Afghan TV host smiles at camera even through fear

KABUL – For Yalda Ali, just showing up for work is a defiance.

Host of TOLO TV’s “Good Morning”, Ali, 25, is among an exhausted number of female journalists still working in the Afghan capital after the Taliban took power. Those who remain must now find an impossible balance: to appear in public and on the air to report without provoking the wrath of their strict militant rulers.

“I have to be very careful with every single word, and also with the makeup I use, how I dress and how I behave around men,” she told NBC News in an interview Thursday. “We do not know if we have freedom of speech … so we have to be careful so that the Taliban does not go crazy and we get hurt.”

“On Assignment with Richard Engel – Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires” airs Sunday, September 19 at. 22:00 ET on MSNBC.

Yalda has only been sitting in the anchor chair at this job for two weeks since her predecessor left Afghanistan when tens of thousands of people fled when U.S. troops left the country.

Yalda Ali is anchored in “Good Morning”, which is broadcast between 7 and 9 every day on Afghanistan’s TOLO TV channel.NBC News

After two decades of working under laws that defended freedom of expression, Afghan journalists face an uncertain future under the harsh new regime. Some have fled, others have been beaten just to do their job. It is even more dangerous for women who have to navigate what they can and cannot do under the Taliban government.

Under the former Taliban government, which was overthrown by US-backed forces in 2001, women were barred from going to school, having jobs and leaving home without male escorts. They were to wear all-encompassing burqas, they did not appear on television, and their voices were not heard on the radio.

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Twenty years later, the Taliban say they have changed.

But the Taliban-run Ministry of Education asked boys from 7-12. class back to school Saturday with their male teachers, not to mention that girls in these classes return to school.

The country’s rulers also set up a ministry for “spreading virtue and preventing cargo” in the building that once housed the Ministry of Women.

When women protested for equal rights earlier this month, according to Human Rights Watch, security forces reacted violently. Video footage released by NBC News showed female protesters being whipped by a Taliban fighter in Kabul.

So last week, the militants announced that protests were now banned unless they were approved in advance, and journalists said they have been told that covering unapproved protests is now also illegal.

Patricia Gossman, an associate director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban had never agreed to be held accountable by the public or the media, and that was not changing now.

“There is no tolerance for dissent, and any dissent will be met with brutality,” she said.

Meanwhile, the number of female journalists working in Afghanistan has fallen.

“Female journalists are disappearing from the capital,” the non-profit group Reporters Without Borders warned on August 31.

Last year, there were about 700 female journalists in Kabul, according to a joint study by the group and the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists. By the end of last month, fewer than 100 people were still formally working in privately owned radio and television stations in the Afghan capital, according to a study by Reporters Without Borders.

Outside Kabul, the picture is even sharper. Most female journalists have been forced to stop working in the provinces, where almost all privately owned media ceased to function when the Taliban forces advanced, the group said.

Meanwhile, state-run broadcasts show views of the Taliban’s power.

So for Ali to get on the air, it takes courage, especially given TOLO TV’s history with the Taliban.

The militants claimed responsibility for an attack in 2016 targeting TOLO TV workers that left seven people dead, accusing the channel of “promoting obscenity, irreligiousness, foreign culture and nudity.”

Ali also pushes boundaries in other ways.

She still goes with makeup, albeit less than before, and while dressing more conservatively, she continues to smile.

“Under these conditions, I come in front of the camera with all this fear in my heart, but I smile,” she said. “A smile can lift a nation for a day.”

Richard Engel, Marc Smith and Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul; Saphora Smith reported from London.

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