The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion My Afghan news channel won’t stop its important work. We hope the world doesn’t look away.

Beheshta Arghand, a newscaster with Tolo News, interviews a Taliban official on Aug. 17. (Courtesy of Saad Mohseni)
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Saad Mohseni is the chief executive of Moby Group, which owns Tolo News in Afghanistan.

The streets of Kabul have been swept by fear and panic since the Taliban arrived and took control of the government this week. But at Tolo News, Afghanistan’s leading independent news network where I am the chief executive, we have been asked by the Taliban to keep broadcasting; however, we don’t know for how much longer or under what conditions.

On Tuesday morning, Beheshta Arghand, one of our female newscasters, interviewed a Taliban official, asking him about the fears and uncertainties people are feeling in the country. It was the first time in Afghanistan’s history that a Taliban representative appeared live in a TV studio sitting across from a female presenter. That sentence would have been impossible to write the last time the Taliban ruled our country, when televisions were banned and women were not allowed to step outside their homes without a male guardian, let alone work.

The interview was certainly part of a campaign by the Taliban to present a moderate face to the world. Over the past few days, it has made a series of hopeful statements, saying that women can return to work, that freedom of expression will be respected and that girls can return to school. “No prejudice against women will be allowed,” the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

For the sake of the people of Afghanistan, I hope they’re serious. So far, some of us are feeling a cautious optimism, but a lot remains to be seen.

A free press was trying to take root in Afghanistan. Now journalists are bracing for Taliban rule.

Reports are coming in from Herat of business as usual after a bloodless handover. One prominent businessman told me about his experience of being able to walk around the city without armed guards for the first time in a decade. With the fear of looting and crime that we’re facing in the security vacuum of the transition, this is welcome news. But there are also reports of demonstrations being met with repression in the northeastern city of Jalalabad, with Taliban soldiers firing into the crowd and beating journalists and protesters. There were also demonstrations in Khost, in the southeastern part of the country, where hundreds also took to the streets over the replacement of Afghanistan’s national flag.

For our part, we remain committed to our journalistic principles, and that means providing a voice for Afghanistan’s women and girls.

Over the past year, there has been a troubling disconnect between what we heard the Taliban say at the supposed “peace talks” in Doha, Qatar, and what actually took place inside the country. At the negotiating table, we heard talk of how the gains of the past 20 years won’t be wiped away. But the past few months have shown a different picture, one of the Taliban allegedly rampaging across the country. There are instances of the group shutting down radio stations, and unverified reports of the Taliban carrying out revenge killings, shutting down girls’ schools and threatening people to submit to their rule.

As soon as the Taliban entered Kabul, there were accounts of fighters going into people’s homes, asking for specific people, raising fears of reprisals. In another broadcast on Tolo on Tuesday, Maulvi Yaqoob, the head of the Taliban’s military commission, instructed its fighters to stop entering people’s homes and seizing their property. The Taliban also announced a “general amnesty” to all government workers and said women could return to work.

Through all of this, our reporters and colleagues from other organizations are playing a crucial role: We are compelling the Taliban to be transparent about its intentions and will be holding it accountable to those commitments. The Afghan people are watching; the world is watching.

We have a commitment to our citizens, especially the young. Afghanistan has a median age of 18. These Afghans represent the gains of the past two decades. They’re not going anywhere. Already we’re seeing young Afghan women demonstrating in Kabul, standing for their rights, unfazed by the armed Taliban fighters, displaying the courage missing from our political leaders.

We must also keep in mind that many Taliban fighters were born after 9/11 and were not part of the Taliban from the 1990s. They did not carry out the repressive actions of their predecessors. Many of the Taliban’s young fighters enjoy mobile phones, social media and digital entertainment. The Taliban will have to face that social norms have changed, not only in the urban centers but in large parts of the country. They may have no choice but to accept a more moderate Afghanistan.

What comes next is crucial. What will be the order that governs Afghanistan now? What rights will Afghans still be able to enjoy? Will journalists be allowed to not just inform, but also put hard questions to their new rulers? Will they be spared the intimidation, threats, assassinations and terrorist attacks that have destroyed so many lives?

This is not the moment for the world to look away. This moment is a test for both the international community and the Taliban. The Afghan media will be the world’s eyes and the voice for Afghans.

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