x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The rebel baron of Afghan broadcast

Dubbed the 'Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan', Saad Mohseni is the mogul on a mission to give his countrymen the media they crave.

Dubbed the 'Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan', Saad Mohseni is the mogul on a mission to give his countrymen the media they crave.
Dubbed the 'Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan', Saad Mohseni is the mogul on a mission to give his countrymen the media they crave.

Religious fundamentalists accuse him of introducing immoral values to Afghan youth, the Pakistanis don't like him because of his patriotism, and an Iranian newspaper recently denounced him as an Israeli agent. In the western press Saad Mohseni is sometimes described as the "Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan", which seems to irritate him more than anything else.

"Well, it's like being the district mayor of a small town and someone saying to you: 'You are the Obama of this small town'. It's ridiculous," Mohseni says, speaking in an accent with strong traces of his adopted homeland, Australia.

At the moment, however, Mohseni, 44, is simply an expectant father.

His wife, Sarah, a glamorous Iranian-American fashion designer, is in the south of France about to give birth to their first child and Mohseni is flying to France in the morning.

The peripatetic media mogul is in Dubai for just a day - the couple split their time between the Emirates and Kabul - and we are sitting at the dining table of their small but tastefully decorated flat in a high-rise just off Sheikh Zayed Road.

He may be about to become a father but Mohseni is still distracted by work, constantly fiddling with his BlackBerry and getting updates on the launch of Tolo TV's 24-hour news channel based in Kabul and on Farsi1, the new entertainment network broadcast in Iran and co-owned by Murdoch's News Corp.

Mohseni is the Afghan-Australian head of the Moby Group, the pioneering Afghan media conglomerate that has grown to 11 businesses, the most famous of which is perhaps Tolo TV, which broadcasts the wildly popular Afghan Star, the annual reality television series modelled on American Idol.

"We launched the 24-hour news channel as quickly as possible," Mohseni says, anticipating widespread interest as last year's Afghan elections approached. "We've had e-mail inquiries from international media organisations to get live stuff, and CBS was talking to us, and ITN wrote to us to be able to get co-ordinates to tune in."

Mohseni, it seems, knows everyone in Kabul. All the parliamentarians, cabinet ministers and the beleaguered president, Hamid Karzai, are just a phone call away. Foreign journalists drop by Tolo's sprawling and well-guarded studios in Kabul daily to get the gossip. Businessmen clamour to meet him.

On this day Mohseni doesn't look like the average slick media executive. With a pink Polo shirt, blue jeans, unkempt curly hair and dark-rimmed glasses, he has a boyish air. But his position at the nexus of politics and media means he has an understanding of Afghanistan in a way few people do.

He is better placed than almost anyone to know how wrongly the war is going. An increasing number of Afghan civilians are being killed by the Taliban's suicide bombers and assassination squads. Last summer was the worst ever for Nato casualties. The top US and Nato commander, Gen David Petraeus, is gambling on a surge of American soldiers to turn the war around. But nearly everyone feels pessimistic about the country's future.

Mohseni is more sanguine.

"We are continuing to invest in the country. I don't think we would be there if we felt things were going to come to an end," he says, stretching his legs and taking a puff of a Marlboro Light. "Time will fix things."

The Moby Group is a family affair with offices in Dubai's Media City. Saad is the public face. His brother Jahid is chief operating officer and another brother, Zaid, runs Farsi1. Their younger sister, Wajma, is head of marketing.

Mohseni this month announced plans to expand the company's presence in Dubai, with their offices there acting as Middle East headquarters. Moby Group plans to launch five channels outside Afghanistan over the next 18 months.

"We have ambitions to become more of a regional player. We're now looking at South Asia and the Arab market. Dubai is going to be a springboard into the region for us," says Mohseni. "Our plans are for general entertainment satellite channels and production of shows specifically for these markets."

Mohseni was 13 and living in Tokyo, where his father, Yassin, a diplomat and No 2 at the Afghan Embassy, was stationed, when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Three years later, Saad, his three siblings and their parents received asylum in Australia and settled in Melbourne.

"The family was considering Canada, the US and Australia. But my father despises the cold weather so it was Australia," he says. "We felt at home quickly and it's been home ever since. We never had much to do with the Afghans, ironically. But yet we were very Afghan. We spoke Farsi at home. We were proud of being Afghans but we were lucky to be able to assimilate very quickly."

He enrolled in a business programme at an Australian university but dropped out and went to London to work in the City in the late 1980s. For most of the late 1990s Mohseni floated around Central Asia, where the family had relatives in various businesses. After 9/11 he decided it was time to go back to Afghanistan with his brothers Jahid and Zaid because the country was going to be given a second chance.

Back then, there was a shoot-on-sight curfew and no electricity in Kabul unless you could find a generator. But when Roshan, the mobile phone company, opened a shop the queues snaked around the block as ordinary Afghans shelled out US$50 (Dh184), a month's salary, to buy a SIM card and a handset.

USAID, the American international development agency, gave the Mohseni brothers more than $200,000 (Dh734,560) and, also using their family's money, they launched the radio station Arman FM in 2003 and later, Tolo TV.

Life quickly became a version of Hollywood meets Bollywood meets the Wild (Afghan) West.

Tolo was a shock to Afghans used to the Taliban's Voice of Sharia radio or the staid Leninist programmes that passed for television during the Soviet era. Handsome TV presenters in smart suits won legions of female fans, some of whom sent marriage proposals via text messages. Men and women chatted easily on screen, angering the religious leadership, who have accused Mohseni of corrupting Afghan youth.

The shows range from the outrageous to the crusading. On one, those caught relieving themselves in public were filmed on camera and given a "golden toilet award" to shame them into keeping Kabul's streets clean. The Indian and Afghan soap operas have been huge hits, with melodramatic plot lines featuring star-crossed lovers and elaborate titles such as "Because the Mother-in-law Was Once the Daughter-in-law".

Other hugely popular shows investigate and expose corruption in the courts and ministries and are given multiple airings.

In one show, Tolo's dogged journalists exposed the corruption of the Haj pilgrimage contracts whereby ministry officials ripped off ordinary Afghans wishing to go on the holy journey to Mecca. The minister of Hajj and religious affairs was fired by President Karzai.

"We get a lot of people in prosecution offices, the judges, the good guys who say to our reporters: 'This is intolerable. We can't accept this happening. They are not allowing us to prosecute, here's the evidence'."

Taking on a corrupt and powerful elite has come at a cost. Blast walls protect the studio compound in Kabul, and journalists and editors are frequently arrested or threatened with death.

"We had a couple of kidnappings last week by the Taliban," Mohseni says matter-of-factly. "Two of our reporters were doing a series of reports in the north and the Taliban got them. But they were released, ironically when the Taliban found out they were from Tolo. This happens regularly. We've had a dozen people arrested from hours to days without charges. When you take on the police, the judiciary, you are bound to make enemies."

Yet the media has been one of the few success stories in Afghanistan. There are dozens of magazines, newspapers, television channels and radio stations offering lively and diverse views ranging from extremely conservative to secular and democratic.

But how many people have access to electricity, let alone an expensive television set? Mohseni reckons audience figures are between 10 million and 12 million, although there are no independent statistics.

"One of the interesting things we think is that something like 55 to 60 per cent of the population watches television at some stage. Access to electricity is still 20 to 30 per cent. Now this bucks the usual trend where access to electricity correlates to television viewership. But in Afghanistan most get a TV set and a generator because they are so interested in various programmes."

While Afghanistan seems locked in a cycle of perpetual conflict, the media has given its citizens - Afghans living in chaos and darkness, and recently in the grip of religious fundamentalism - a glimpse of a peaceful, rich world where politicians are responsible for keeping people safe, men and women go to the cinema with no fuss and children attend schools.

But conservatives believe Tolo is doing too much, too soon, that Afghans are not prepared to see men and women presenters sitting together in a studio. There are frequent official complaints about its programmes.

Mohseni, however, believes the youth are the future. About 60 per cent of the population are under the age of 20, he points out.

"If anything students are more advanced than their teachers," he says. "At Kabul University all the young students talk about Kant and Sartre and various other people and professors are oblivious. Media has, on the other hand, educated people."

Tolo's satellite 24-hour news channel is aimed at the Afghan diaspora.

"We realised there is an enormous amount of demand from Afghans living outside of Afghanistan but they are more interested in news. They are more politically engaged, to put it mildly. They care about the politics they discuss so it made sense for us to launch it in Europe and also Asia," Mohseni says.

He has also trained his sights on another country with a burgeoning youth population - Iran. Farsi1 was launched last summer after a successful lunch meeting with Murdoch in 2006 in New York.

"He is a fascinating character," Mohseni recalls. "He is curious about different markets in different formats and different ways of reaching people whether they are papers or television or internet. We had similarities - he is also from Melbourne, which is where we grew up - and he is a totally engaged man."

Farsi1 airs family-orientated shows such as re-runs of the American sitcom Dharma& Greg or South American telenovellas. It is based in Dubai, the uplink is in London and the shows are all dubbed into Farsi. Mohseni hopes to reach 30 million viewers.

But he's been somewhat taken aback by the press criticism in Iran, much of which drips with condescension for his daring to take on the ancient culture of the Persians.

In May, the Iranian newspaper Jomhury-e-Eslami wrote that Mohseni was planning to "expand his little empire" outside Afghanistan. It said he was responsible for investing in the "immoral" Farsi1 and was called the "Robert Murdoch of Afghanistan" by some Americans.

Well, they nearly got it right.

"We are not political and the content is not different to what Iranians watch anyway on the foreign channels," Mohseni says. "We are culturally sensitive. We do more censoring than any other channel that goes into that country. We don't show kissing, we don't show too much flesh."