no choice, we have to carry on with the show."
    Combing the judge's hair is Sayeed Bakhteyar Atify, who missed the bus torn apart by the Taliban suicide bomber by a matter of minutes, because he was looking after contestants' smartphones and other valuables and got held up.
    For Atify, the show is about much more than the foundation and mascara he applies. "Culturally it's an important show because in the past people were thinking blindly and had extreme tendencies, which this is helping to ease."

    New target

    For years, the media seemed to be allowed to exist outside the crosshairs of Afghanistan's war -- a refreshing and sadly uncommon situation in the conflict-wracked Middle East.
    Journalists could do work and not expect to be targeted. However, the TOLO bombing, along with a growing pattern of attacks by a thriving and ascendant insurgency competing with ISIS for the most radical recruits, has changed that.
    Now the media feels more of a target than ever before.
    "It's a clash of modernity and fundamentalism. It's a very serious battle of ideas," said Lotfullah Najafizada, Director of TOLO News.
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    "The Taliban have seen a new Afghanistan, and they need to confront it."
    The attack in January devastated the network, tearing apart a small, closely-knit team.
    "One of my journalists was telling me that when he was leaving home right after the attack his wife asked him to touch the Holy Quran and wished him a good day with tears in her eyes," Najafizada said.
    He stands before the stage where Afghan Star is reaching its climax, where another winner will be crowned and hopeful faces in the audience are enjoying the respite from the maelstrom outside, and hoping that the country's situation will not change enough to make this the last show they enjoy.