The Taliban forced Afghan TV workers into hiding. Now they’re asking Hollywood for help

Show caption Afghan reporters of Tolo News work in the newsroom at Tolo TV station in Kabul on 11 September 2018. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images Afghanistan The Taliban forced Afghan TV workers into hiding. Now they’re asking Hollywood for help Television industry employees once used their programs to address progressive ideas. Many are now out of work and fearful to leave their homes Lois Beckett in Los Angeles @loisbeckett Mon 14 Feb 2022 06.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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For nearly two decades, Afghanistan’s TV industry developed popular hits, from medical shows and family dramas to Afghan Star, a music competition based on American Idol.

Now, nearly six months after the Taliban seized control, many Afghan television and film workers are jobless and in hiding. Some feel abandoned by TV and entertainment industry workers in other countries. A handful of former international colleagues have been fighting to get them to safety, and they say they desperately need more support. (All the names of Afghan TV workers have been changed for this article.)

Rahima, a screenwriter, said she was in the middle of teaching a university class when she learned that the Taliban had entered Kabul. She and a female colleague ran out to buy burkas, only to find the shops already closed. She went home and locked herself inside. She has stayed in hiding for the past five and a half months, she said.

“In our neighborhood, everyone recognizes me as a woman activist, the university teacher and TV employee,” Rahima said through a translator.

Other former media workers described rushing to scrub their Facebook profiles and concealing or throwing out anything in their house that would link them to the entertainment industry.

“They’re hiding their cameras, mics, and booms, every single thing,” said Farjaad, a longtime TV producer based in Kabul. One film-maker friend buried her camera “in the earth, like a grave”, he said.

Afghan journalists film at the site of a bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 9 February. Photograph: Rahmat Gul/AP

Abdul, who worked for a decade as an assistant director and producer, now runs a small food stand to support his family, including his 10-month-old baby. Based in a city full of Taliban checkpoints, he is still afraid that someone will recognize him from his work in TV. Fearful of the risk, he sometimes sends his younger brother to run the food stall instead.

Sometimes, he said, when he thinks back on the past 20 years of his life, he can’t believe they happened: “Was it sleep? Or a dream? What was that?

“We are looking for help but there’s nobody to help us,” he said.

Sayed, who faced multiple threats from the Taliban during years of working in marketing and sales for TV networks, escaped to Pakistan with his family, but is still jobless and feels at risk.

“I haven’t heard anything from Hollywood over what is happening with the media people who worked here for 20 years, fighting for the freedom of speech,” he said. “No one from Hollywood, none of the TV or film-makers, are raising their voice.”

‘We betrayed them’

Julie Brown, an American development worker, and Muffy Potter, an Australian TV and film producer, said they have been working for months to help their former Afghan colleagues get visas to leave the country.

Some of the TV programming the two had worked on in Afghanistan in the early 2010s had been directly funded by foreign governments, such as Eagle Four, a crime drama modelled on 24 that had been publicly identified as an American-funded attempt to increase citizens’ willingness to trust the police.

“They helped get a message of democracy, of women’s rights, of governance, to the people, and now they’re left behind living under the regime that they have spent a lot of time doing anti-Taliban messaging about,” said Potter.

Television towers can be seen on Mount Koh-e Asamai in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Alexandra Kovalskaya/TASS

“When we say, ‘We will stand by you, we have your back, we’ll stand shoulder to shoulder’, that’s an actual person telling an Afghan that, not just a faceless government entity,” said Brown. “We feel like we betrayed them.”

Brown and Potter estimated their group of about five volunteers was trying to help several hundred Afghans who are still inside the country, including former colleagues and their family members.

“A lot of the ones that are left are the ones that don’t have rich families,” Potter said. “People that don’t have any kind of connections overseas and didn’t have a financial means to seek asylum.”

Some have been denied visas, they said. Others have seen their applications held up in the state department’s bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, the situation for many former TV workers has only grown more desperate. Since July, Brown said, she has spent time every day working across time zones to get her former colleagues food, secure places to stay, even medical care, including finding a way to get a pregnant woman an emergency C-section. “A lot of them are in danger,” she said.

A broadcast of the Tolo News channel shows a religious scholar speaking. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Amid a worsening economic crisis, half of Afghans are facing “extreme” levels of hunger, according to the United Nations. International medical experts have warned of severe shortages of basic supplies at public hospitals.

Brown and the other volunteers have crowdfunded and drawn from their own bank accounts to keep support flowing to their colleagues. But, more than six months in, they need more money and visibility, she said.

“We need a champion,” she said. “The Screen Actors’ Guild: please, we would love for you to care about our colleagues in Afghanistan.

“I don’t think Hollywood realizes the magnitude of the problem, the difficulties that we have in these evacuation groups,” she added. “I think they think the government is just doing this stuff.”

‘Our darkest days’

The widespread job losses and shutdowns come from both political and economic pressures. A wide variety of programming, such as music shows and game shows, have been taken off the air, former Afghan TV workers said. Cooking shows need to have male presenters. The Taliban has announced new dress requirements for women onscreen. Approved programming is “simple”, one producer said: “one man, one mullah, sits in the corner, and talks about Islam and talks about traditions”. Comedians are afraid to appear on air, uncertain of which attempted jokes might bring the Taliban to their doors. Radio stations have reported decreases in their number of listeners, as some Afghans fear punishment if they are caught playing music on the radio. At least three people were killed after gunmen opened fire at a wedding in October to stop music from being played.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, addresses concerns about the Taliban’s reputation with women, television and music on 17 August. Photograph: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

While larger TV stations are still reporting the news, and a few women still appear as correspondents on larger networks, many of the faces are new, as older reporters have fled or gone into hiding, former TV workers said. Violence against journalists, including the vicious beating of two journalists covering a women’s rights protest, has undermined the Taliban’s pledge that it would allow independent media outlets to continue operating. At least 50 journalists and media workers have been detained or arrested over the past six months, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The growth of Afghan’s media and TV sector over the past 20 years had been a real success story of international development, said Wazhmah Osman, a Temple University professor who conducted years of interviews in Afghanistan about the politics of new television programming.

In a country without much internet access and with high rates of literacy, TV was an essential medium for cultural discussion, she said. The ordinary Afghans she interviewed were savvy about the role of US and other foreign money in shaping particular shows, but they were also deeply appreciative of the programming, particularly when they felt that local drama had begun to develop some of the polish and sophistication of imported television. Khate Sewom, a scripted series about Afghans from different ethnic backgrounds living together in the same apartment building, had been especially popular, she said.

But the flowering of television in Afghanistan had always come at great personal cost to the people who created it, Osman said. Afghan TV workers have been violently targeted for years by the Taliban, Isis and others. In 2016, a suicide bomber killed seven employees of Tolo, a popular independent TV network, and injured more than two dozen.

“No employee, anchor, office, news team and reporter of these TV channels holds any immunity,” the Taliban had declared at the time, calling the networks “satanic”.

Yama Siawash, a former Afghan Tolo TV presenter who was killed in a bomb attack, is painted on a barrier wall along a roadside in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Firoz, an onscreen host and producer for Tolo, said that the 2016 murder of his friends and colleagues had shaken him, but that he and others decided to stay in their jobs, “because it’s our passion”. He said he “still had hope” at the time that the situation would improve.

Today, Firoz, who worked as the face of several US government-funded documentary shows, said he is one of the lucky ones: he was evacuated by Save Our Allies in August, and is now in a refugee facility in Abu Dhabi, waiting for a visa to come to the United States.

He thought he might stay in the “humanitarian city” for just a few days. Instead, he has been there for six months, along with at least 9,000 other Afghan evacuees. The mental health of the evacuees is bad, he said, and Afghans there have organized multiple protests against being held “in limbo”, the latest in mid-February.

“It’s like a prison,” Firoz said. “We feel like we are prisoners.”

Still, he feels safer than his friends in Kabul. Some of them are now “working on the street, selling vegetables”.

Farjaad, who is still in Kabul, says that he feels like a hostage. “We are waiting for a miracle, or a Superman to come and catch us,” he said.

Rahima, the female screenwriter, said that the non-profit for women that she ran is closed, and she can no longer teach at the university. “We are living our darkest days,” she said. “We lost everything we had, everything that we achieved.”

“Help me to get out of Afghanistan in any way possible,” she said. “I need a peaceful life.”