Afghan reporters focus on roots of insurgents' unrest

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

This isn't to say that meeting the Taliban is easy or free of danger. Nor does it mean the Taliban likes Tolo TV, points out Massod Qiam, the host of Tolo's popular "6:30 Report." It's a relationship driven by political strategy. "They need to be in touch with a source that broadcasts their allegations against the government. They know that propaganda plays a major role in the conflict," he says.

Greater access to the Taliban makes for a better story, but it comes at an increased political price, Tolo reporters say. "When I met the Taliban, they told me they were fighting because there was corruption and criminal people in the government. And when I reported that story I faced a lot of trouble," says Momand.

Other reporters say they have also been reprimanded by the government for programs about official corruption and misuse of power - the very things the Taliban rail against. Mr. Qiam, for example, describes that he broadcast a series of reports about corrupt practices of the chief justice. "We expected that these reports would bring some change, but they didn't," he says. Instead, he claims, he was summoned to the attorney general's office and questioned about his intentions.

The Ministry of Information says Qiam's reporting was called into question because he attacked the personality of the chief justice, which is a violation of media law. But the ministry actually intervened to protect him, asking the chief justice to forgive him, according to Mr. Sancharaki.

Tolo's 'democratic role'

Some say reports like Qiam's help to bolster the Taliban's claims, but Saad Mohseni, Tolo's director and part owner, says his reporters are obliged by the concept of democracy to report such things - particularly when the government tries to stop them.

"[The government] talks about democracy but they don't want people to question what they do or don't do," he says. "We're holding people accountable; we're trying to keep the Parliament honest."

Sancharaki admits there are still problems of press freedom in Afghanistan, but says some journalists exaggerate the negative news, conducting themselves in an unprofessional manner. Doing so hurts the stability of the country, he says, a point which journalists have been asked unofficially to consider.

"People do have the right to know," he says. "But what we want to tell [journalists] is to respect the balance between the positive and negative news."

Mohseni and others say that, with the security and governance story broadcast into a growing number of homes, particularly in the south, the public is beginning to ask more questions - questions which signal both a growing demand for more effective leadership, and an end to the violent tactics of the Taliban.

Reports don't mean support for Taliban

Tolo reporters are quick to point out that they do not favor the Taliban, but rather see them as no better than allegedly corrupt officials in power. But the point is to understand the underlying factors driving people into the arms of the insurgency.

"We shouldn't just make our reports limited to saying that five people died. We should find the basic motives why people join the Taliban," says Momand.

He also points out that it isn't the whole government applying pressure on reporters. "It's only a section of the government that's trying to stop us, although I don't think they'll be able."

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