London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Saad Mohseni is the Chairman of the Moby Group, which owns a number of television and radio stations in Afghanistan. He has been described by the New Yorker magazine as “Afghanistan’s first media mogul” and has elsewhere been compared to Rupert Murdoch. Saad Mohseni worked in investment banking in Australia before moving back to Afghanistan in 2002 and setting up the Moby group alongside his brothers Zaid and Jahid Mohseni. The Moby Group is the largest media company in Afghanistan, and its affiliates include Tolo TV, Lemar TV, and Arman FM, amongst others. Mohseni is also behind the hugely successful “Afghan Star” television program that airs on Tolo TV.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
[Mohseni] I am an Afghan who grew up in London, Kabul, Tokyo and Melbourne (Australia). I started my career as an investment banker but moved to Afghanistan in 2002 to start a radio station.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why did you decide to change careers, leaving behind a successful career in banking to embark upon a new career in the media, and in as volatile a place as Afghanistan no less?
[Mohseni] As Afghans, my brothers Zaid and Jahid and myself felt compelled to give something back to Afghanistan and to return in order to contribute to private sector development. Once we were here we were able to focus on the media sector. Having started off with a local radio station in 2002, our group now owns and operates 15 media outlets (including 3 national TV channels and 2 national radio networks).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have already launched Tolo TV and Lemar TV; do you have any plans to launch any new television channels?
[Mohseni] Yes, we recently launched TOLO News – a 24 hour news channel. We also have a 50 percent stake in a pan-Persian entertainment channel.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about the Ramadan programming on Tolo TV? Was there an increase in religious and Quran-based programs?
[Mohseni] Taking into account the holy month of Ramadan, our programming complies with our social and religious conventions. We aired serials with religious themes in the evening, and of course also used our discussion programs to discuss the true meaning of Ramadan and Islam. We also aired a reality program “Tarteel” which is a Quran recitation competition. Young men and women competed to become Afghanistan’s next Quran recitation champion.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Tolo TV became particularly popular thanks to the hit program “Afghan Star.” Is Tolo TV preparing to broadcast any new programs that could become as popular or successful as Afghan Star?
[Mohseni] Yes, we have a number of other very popular locally made programs including a police show (which is our version of “24”) which is due to premier in September. Kaboora, our production entity, produces some 15 hours of every day which includes soap operas, action series, game shows, discussion programs etc.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think programs like Afghan Star, and the award winning drama “Raz Ha ye Een Khana” – which tells the story of an Afghan family visited by a cousin after thirty years of exile – have changed the way people view Afghanistan?
[Mohseni] The media can play a role in educating people and facilitating social change. Our news and discussion programs can also do much to change Afghanistan for the better.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think creating and broadcasting television programs like the ones mentioned above have been liberating for the people of Afghanistan; particularly in relation to the career prospects of the younger generation?
[Mohseni] 60 percent of the population is under the age of 20. Younger people have an appetite for learning. We have been striving to educate, inform, entertain and hopefully facilitate social change.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Approximately how many television channels are on offer in Afghanistan, and which would you consider to be Tolo TV’s greatest rival?
[Mohseni] There are 4 or 5 national networks and 28 stations in Kabul. The competition is intense but we have continued to dominate. Ariana TV is our biggest rival in Afghanistan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of ratings do Tolo TV and Lemar TV enjoy?
[Mohseni] Viewer numbers change. But we believe that our top shows (on Tolo TV) attract as many as 12 million viewers i.e. the Finals of Afghan Star.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your target audience?
[Mohseni] Given that most households are 1 TV set households, our programs are “family” friendly. However, tastes vary and as such we try to include as much diversity as possible.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are female broadcasters required to wear the hijab on television; or is this left to the presenter’s choice?
[Mohseni] No one is required to wear a hijab. However, most presenters opt to cover their hair. It is a personal choice.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Moby Group has made great strides in allowing greater access to information both within Afghanistan and internationally. Do you believe that this has allowed the general public to obtain a more realistic view of what is happening in Afghanistan today?
[Mohseni] We aim to provide the public with choices. These choices apply to programming and ideas/views.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is any of your media programming restricted in any way due to the censorship of certain ideas or images?
[Mohseni] We are mindful of our social conventions and as such are careful not to offend. Although the government to a large extent has adopted a ‘laissez fair” approach, recently a decree was issued in order to ban “Deal or no Deal” (one of our most popular programs). We are concerned over our future prospects in Afghanistan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have any of your television channels ever received threats from extremist groups or other such organizations, and if so how did you deal with this?
[Mohseni] Yes, we receive threats on a regular basis. We naturally take every threat seriously which involves liaising with security officials in Afghanistan as well as protecting our people and facilities as best we can.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In light of the numerous physical threats, violence, and even murder, committed against Afghan journalists since the beginning of the Karzai regime in 2002, do you feel as if you require security or protection when travelling within Kabul? How safe is the city?
[Mohseni] The city is relatively safe but we take precautions. However, we don’t let these threats get in the way of our work.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You were in Australia when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan. Did you follow the situation back home carefully, or was this less relevant to you since you were living abroad?
[Mohseni] I resided in Australia and worried over our nation, its people and future. Afghanistan has always been relevant to me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you any plans to enter politics in Afghanistan?
[Mohseni] No, I have no plans to run for elected office in Afghanistan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think the future holds for Afghanistan?
[Mohseni] Afghanistan is at a crucial juncture today. If the situation vis-à-vis security, governance and the economy improve then our prospects look good. Otherwise the situation will continue to deteriorate. The international community (including the military) as well as the Afghan government have to do more.