Reaching His Prime Time in Afghanistan

Saad Mohseni started his Afghan media empire with help from USAID.
Saad Mohseni started his Afghan media empire with help from USAID. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

The head of a burgeoning Afghan media empire looked down at his new BlackBerry, vibrating against a table in Washington earlier this week. "Afghan civilians injured in Gereshk suicide bombing," read the e-mail headline.

Another day, another suicide bombing in another town. Another too-typical news event for Saad Mohseni's stations to broadcast across a country where prime-time programming is scheduled to fit the nighttime hours when electrical generators are switched on.

Mohseni, director of the Moby Media Group, was in Washington for meetings at the State Department and with U.S. media and business counterparts. His five-year-old company -- which got start-up help from the U.S. Agency for International Development -- owns two of the most-watched television networks in Afghanistan, an FM radio station, a video production house, an ad agency, a music label and a small magazine.

In addition to his nightly news program and a "Good Morning Afghanistan"-style talk show, Mohseni's Tolo TV network runs popular Indian soap operas, has a singing-contest show a la "American Idol," an amateur stand-up comedy show where comics get laughs in Persian Dari, a satire program that shows lawmakers in embarrassing situations and will, this fall, begin showing dubbed episodes of the Fox thriller "24."

In some ways, Mohseni, 41, is the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan.

Not only is he an entrepreneurial media lord with Australian roots who buys his soap operas from Murdoch's Indian Star TV network, his programming has been criticized as sensational, lowbrow and corruptive to the culture -- much as Fox's "The Simpsons" was panned when it hit the U.S. airwaves. And, like many of Murdoch's programs, Mohseni's are wildly popular. Both points of view came through in interviews on the streets of Kabul this week.

"Tolo TV is one of my favorite TV networks," said Wahidullah, 37, a former teacher. "I like most of its programs, especially the evening news and 'Dahlez Ha' " -- a current affairs program -- "which has already disclosed many secret things." On the other hand, Amanullah, 43, a car salesman, said: "Tolo TV . . . encourages people to immodesty and is really in contradiction to Afghan culture. My children are not allowed to watch it. If I had the ability to stop it, I would have stopped it very early."

Traversing Afghanistan's culture -- in places deeply conservative but youthful and surprisingly wired, wracked by a history of occupation, civil war and religious oppression -- can be as rocky as navigating the country's renowned moonscape terrain.

"We are mindful of the mullahs and clerics," Mohseni said during his Washington visit. He said that his network is the only one that the Taliban talks to, because it is seen as unbiased, yet it also broadcasts Afghanistan's most popular -- and Western-style -- entertainment programs. Tolo even had a dustup with the Afghan attorney general this year that resulted in some staff members being arrested and briefly detained.

"You can kick-start social change with TV," Mohseni said.

Women and men work alongside each other at Tolo (translated as "sunrise" or "dawn"), something that was forbidden under Taliban rule. Though some female contestants on Tolo's "Idol" show cover their heads, Mohseni said it is because they are following custom, rather than harshly enforced religious law.

"The thirst for freedom in Afghanistan that existed in Afghanistan prior to the fall of the Taliban is most evident in the explosion of media these last six years," Said T. Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, wrote in an e-mail this week. "More than 17 TV stations, 50 radio stations and 300 publications are contributing to a vibrant discussion of politics, culture, entertainment and religion, as well as women's and civil rights."

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