June 29, 2010


The Networker: Afghanistan’s first media mogul (Ken Auletta, 7/05/10, The New Yorker)

“Saad is the nexus of everything going through Kabul,” Tom Freston, a co-founder of MTV and a member of Moby’s board, says. “Besides the television business, he knows every foreign correspondent.” Mohseni collects business cards compulsively, placing them in the clear plastic sleeves of a loose-leaf book. “He’s a great networker,” Freston continues. “He’s got this contagious personality.”

Mohseni’s company owns Tolo TV and Arman radio, the country’s most popular TV and radio networks. It also owns a music-recording company, a second TV network, an advertising agency, a television and movie production company, the magazine Afghan Scene, and two Internet cafés. Next month, it expects to launch Tolo News, a twenty-four-hour satellite news channel. In 2009, it partnered with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to create the Farsi1 satellite network, which packages entertainment programs in Dubai and beams them from England into Iran. In fact, Mohseni has been called the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan, and though the comparison is extravagant, it gives a sense of his influence and ambition.

In Afghanistan the old media are still new. Under the Taliban television was banned and the single, state-run radio station was dominated by calls to prayer and religious chants. Seventy to eighty per cent of the population is illiterate, so the dominant media are radio and broadcast television; it is estimated that eight out of ten Afghans own a radio and four out of ten own a TV. Though there are no independent ratings agencies in Afghanistan, Moby estimates that Tolo attracts fifty-four per cent of the audience and Arman thirty-seven per cent. Mohseni owns and manages the company with his brothers, Zaid and Jahid, and his sister, Wajma, but he serves as the company’s public face. “Saad is the talker in the family,” Jahid Mohseni says. “He’s a great salesman. He can sell without anyone thinking he’s selling.” [...]

Mohseni has been denounced as “un-Islamic” by fundamentalists for allowing women to appear alongside men on his radio and TV networks, for showing Indian soap operas featuring unveiled women, and for allowing women to compete with men on one of Tolo TV’s hit shows, “Afghan Star.” He’s been threatened with arrest, because his journalists aggressively report on government incompetence, vote fraud, and rampant corruption. He has been called a Zionist in Iran and an Iranian sympathizer in Afghanistan. He has been accused by authorities in Tehran of subverting moral values. He is implacably opposed to the Taliban and staunchly pro-American, provoking accusations that he’s an American agent. And his outspoken criticism of Pakistan for treating Afghanistan as “a satellite state” enrages Pakistani officials. But Engel says that Mohseni’s candor is “valuable in a place as full of rumors and half-truths as Kabul.” The American investment banker Joseph Ravitch, a friend of Mohseni, says that he is ultimately a “mix of capitalist and do-gooder.” [...]

Although Saad Mohseni is a mogul in Afghanistan, compared with media companies in the developed world his operation is a pushcart. Moby’s audience is clustered in Kabul and a few other major cities, where electricity is more reliably available. The Afghan private sector is still in its infancy; the country’s gross domestic product is only eleven billion dollars. His biggest advertisers, six Afghan banks and four mobile-phone companies, pay a top price of five hundred dollars for a thirty-second ad. (A similar ad on the Super Bowl sells for about six thousand times that rate.) Mohseni makes sales calls himself. He will not provide precise figures, but says that Moby’s revenues are in the twenty-million-dollar range and are growing fifty to seventy per cent annually; it is now modestly profitable. The company employs seven hundred people in Afghanistan and forty in its offices in Dubai. Mohseni complains that government-subsidized services like the BBC and Voice of America hijack his reporters, because he can’t afford to match their salaries.

Still, an estimated one-third to one-half of the population of Afghanistan watched a Presidential debate last August on Tolo TV, and cameras from Tolo have been repeatedly banned from parliament and the government ministries after the network broadcast stories of government ineptness or wrongdoing. Its news programs exposed stuffed ballot boxes and other examples of fraud in the August Presidential election. Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, visited Mohseni in late March, and told me, “Our guys tell me that Tolo news blew them away. In this entire region, no one else is doing this kind of work. That’s on TV. On radio, they also blew them away.”

Moby’s entertainment programs may have an even greater impact, particularly in urban areas. The status of women in Afghanistan is being transformed by the media. Young girls watch soap operas and assert themselves at home, or refuse to wear burkas or accept arranged marriages. Tolo’s life-style shows have introduced boys and girls to modern fashions and hair styles, and to modern standards of personal hygiene. Forty per cent of Moby’s employees are women, and Mohseni believes that, when his radio and TV stations placed women on the same set with men, “the format allowed people to think a woman can have a conversation with a man. Maybe women have views. And maybe women are smart. It elevated women to an equal status with men. And it allowed men not to be so judgmental of women.”

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, describes the tension between Mohseni’s values and those of Afghan traditionalists: “The country is highly illiterate, highly religious, and highly traditional. And Saad is appealing to and creating a new young group of people in the urban areas. There’s a brilliance to what he’s doing, but it’s also risky. It’s a drama. I can’t imagine any other country in the world where it would be played out with this much intensity.”

This helps to explain the influx of American capital. Aside from the Mohseni family, the biggest contributor to construction costs for Arman radio and Tolo TV was the U.S. Agency for International Development. A portion of Moby’s advertising budget comes from foreign governments and N.G.O.s; recruitment ads for the Afghan Army and police are designed by Lapis, Moby’s ad agency, and paid for by the U.S. through the Afghan government.

Mohseni insists that there is only one such sponsor, the International Security Assistance Force, among Tolo’s top fifteen advertisers. But without the U.S. government’s financing for infrastructure Moby would not exist. (The State Department has budgeted seventy-two million dollars this fiscal year for “communications and public diplomacy” in Afghanistan.) U.S.A.I.D. sponsors “On the Road,” a weekly reality show. The show, which airs Saturday nights on Tolo, is hosted by an affable twenty-two-year-old named Mujeeb Arez, who travels through Afghanistan by jeep—often on highways freshly paved by U.S.A.I.D. funds—talking with residents and exploring local customs, delicacies, and indigenous commerce. (In areas where it is too dangerous to travel by jeep, U.S.A.I.D. has supplied a helicopter to ferry the crew.) Mohseni is quick to point out that U.S.A.I.D. sponsors only this one half-hour program out of a hundred and twelve hours of weekly prime-time programming on his two TV channels. Next season, however, the State Department will pay for another program, about “cops who may be tempted by bribes but don’t take them,” David Ensor, the director of communications and public diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, says. A major reason for the Karzai government’s unpopularity is the perception that corruption is condoned, particularly among the police. The show, Ensor explains, is meant to help recruit police by demonstrating “that cops can be heroes.” [...]

After the fall of the Taliban, Mohseni and his brothers turned their attention to Afghanistan, starting a company they called Moby Capital. The country was devastated by three decades of war and lacked the basic infrastructure—electricity, water, sanitation services—to support a business. But Mohseni and Zaid flew to Kabul in February, 2002, and held meetings, including one with the new minister of information and culture, who said that radio licenses were available. “I always liked the media, because you can really influence people, particularly younger people,” Mohseni says.

But to start an FM radio station would require half a million dollars, and the Mohsenis at that time could put up only three hundred thousand. Still, Mohseni mentioned his interest to his friend Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author. Rashid was having dinner a few days later with Andrew Natsios, the administrator of U.S.A.I.D., and said that he would pitch the idea of investing. Rashid recalls, “I told Natsios about this great Australian who wanted to rebuild Afghanistan and spend his own money.” He was impressed that all the siblings were willing to leave Australia and set up a business. “They were ready to ditch everything, unlike most expats who wanted to visit for six months,” he says.

The U.S. has a long history of funding foreign media to further its policy aims. During the Cold War, the C.I.A. secretly funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which were beamed into the Soviet Bloc. In Afghanistan (as in Iraq), the State Department and U.S.A.I.D. have openly supported independent media, in the hope of uniting the country. U.S.A.I.D. officials eventually met with the Mohsenis and agreed to invest two hundred and twenty-eight thousand dollars in building the infrastructure for a radio network.

Over the next few years, the Mohseni family invested an additional million dollars. They spent nine thousand dollars per month on staff and took no salary themselves. Arman would be the first privately owned radio station in the country. Under the Taliban, all musical performances and TV were banned, as were cricket matches and independently reported news. Aside from some daring citizens who listened to shortwave radio, there was only state-owned radio, Voice of Sharia. “Everything you take for granted in the West”—electricity, computers and people who know how to use them, transmitters, announcers trained in speaking into a microphone, a music library, transportation, security—“we had to supply ourselves,” Mohseni says.

Arman went on the air in April, 2003, with a crew of twenty people. Mohseni filled in as a radio voice, and his driver became a traffic reporter. Among their first employees was Massood Sanjer, who had been the English news broadcaster for Voice of Sharia. At seventeen years old, with a beard and a turban, he had read the news for fifteen minutes each night, earning ten dollars a month. Sanjer, who is now thirty-two and clean-shaven, recalls, “It was a tough job. Making a mistake could cost you jail. It was Taliban news: ‘Mullah Omar announced today . . .’ ” He was hired, at fifty times his old salary, to be the voice of Arman radio. From 9 A.M. to noon, five days a week, he played Shakira and Madonna, mixed with Afghan and Bollywood movie music. The station did not offer religious programs. “Most people believe they don’t have to hear about religion on the radio,” Mohseni told a reporter in 2003.

Under the Taliban, Afghan women had been barred from work and school and could not leave the house without a male relative. “We had male and female disk jockeys talking to each other in light banter,” Wajma Mohseni recalls. “The government issued warnings. They said, ‘You can’t have this kind of station.’ They threatened to shut us down.” Sanjer wound up running Arman radio, and today co-hosts a variety show each morning with a woman known as Sima. Fearful of becoming a target, she declines to give her last name or to be photographed. “She’s very popular,” he says. “Wherever I go, people say, ‘Is she beautiful? What’s she like?’ ” Arman is now on twenty-four hours a day.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 29, 2010 8:25 PM
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