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Afghan reporters focus on roots of insurgents' unrest

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 2006



KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

It's not so much meeting the Taliban that worries M. Nawab Momand, a correspondent for Tolo TV, Afghanistan's top television channel. It's true such meetings are treacherous, often entailing trips to the south, where conflicts are escalating between the Taliban and coalition forces. But what concerns Mr. Momand is the reaction in Kabul.

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"For us, the problem from the Taliban side is not the major problem," he says. "It's a problem actually that we get pressure from the government."

Tolo TV finds Afghanistan's hot buttons - and pushes them. Initially the upstart station upset Islamic hard-liners with music videos and young presenters dressing Western-style. Now, in an indication of how security is surpassing Westernization as a major preoccupation in this country, the station is angering the government with dogged reporting on the Taliban.

As Tolo's team of reporters digs deeper into the insurgency, it faces increasing challenges from the central government, Tolo reporters and analysts say. Covering the Taliban, they explain, means delving into the reasons driving the rebels, and that often requires investigating allegations of corruption and abuse within the central government. Tolo's investigative work is testing the commitment in Kabul to democracy.

"[Officials] are a little worried because they know that journalists are reporting on their power, their money, their corruption," says Rahimullah Samander, director of the Afghan Independent Journalists Union.

Tolo, which means "dawn" in Dari, enjoys a huge following among Afghanistan's growing TV audience, controlling about 90 percent of the market in dollar terms. The station's willingness to push boundaries - including its embrace of youth culture and reporting on taboo subjects like pedophilia - has earned Tolo and its young staff a wide following.

It's also sparked fierce criticism. Last year, Shaima Rezayee was murdered in her Kabul home a few months after leaving her controversial role as a female presenter for Tolo. The murder remains unresolved, and the company says it did not have to do with her time at the station. Shekib Isar, the host of a popular music video program, recently fled the country. In an e-mail message from Sweden, where he attained asylum, Mr. Isar alleges he received numerous death threats from extremists, some of them linked to the government.

According to the Information Ministry, the threats Isar received were from outraged citizens, not the government, who felt his program was an affront to Afghan cultural values. The government received several complaints about Isar's show, says S.A. Hussain Sancharaki, deputy minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism.

The controversy continues, only these days it's centered more on Tolo's coverage of the state of security and governance. That's because these stories have given the Taliban a platform to speak, and what they say is disparaging to the government.

Two years ago, getting the Taliban to talk was an arduous process. Now they're just a phone call away, with several spokesmen coordinating an organized media campaign, sometimes contacting reporters themselves.

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