KABUL — When the senior Taliban official, dressed in black, entered the struggling newsroom, some journalists froze, their faces etched in fear.

He walked to a sofa and sat across from the paper’s top editor, who on this day was considering shutting it down. To the mullah’s left were two reporters who were viciously beaten up by Taliban fighters a week ago for covering a women’s rights protest.

As their conversation unfolded in front of Washington Post journalists Wednesday, it became clear the Taliban, too, was worried. The burly, black-turbaned official turned to Nemat Naqdi, one of the assaulted journalists, and expressed what was previously unthinkable from a movement known for its brutality.

“We are sorry,” said Sarujullhaq Omari, a member of the Taliban’s newly created media committee. “We will investigate what happened.”

It was the latest sign of the Taliban’s attempt to convince Afghans and the world, especially Western donors, that it is a moderate, gentler incarnation of itself that enshrines basic freedoms. But none of the journalists of Etilaatroz, one of the few critical voices remaining in Afghanistan, believed the contrition was sincere. Top editors noted that the conciliatory visit, while surprising, came a week after the attacks and only after images of the reporters’ bruised bodies went viral.

Even as he apologized, saying he felt sorrow when he saw the photos, Omari suggested that the journalists were to blame. The paper, he added, needed to be more responsible.

“These were illegally organized protests,” Omari said. “You should be more cautious. These things can happen during such a situation when we are just setting up.”

Zaki Daryabi, the editor in chief of Etilaatroz, stared at him, hiding his anger.

“What happened was like a trick,” Daryabi said later. His younger brother, Taqi, was beaten up along with Naqdi. “While he apologized, he also told me we should be more careful, that it was our mistake that our journalists were tortured. That journalism was the reason for what happened to our colleagues. . . . I wish for a true investigation.”

If the Taliban were to hold accountable its own fighters for the assault, it could send a signal that the rule of law applied to everyone and that the rights of journalists were important. But the messaging so far has been anything but that. Since the Taliban captured the nation last month, they have sought to silence the country’s vibrant media ecosystem, one of the most significant achievements of the two-decade-long American and Western presence.

Hundreds of Afghan journalists have fled the country, but for those unable to leave or who decided to remain, their utmost fears have come true. Through decrees, intimidation and physical assaults, newsrooms have lost staffers, had their voices subdued or been forced to self-censor. Taliban fighters have raided journalists’ homes and ordered female state TV anchors off the air.

In recent days, at least 14 journalists have detained and later released for covering protests in Kabul, with nine suffering beatings by the Taliban, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The watchdog group described the Taliban’s earlier promises to let the media keep operating freely as “worthless.”

“This image is wrong,” Omari, the Taliban official, said when asked about the growing concerns about media suppression by the Taliban. He said that soon the militants will announce a “new mechanism” for how the media should operate and that “it will be more free and better than the past government.” He added that women would be allowed to continue to work in the media.

But when pressed on whether media organizations and journalists will need to regulate their work according to strict Islamic laws, Omari nodded. “We will be freer than the past, but every freedom should have a frame,” he said.

Naqdi, the corner of his left eye still bloodied from the attack, sat quietly during the hour-long conversation among his editors, Omari and another Taliban official on the media committee. After they left, Naqdi walked out onto a balcony, his face grim.

“I don’t trust them,” he said. 

'I am a reporter. This is my job.'

As a child growing up in rural Ghazni province, Naqdi would listen every day to the radio to hear the news from around the world, he said. He majored in journalism and graduated in 2016 from Kabul University. Afterward, he worked for a newspaper and later as a director of a radio station. 

“Becoming a journalist was the big dream of my life,” said Naqdi, now 28 and married.

Naqdi mostly covered social issues and wanted to become a documentary filmmaker, he said. Last year, he was hired as a video journalist at Etilaatroz, one of the country’s leading dailies. Its mission statement stood for everything Naqdi believed in: “Informing people, strengthening free media, freedom of expression and access to information.”

On the morning of Sept. 8, Naqdi and a colleague walked out of their newsroom in West Kabul to put those words into practice.

Just stepping out took courage. Since the Taliban entered the capital last month, Naqdi and his colleagues have been fearful of filming outside. “We were worried about our safety,” he recalled.

But as women started to stage protests in Kabul, Naqdi felt a duty to shine a spotlight on those "who had lost their rights overnight," he said.

Around 10:30 a.m., Naqdi and video editor Taqi Daryabi started to film the crowd of women protesting. That is when a group Taliban fighters arrived and ordered them to stop. One pointed his rifle at Naqdi and angrily said they were not permitted to film. The fighter cocked the trigger, Naqdi said.

“I told him: ‘I am a reporter. This is my job,’ ” Naqdi said. “It was not important to them.”

The fighter tried to grab his video camera, but Naqdi pushed into the crowd of women. He spotted another group of Taliban fighters arresting Taqi. Naqdi called the newsroom to alert the staff, just before he was taken into custody himself.

They were taken to a nearby police station. Three Taliban fighters shoved Naqdi into a room, took his phone and tied his hands behind his back with a scarf. Then, they kicked him onto the floor and pummeled his body with batons, whips and electric cables, Naqdi said.

“I felt like I was going to die,” he said.

As they abused him, the fighters were accusing Naqdi of organizing the protest, he said. Fifteen minutes later, they threw him into a jail cell. Minutes later, the fighters brought Taqi. He, too, was badly beaten.

Meanwhile, three other Etilaatroz journalists arrived at the police station to try to persuade the Taliban to release their colleagues. All were pushed around, and their phones confiscated. They were detained in another cell for four hours.

“One Taliban fighter slapped me in the face and whipped my colleague,” Khadim Karimi, a senior editor, told Omari, the Taliban official, during the Wednesday meeting, describing his ordeal at the police station. “I could hear the screams of people inside there. There were also women who screamed. I don’t know what happened to them.”

A few hours later, Naqdi and Taqi were released. The paper sent a taxi to pick them up. When they arrived at the newsroom, they could barely walk. Photos taken at the time, and posted on social media, showed red abrasions and welts on their backs, legs and faces.

 Both were taken to a hospital.  

'Everything is uncertain'

Even before the assaults, Etilaatroz was under pressure.

When the Taliban seized Afghanistan last month, the paper was the second-most-read daily in the country. Started in 2012, it had a print edition of 2,000 copies per day, said Zaki Daryabi, the top editor. The paper has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Like most other Afghan media, it was partially supported by U.S. and Western aid groups but also generated income from advertising and other services.

The paper exposed many government wrongdoings, including discriminatory hiring practices, official graft and overspending that led to resignations and other changes.

Now, the paper is a shadow of its former self. In the wake of the Taliban takeover, the economic and monetary collapse has dried up advertising and subscriptions. With the exodus of Western governments and the political uncertainty, grant money has also evaporated. As a result, the paper shut down its print edition and is publishing only online.

With the fall of the previous government, and with the Taliban one still in transition, sources everywhere have evaporated, making it difficult to cover developments across the nation. The staff used to produce four to five in-depth reports daily. Now, it publishes only one on most days, Daryabi said.

It is a scenario unfolding across Afghanistan. About 80 percent of all media outlets have shut down or are only partially operating amid security concerns, financial woes or uncertainty over their future under a Taliban government, said Ahmad Quraishi, the head of the Afghanistan Journalists Center, a media support organization, citing his group’s estimates. One glaring exception to the impact on media is Western journalists, whom the Taliban has allowed to work freely.

Etilaatroz is also facing expectations from its readers, who want to see more investigative and governance stories that will hold the Taliban to account. “There are lot of things happening that puts us under pressure,” Daryabi said. “From one side, a political dictatorship state. And the other side is a free and young generation that expect a lot from us.”

The Etilaatroz staff has shrunk by more than half, from 45 staffers to less than 20. Those still brave enough to come to the newsroom work with a cloud of fear over their heads, worried whether their next story will place them in danger, Daryabi said. Many, he said, are seeking ways to leave Afghanistan.

While the paper continues to publish stories of Taliban abuse, including a recent report when fighters killed a female police officer, it’s also opting to self-censor at times. “If our staff is living in the area or are going there, and if we feel the report is too dangerous for them, we will not report it,” Daryabi said.

The attacks on his brother and Naqdi have only heightened their fear, he added.

This week, the paper’s staff was moving the newsroom. The reason was mostly financial: With far less staff and much less income generated, they were moving to a smaller office with a cheaper rent.

“We don’t know what will happen next month,” Daryabi said. “Everything is uncertain.”

It was also partly out of fear, said one journalist in the newsroom. In recent days, Taliban fighters or their loyalists had occupied the houses around the newsroom, said Karimi, the senior editor.

Naqdi has not returned to work yet. He is taking 11 pills a day to relieve the pain and he cannot hear properly in his left ear, he said.

And when he does return to his job, he will arrive with an altered mind-set. He is the oldest male son in his family, responsible for the care of his parents. He wants to be there for them when they age.

“I don’t want to cover negative stories about the Taliban,” he said. “This is about my safety. I am worried that the Taliban will arrest me again.”

Lorenzo Tugnoli in Kabul and Ezzatullah Mehrdad in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.