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Afghan TV host smiles at camera even out of fear

KABUL – For Yalda Ali, the mere fact of arriving at work is an act of defiance.

Host of TOLO TV’s “Good Morning” Ali, 25, is one of a small number of women journalists still working in the Afghan capital after the Taliban took power. Those who remain must now find what may be an impossible balance: appearing in public and on the airwaves to report without angering their strict militant leaders.

“I have to be very careful with every word, as well as the makeup I wear, the way I dress and the way I behave around men,” she told NBC News in an interview on Thursday. “We don’t know if we have freedom of speech (…) so we have to be careful that the Taliban don’t go crazy and get hurt.”

Yalda has only been in the presenter chair for two weeks, since his predecessor left Afghanistan when tens of thousands fled as US troops left the country.

Yalda Ali is the host of “Good Morning”, which airs between 7 and 9 hours a day on the Afghan television station TOLO.NBC News

After two decades of working under laws that uphold free speech, Afghan journalists face an uncertain future under the tough new regime. Some fled, others were beaten just for doing their job. It is even more dangerous for women, who must navigate between what they can and cannot do under the Taliban government.

Under the previous Taliban government, overthrown by US-backed forces in 2001, women were prohibited from going to school, working, and leaving home without a male escort. They had to wear universal 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 when women protested earlier this month for equal rights, security forces reacted violently, Human Rights Watch said. Video footage released by NBC News showed protesters being whipped by a Taliban fighter in Kabul.

Then last week, activists announced that protests were now banned unless approved in advance, and journalists said they had been told covering unapproved protests was now also illegal.

Beginning Saturday, Afghan middle and high schools will reopen for boys, the Taliban’s new education ministry said in a statement that gave no indication of when girls that age could resume classes.

“All male teachers and students should go to school,” the statement said.

Patricia Gossman, associate director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban had never accepted to be held accountable by the public or the media and that was not going to change now.

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

Meanwhile, the number of women journalists working in Afghanistan has plummeted.

“Women journalists are disappearing from the capital,” warned the Reporters Without Borders association on August 31.

Last year, there were around 700 female journalists in Kabul, according to a joint investigation by the group and the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists. At the end of last month, fewer than 100 were still officially working at private radio and television stations in the Afghan capital, according to a Reporters Without Borders survey.

Outside of Kabul, the picture is even more striking. Most female journalists were forced to stop working in the provinces, where nearly all private media outlets have ceased operations as Taliban forces advanced, the group said.

Meanwhile, state-run shows show displays of Taliban power.

So getting Ali to air takes courage, especially given TOLO TV’s history with the Taliban.

Activists claimed responsibility for a 2016 attack on TOLO TV employees that left seven dead, accusing the channel of “promoting obscenity, irreligion, foreign culture and nudity.”

Ali pushes boundaries in other ways as well.

She still wears makeup, although less than before, and although she dresses 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 uplift a nation for a day. “

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

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