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Afghan Media Group Looks Beyond 2014 -- With Expansion In Mind

A news reporter stands next to TV screens at Tolo television in Kabul. Tolo's journalists have been arrested and received death threats because of critical reports about government corruption and vote fraud.
A news reporter stands next to TV screens at Tolo television in Kabul. Tolo's journalists have been arrested and received death threats because of critical reports about government corruption and vote fraud.
KABUL -- Its entertainment shows have been condemned as "un-Islamic" by conservatives and its journalists have received death threats for critical reporting about sensitive issues.

But the Afghan-Australian family behind the Moby Group, which produces some of Afghanistan's most popular television shows, says it's eyeing the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country not with trepidation but with plans to expand.

In the space of a decade, the Mohseni family has built the Moby Group into a media empire that owns three of Afghanistan's most-watched television channels -- including the Tolo TV network -- several radio stations, a magazine, a music label, a film-production company, and a mobile-phone broadcast service.

Moby has become a crucial part of the media landscape in Afghanistan, where independent media have been key in fostering unity in a divided country still at war. Media independence has been particularly important because some outlets are controlled by powerful former warlords and influenced by neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan.

Moby is owned and managed by four siblings -- brothers Saad, Zaid, and Jahid Mohseni, and their sister Wajma. The four left Australia, their adopted country, to return to their birthplace soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban.

"It seemed to us like an important calling. Afghanistan really needed us and our skillset," says Zaid Mohseni, who heads Moby's technology and legal divisions.

Mohseni, who was a partner at a Melbourne-based law firm, says the media scene in those early years was extremely limited. There was only one state television and radio channel that broadcast several hours a day.
Zaid Mohseni
Zaid Mohseni

"In a war zone, all of those things you take for granted disappear and in Afghanistan all that was left was destruction," says Mohseni, whose second floor office at Tolo TV's headquarters in Kabul is flanked by a dozen small, muted, flat-screen TVs.

Mohseni, who speaks with a distinct Australian accent, is a tall, sharply dressed man. As he sits behind his desk, he fidgets with his two mobile phones, while his eyes wander at a laptop screen.

Under the Taliban, all forms of music and television were banned, as was independently reported news. There was only state-owned radio, the Taliban's Voice of Sharia, which was dominated by calls to prayer and religious teachings.

In 2003, Moby won a broadcast license and started Arman FM, the first privately owned radio station in the country. They received around $2.2 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help with start-up costs. USAID and the U.S. State Department have spent tens of millions of dollars supporting independent media in Afghanistan.

Over the years the Mohsenis have also invested several million dollars of their own money. After Arman took off, Moby moved into television and soon after Tolo TV was launched.

Breaking Taboos

In a deeply religious and conservative country, the content of Moby's channels has been groundbreaking. Tolo TV initially broadcast Indian soap operas, Turkish serials, and reruns of American programs like "24." It still does, but it has also produced its own content.

It created one of the country's first soap operas, an Afghan version of "The Office," a phone-in program for women, children's shows, and its biggest success, "Afghan Star," a singing contest not unlike "American Idol," where people send text messages to vote for their favorites performers. Last year, Moby also launched the hugely successful Afghan Premier League, a national soccer competition.

Moby, strongly associated with the pro-Western development effort in Afghanistan, has come under constant attack and pressure from religious leaders, ex-warlords, and even the government itself.

It has been condemned as "un-Islamic" by conservatives for letting women appear alongside men on its radio and television programs. Similarly, it has been criticized by some for showing foreign soap operas that feature unveiled women as well as allowing female contestants on its singing contests.

Moby's journalists have been arrested and received death threats because of critical reports about sensitive issues such as government corruption and electoral fraud. In Iran, Moby's leadership have been labelled Zionists and slammed for corrupting moral values, while in Afghanistan they have been accused of being Iranian sympathizers.

Moby's staunch opposition to the Taliban and other insurgent groups has also led to accusations that it is a U.S. agent. Meanwhile, Pakistani officials have been infuriated by reporting by Moby's journalists alleging Islamabad's interference in Afghanistan.

What The People Want

"We don't actually set out to be controversial," says 44-year-old Zaid Mohseni. "However, sometimes controversy surrounds us because we have such a large and diverse viewership." He says the company has to cater to the needs and wants of its core audience -- youth and women -- otherwise it would lose them.

At the same time, Mohseni says Moby's channels are "fitted within what is acceptable in Afghanistan." That includes self-censorship, meaning no nudity or coarse language, and violence is toned down.

The controversy over Moby's programs has not dented its popularity. According to Mohseni, Moby's channels reach two-thirds of the television audience in Afghanistan, where half of the estimated 30 million population has access to television.

With the majority of foreign combat troops preparing to leave Afghanistan at the end of the year and a political transition under way, there have been concerns that the media could be vulnerable to any return of the Taliban to power or the rise of a more conservative government.

In a report released just days before World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Freedom House said Afghan journalists face physical threats and a lack of security. It cited numerous murders of journalists in the country in the last 12 months. Afghanistan is ranked 147th in its press-freedom index.

But Mohseni says the scheduled pullout does not hold fear for Moby. In fact, the company is looking to expand.

"For us, the 2014 deadline is just a date. Our plan is to continue our broadcasts and continue serving our audience," he says. "We plan to expand our production and build the capacity of our Afghan staff. We really want to take it to the next level."

Moby employs more than 1,000 people, most of them in Kabul. Its headquarters is in Dubai, and its aim to expand in the region, adding over a dozen offices in six countries.

Its expansion is well under way. In 2009, Moby partnered with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to create the Farsi1 satellite network. Entertainment programs are packaged in Dubai and beamed from Britain into Iran. Moby also does television production in Yemen. Later this year, the company plans to launch an entertainment television channel in Iraq.

"We're looking to expand in similar markets like Afghanistan which are underdeveloped and underserviced," Mohseni says.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.