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Afghan TV host smiles at the camera even through fear

Afghan journalists have to strike what may be an impossible balance: Appearing in public and on air to report without provoking the ire of the Taliban.

KABUL — For Yalda Ali just turning up to work is an act of defiance.

As the host of TOLO TV's "Good Morning," Ali, 25, is among a depleted number of female journalists still working in the Afghan capital after the Taliban seized power. Those remaining now have to strike what may be an impossible balance: Appearing in public and on the airwaves to report without provoking the ire of their strict militant rulers.

“I have to be very careful about every single word, and also about the makeup that I wear, how I dress and how I behave around men,” she told NBC News in an interview Thursday. “We don’t know if we have freedom of speech ... so we have to be careful so the Taliban don’t get crazy and we get harmed.”

“On Assignment with Richard Engel - Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires” airs this Sunday, Sept. 19 at 10 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

Yalda has only been in the anchor's chair at this job for two weeks, since her predecessor left Afghanistan when tens of thousands of people escaped as American troops left the country.

Image: Yalda Ali
Yalda Ali is the anchor of "Good Morning," which airs between 7 to 9 each day on Afghanistan's TOLO TV channel.NBC News

After two decades of working under laws that defended freedom of expression, Afghan journalists face an uncertain future under the harsh new regime. Some have fled, others have been beaten for simply for doing their jobs. It’s even more dangerous for women, who have to navigate what they can and can’t do under the Taliban government.

Under the previous Taliban government, which was toppled by U.S.-backed forces in 2001, women were barred from attending school, holding jobs and leaving home without male escorts. They had to wear all-encompassing burqas, they did not appear on television and their voices weren't heard on the radio.

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Twenty years later, the Taliban say they have changed.

But the Taliban-run education ministry asked boys from grades 7-12 back to school Saturday along with their male teachers, with no mention of girls in those grades returning to school.

The country's rulers also set up a ministry for the “propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice" in the building that once housed the Women's Affairs Ministry.

When women protested earlier this month for equal rights, security forces responded violently, according to Human Rights Watch. Video footagepublished by NBC News showed female protesters being whipped by a Taliban fighter in Kabul.

Then last week the militants announced that protests were now banned unless approved ahead of time and journalists said they’ve been told covering unapproved protests is also now illegal.

Patricia Gossman, an associate director for the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban had never accepted being held to account by the public or the media and that wasn’t about to change now.

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

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

“Women journalists are in the process of disappearing from the capital,” non-profit group Reporters Without Borders warned on Aug. 31.

Last year, there were around 700 female journalists in Kabul, according to a joint survey by the group and the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists. By the end of last month, fewer than 100 were still formally working in privately-owned radio and TV stations in the Afghan capital, according to an investigation by Reporters Without Borders.

Outside Kabul, the picture is even starker. Most women journalists have been forced to stop working in the provinces, where almost all privately-owned media outlets ceased operating as Taliban forces advanced, the group said.

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

So for Ali to go on air it takes guts, especially given TOLO TV's history with the Taliban.

The militants claimed responsibility for an attack in 2016 targeting TOLO TV workers, which left seven people dead, accusing the channel of “promoting obscenity, irreligiousness, foreign culture and nudity.”

Ali is pushing boundaries in other ways too.

She still wears makeup, although less than before, and while she dresses more conservatively, she continues to smile.

“In these conditions I come in front of the camera with all this fear in my heart but I smile,” she said. “One smile can lift a nation for a day.”

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