REPORTER: Ginny Stein
TOLO TELEVISION, (Translation): Afghanistan. A new beginning. This message is brought to you by Tolo Television.
It's 6:30pm in Kabul, and time for one television program that is now must-see TV across Afghanistan.
TOLO TELEVISION, (Translation): Your choice. Your Tolo.
The '6:30 Report' is doing what's never been done in Afghanistan - exposing issues absolutely taboo in this conservative Islamic society. Tonight, it's a program on paedophilia and homosexuality.
MASOUD KERAM, PRESENTER 6.30 REPORT, (Translation): Greetings. I'm Masoud Keram presenting the 6:30 Report. Tonight we'll be discussing the increase of violence and child sexual abuse.
MAN (Translation): You see footage of boys dancing with ankle bells. And wearing women's clothes but this gains us nothing. It's contrary to the teachings of the Koran or any other scriptures.
A heady mix of investigative journalism and entertainment programs has made Tolo TV a revolutionary force in today's Afghanistan.
Masoud Keram is one of Tolo TV's emerging stars. He's shown he's not afraid to push the boundaries, even though he's received many death threats for his role on television.
MASOUD KERAM: We have to do that and - because our country and our people need such as this program like '6:30 Report'. We have to push to find a good way and we get these risks and we're not afraid because we do a good thing, we are going in the right way, and because of that, we are happy.
Tolo TV is the brainchild of the Mohseni family, the three sons and daughter of an Afghan diplomat who grew up in Australia.
JAHID MOHSENI, CO-FOUNDER TOLO TV: Well, that's Afghan TV, Iena TV. This is the Radio/TV Afghanistan television, the government station.
Jahid Mohseni left Afghanistan when he was seven. He returned with his siblings three years ago with an eye to the country's future.
JAHID MOHSENI: The paedophilia thing was a long time coming and it's a big issue in this country and their idea was to start breaking the taboo of this thing not being covered and being - and particularly because the population that's being impacted by paedophilia is again the people who are going to lead this country.
REPORTER: It makes it almost sound like you think that this station really has a role in forcing change, you're not just a businessman here?
MASOUD KERAM: It wasn't around forcing social change, it was around facilitating social change and it's subtle but a very big difference. It's about not telling people what to do but gauging from them what they want to do and then kind of reflecting that in the media.
The Mohsenis know each move this family makes is closely watched. They've become Afghanistan's media moguls with interests across television, radio and print. Just crossing the street in front of their fortified TV compound is not a decision taken without careful planning. Saad Mohseni is the eldest sibling in this clan.
REPORTER: The security situation here at the moment - it seems you don't take chances.
SAAD MOHSENI: Well, you know you can't afford to, you know, not be too careful.
REPORTER: So what does it mean for you? Do you travel with bodyguards normally? Is that what has to happen?
SAAD MOHSENI: Sometimes. I suppose more often than not, sometimes we, you know, if we can get the opportunity, we go on our own. I used to drive myself everywhere in the old days.
REPORTER: But you don't now?
SAAD MOHSENI: No.
NEWSREADER, (Translation): Greetings. Welcome to the 6:00 bulletin. Today is Tuesday, 31 Jawza, 1384 Shamsi, corresponding to 21 June 2005.
In just 18 months the Mohseni family has made Tolo TV's news service the most reliable in the country. The station has shown from the outset the importance it places on speaking to all sides of the story. In a nation at war, even the Taliban position is regularly broadcast.
VOICE OF ABDUL LATIF HAKIMI, TALIBAN SPOKESMAN (Translation): Yesterday evening the Mujahadeen shot down one of their combat helicopters killing all those on board. They were all Americans. However, the chief Mujahadeen commander said that he personally counted 16 dead Americans.
When Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni was kidnapped from a Kabul street, Tolo TV was the station the kidnappers called to press their demands.
KIDNAPPERS (Translation): Our command is valid and has been put to the media. We have no further demands or expectations, and we are not committing a crime.
JAHID MOHSENI: News is probably the biggest budget and the biggest nightmare in any TV stations. We haven't done it necessarily to build us credibility. It was more, I guess it was one of the things that we had in our arsenal of programs. And perhaps a bad term to use but the idea was that you create a news that people looked at and thought, "Well, this is independent and this is reliable," so you're not seen as a political station, you're seen as a business station that's reflecting as much as possible what is going on around the world.
While Tolo TV has won plaudits for its news coverage, it is programs like this, the home-grown music program 'Hop', that has created perhaps the biggest impact and the most controversy. It's a barometer for the culture war gripping Afghanistan. In restaurants and homes across the city, TVs are tuned to Tolo. Independent surveys now show that Tolo TV commands a massive 80% of the market.
REPORTER: What do you think of these music programs?
MAN: Well, that's fine, that's fine because the music is a kind of food for the people.
WOMAN (Translation): It's an entertainment program. We're so busy from dawn to dusk it's and the only program I love to watch.
JAHID MOHSENI: The popularity, I guess, just caught on, you know, sometimes you don't know how popular something's going to be and it still surprises sometimes how popular 'Hop' is.
Jahid's sister Wajma is in charge of marketing at Tolo TV. She's well aware that 'Hop' is confronting in the Afghan context.
WAJMA MOHSENI: It's a mixture of music and, you know, having male and female presenters and young people joking around, which for us in the West is a very normal thing. But here it's still - people still are not fully comfortable with that and it's the whole concept of, you know, we have to keep our culture, we have to keep our culture but, you know, the question is what is Afghan culture? You know, the culture like in any society is always changing and you have to adapt to that. I think media, you know, helps people actually decide for themselves what they want, or don't want, within reason, as well.
As the women of Afghanistan slowly emerge from behind the burqa, so has Tolo TV. It's challenging conservative Islamic views by putting local women on air. That alone has been enough to send some conservative forces into a frenzy. Earlier this year, Afghanistan's Chief Justice, Fazl Hadi Shinwari, criticised Tolo TV and other stations for transmitting programs considered opposed to Islam and national values.
FAZL HADI SHINWARI, AFGHANISTAN’S CHIEF JUSTICE (Translation): My concern for the future is that my nation is burning. It's deviating from morality, Afghan values, Islamic principles. Other cultures are prevailing over us. Our country is becoming a laughing stock.
Culture Minister Sayed Makhdom Raheen is the man in the middle.
SAYED MAKHDOM RAHEEN, AFGHAN CULTURE MINISTER: Some people, particularly conservative elements, say Tolo TV and their shows - sometimes there are women or girls with the behaviour which is not acceptable to the ordinary people. They accuse Tolo TV of that.
REPORTER: The Sharia Council called one stage for the government to take action saying that what was being shown was un-Islamic. Would you support a ban?
SAYED MAKHDOM RAHEEN: I didn't close it but of course I talked to the people who are working in Tolo TV to see what people want and to follow our national culture and Islamic orders, when the TV is popular so only for minor mistakes shouldn't do something that covered all good programs too.
Women in Afghanistan know it's still dangerous to be seen and heard. To do so angers conservative forces who are unwilling to let go of the past. But it's a risk a growing number of women are prepared to take.
This is Shaima Rezayee, one of the first female co-presenters of Tolo TV's 'Hop' program.
SHAIMA REZAYEE, CO-PRESENTER (Translation): This is a song from Avinash, an Indian film sung by Flucney Pathak. He's an Indian pop singer.
It made her an icon for the changing role of women in the new Afghanistan.
SHAIMA REZAYEE (Translation): When I go out some people do make comments. But mostly people encourage me. Especially my family members and the members of the youth section, both girls and boys.
But now she is dead, shot in the head in the bedroom of her home. A popular presenter, she had been sacked from her job a few months earlier for breaching station rules. Her death has deeply affected the Mohseni family.
JAHID MOHSENI: It had a profound effect for a number of reasons. It wasn't just that she was a colleague that was murdered, I mean, that kind of shocked people a little bit. Unfortunately, a lot of the media reported it as she was a worker in a TV station. It made it sound like she was working up to the last minute in the station and then she was murdered specifically because she was working at that station. So what it ended up doing was creating a sense of fear amongst people.
WOMAN (Translation): People would see her on Hop, since she started appearing on TV she's radiated charm and happiness. Our society isn't tolerant enough to endure that. To see a woman speaking like that and appearing on TV... they couldn't bear it.
WOMAN 2 (Translation): Most Afghan people don't like so-called freedom. Maybe she didn't obey her family. I personally wouldn't like to be seen on TV. None of us would agree to that. Our families wouldn't like it. That might have been the case with her.
Shaima's two brothers were arrested soon after her body was found. Police announced that perhaps they were investigating an honour killing, that maybe she had been murdered by her brothers for having disgraced the family by daring to appear on TV.
LUTFULLAH MASHAL, INTERIOR MINISTRY SPOKESMAN: She was doing very well and people loved her for her brilliant and brave and courageous attitude in the media. But again, as I said, it was so far we do not know. Was it a honour killing, was it a suicide attempt or was it an assassination from the enemies of peace and stability and also the freedom of women in this country?
Shaima's family fled abroad under the Taliban. Until now they have kept quiet about the killing. But Shakiba agreed to meet with me to discuss her sister's death.
SHAKIBA REZAYEE, SISTER OF SHALMA(Translation): Sometimes she'd wear a hat instead of her scarf. It made an impression. How dare an Afghan girl appear on such a program!
But there is also anger at the response from many Afghans to her death.
SHAKIBA REZAYEE: When I go outside to buy something in bazaar, people look at me and say "Oh, you are Shaima Rezayee's sister, uh huh, "we will kill you also one day." I don't know why, why do people say this?
And Shaima has a lot of - had a lot of fans and especially girls in Afghanistan, Afghan girls became very sad, but most people become very happy.
REPORTER: Most people become very happy?
SHAKIBA REZAYEE: Yes, I'm sure.
REPORTER: Happy that she died?
SHAKIBA REZAYEE: Yeah, Shaima died.
REPORTER: Why would they be happy?
SHAKIBA REZAYEE: Because our people doesn't like democracy, be a democracy, you know, our country. So because of that, they become very happy because of death of Shaima.
The day I meet Shakiba her two brothers were also there. They had been quietly released just the day before after weeks of arrest. They'd been set free, no charges laid against them.
Police no longer suspect an honour killing, but a death equally tragic through suicide.
FAWAD REZAYEE, SHAIMA’S BROTHER: This is the room where Shaima lived here. This is the room. You saw the bed and you saw the pictures. This is Friba Rezayee, her sister. Judo champion which she participated in for Olympic in 2004 in Athens.
Shaima's brother and sister believe that, sacked from her job, unable to face rumours circulating about her, that she took her own life.
SHAKIBA REZAYEE: Because I mean Shaima wanted to be freedom, to very free girl, but our situation, our people doesn't like this and because of that people doesn't like that so Shaima couldn't live anymore because she wanted to live in freedom like to work herself, to spend money by herself, to be - go everywhere where Shaima wanted. So, because of that, all of our people become enemy of her.
But this new role for women in Afghanistan remains highly controversial. Even within Shaima's family they acknowledge the deep rift between her aspirations and the prevailing religious conservatism.
JAVED REZAYEE, BROTHER OF SHAIMA: People at this age would be much different from the people after 20, 30 or a century ago. I am not expecting this generation actually, I mean, the people now living here in 2005 actually to say that Shaima, my sister, was a champion. They would not. I am not expecting, I'm disappointed by this society, by these people.
REPORTER: Were you proud of your sister?
FAWAD REZAYEE: Yes, I'm really proud of my sister because she showed the people that the woman includes a human and she - women can do everything that men can do.
REPORTER: Knowing that she killed herself, are you upset, are you ashamed, are you - how do you feel about that?
FAWAD REZAYEE: I'm really upset about that because this was the beginning of the government appointment of Hamid Karzai because it was the end time of Taliban, of al-Qa'ida people and their new broadcasting channels came into Afghanistan to paint a bright future, a bright future waiting for the people.
Tolo TV, which means "new dawn", is a good metaphor for the change under way in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban, TV was banned as un-Islamic. Under Hamid Karzai, this fundamentalism is being challenged and the Mohseni family are leading the charge for a new Afghanistan.
SAAD MOHSENI: I think people are ready to see women on television. It's that certain families and certain people they find it very unacceptable to see - have their women folk, their members of the family, to appear on television. But I would say that's an assumption, when you're talking about the entire population, it's probably not true.
Nonetheless, these are the problems that we face and both the men and the women appear on Tolo TV are very brave people. They're the ones taking the risks. You know, we view them as family members and, you know, we very much commend them for what they're doing. They are breaking down barriers, they are changing this country probably more than anyone else, including the Cabinet, including the international community and I hope that, you know, we will have many problems but I hope we don't have anything that major.