KABUL

Afghanistan’s top TV interviewer: ‘I’ve assimilated the fact that the Taliban will kill me in the end’

Saeed Shinwari lives holed up at the headquarters of ToloTV, under constant fear of the fundamentalists

Kabul (Special correspondent) - 15 Sep 2021 - 14:56 UTC
Saeed Shinwari on the set of ToloTV.
Saeed Shinwari on the set of ToloTV.

Saeed Shinwari, one of the stars of Afghanistan’s ToloTV, has not left its headquarters in the center of Kabul for a month. Every day, he wakes up wondering whether the Taliban might take his life, recalling the day the fundamentalists entered the Afghan capital on August 15 and searched his house. A week earlier, the secret services of the now toppled former government had warned him he was on a hit list. “I’ve assimilated the fact that the Taliban will kill me in the end,” he said flatly, further disheartened by the fact that he has no contacts to get him out of the country.

Shinwari hasn’t seen his family at all in that time, he confided from the compound where he works, eats, sleeps and, above all, despairs. The 31-year-old journalist has a wife and four children, but is the main breadwinner for an extended family that includes his parents, sisters, brothers and nephews. “They came to my house and turned everything inside out. My mother asked them what they were looking for and they told her it was some card linking me to the government [Shinwari did work as a spokesperson for a government agency in 2019]. Since then, the stress means I can’t eat, or smile, I feel depressed. What can I do?”

He is aware of the public relations campaign the Taliban have deployed, targeting international journalists. “One thing the [former government] and the Taliban have in common, or actually every government in this country since the mujahideen, is that they love the foreign press, but they hate the local media,” he said. “If the Taliban stop you,” he told this reporter, “they will treat you with respect; if they stop me, they will most likely beat me up because of my shows and my career.”

The big question that I ask myself, that all Afghans ask themselves, is why the world has done this to us, why they have abandoned us

This is not the first time Shinwari has potentially faced violence. He suffered threats from the local branch of the Islamic State (ISIS-K) in his native Nangarhar, where he started working as a journalist nine years ago. But national recognition came when he signed up to work at ToloNews in 2017. His talk show, a format similar to the BBC’s Hard Talk, achieved fame for the sharpness of his questions and how he made his guests uncomfortable.

That is, until the Taliban came along. “They just show up here for us to interview them without regard for whether it is newsworthy,” he said indignantly. A few days ago, Abdul Hanan Haqqani, a leader of the movement’s most hardline faction, stopped by to be interviewed by Shinwari. “When we finished, he said he was surprised that I had treated him in a balanced way. I replied that if I knew they were not going to kill me, I would have asked him a lot of questions that interest people,” he said, though it is perhaps possible he just thought about saying that. What is certain is that many of those who follow his show have asked him what is wrong, and why he is no longer so inquisitive.

”We are going on the air with a lot of censorship,” he confessed. “I hate them with all my might. They’ve taken our country away from us. If you lose money, it’s okay, you can get it back; but if you lose your country, you’ve lost everything,” he lamented. “The big question that I ask myself, that all Afghans ask themselves, is why the world has done this to us, why they have abandoned us,” he concluded.

Tolo’s owner, Saad Mohseni, confirmed that they have had “several workers beaten and threatened,” without going into detail about Shinwari’s case. ToloTV was Afghanistan’s first private television network and something of a revolution in news and entertainment. It also operated with an inclusive policy for gender and ethnicity. Mohseni told EL PAÍS that most of its female employees had resigned after the arrival of the Taliban. Meanwhile, journalists from other Afghan media have also been brutally beaten for attempting to cover a demonstration.

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