Will Afghanistan’s Media Survive Under the Taliban?

A conversation with Afghan-Australian entrepreneur Saad Mohseni on launching the country’s first independent broadcaster 20 years ago — and why keeping it in business is more vital than ever.

Bobby Ghosh: You’re the Dubai-based founder and CEO of the Moby Group, which launched Afghanistan’s first independent radio and TV networks after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. Twenty years later, the return of the Taliban has put the future of the country’s media in jeopardy. Your company’s networks, including the wildly popular TOLO TV and TOLOnews, have remained on the air, covering the new government despite considerable risks to your journalists.

Before we discuss the challenges you’re currently facing, let’s go back to the start. It’s 22 years ago and the Taliban is about to fall in Kabul. Where’s your head at this moment? What are you thinking? What makes you want to go to Afghanistan and launch a television channel?

Saad Mohseni, founder and CEO, Moby Group: In the late 1980s, when the Soviets withdrew, there was a window of opportunity. The communist regime of President Mohammad Najibullah was telling everyone, “Listen, let’s work together.” But Afghans like me, in our twenties, didn’t see it as an opportunity. We felt it would be best to see this government just go away and then we’ll have a fresh start with the groups that fought the Soviets. Of course, what followed was civil war, the Taliban regime, and more tragedy for the Afghan nation.

So, even before the Taliban regime fell, we felt that if we get this opportunity again, we have to go and have a look. In early 2002, my brother and I got on an Ariana flight to Kabul. And the plane was so full that the cabin crew didn’t have any seats. They were standing! There was this great enthusiasm, a standing ovation and people crying when we entered Afghan airspace.

Once we were on the ground, we felt we had to do something. Media was just one of the ideas we had. It was easy and cheap. It was a $500,000 investment to launch a radio station. Then we had a television station in 2004, a second station in 2005, more outlets, more platforms. Fast forward to 2021, and we had huge reach. Something like 95% of Afghan households had access to a radio device and 80% of the population watched television. It’s a very plugged-in country, media wise.

BG: Prior to last August, Afghanistan had one of the freest media environments anywhere in the developing world. Hundreds of media outlets emerged and played a big role in creating the new Afghanistan, which was the antithesis of what the Taliban had created. At the time, were you conscious of this role, of being a cultural change agent?

SM: Some of it was obviously conscious, but a lot of it was just taking things one day at a time. For example, we wanted to have a fairly mixed studio: A female DJ and a male DJ, having just natural banter, music, some news, more chit-chat. Initially, that was very controversial. A lot of people said, “How can you have a man and a woman in the studio? This is unacceptable. It’s not Afghan.”

We persisted, and within a month or two, that became the norm. The public lapped it up — they enjoyed it, they appreciated it. And it became the standard for every other outlet.

By 2014 and 2015, it was the public leading and the media following on a lot of issues. We could hardly keep pace with the change that we were witnessing. So there was some nudging from our end, but the cultural change was fairly organic.

BG: By early 2021, there were signs that the Taliban would come back, either in a coalition government that the U.S. was trying to negotiate in Qatar, or just by themselves. Was it like seeing a train coming down the track, and you’re unable to move?

SM: It was like an accident in slow motion. We had supported the post-Taliban political order in Afghanistan, campaigning for freedom of expression, women’s rights, human rights. But we had a government that was inept, corrupt and completely detached from realities on the ground. So as tragic as the events of August were, there was relief that it had finally ended. It was no longer a case of stressing over this event occurring. It had occurred, and now we had to deal with it. Our job has become very straightforward now.

BG: How soon did the Taliban begin to lay down the law on what media can and cannot do?

SM: As soon as they had some bandwidth. We understood that there were certain things that they weren’t going to tolerate, so we pre-empted the directives. We dropped music, for example, and the risque soap opera. We told our female presenters to dress more conservatively. This was wise because the Taliban did go into stations and threaten to take people away if they did not cut certain programs.

Our interactions with them for a long time were fairly civilized. Then they issued an eight-point directive for the media. We negotiated for a period and said, “You can’t just drop programs and create new programs, it takes time.” And there was an understanding in terms of how we’re going to go about doing it.

But the Taliban are a decentralized movement, even in government. On one side, we’re dealing with a culture ministry that’s constructive and realistic, and on the other, an intelligence agency and a ministry of vice and virtue that are not. We’re still in negotiations with them. I’m not sure if it’s going to work or not.

BG: Your journalists have paid a very high price over the years. How dangerous is it for them now?

SM: From 2016 till 2021, we lost 12 journalists and a couple of former journalists. During that time, the international community was engaged and very supportive of free expression, of free media. Within the government, we had allies. But now there is no safety net. There’s no one to call. We experienced that a few weeks ago, when our people were arrested. What we do is a high wire act. With no safety net, it’s stressful for us and scary for the people on the ground.

BG: You’re also doing some things that the Taliban would regard as defiant. You’ve greatly increased the number of women who work for Tolo News, for instance.

SM: We’ve gone from eight women to 22 since the Taliban took over. Whether it’s in front of the camera, behind the camera, producer, researcher… this is the highest number of women we’ve ever had. And we send them out on assignment. They try to interview Taliban ministers: Some say no, some say yes.

The Taliban sort of tolerate us because they know we are the canary in the coal mine. Shutting down the media would send the wrong signal to the Afghan diaspora, to the international community. If they shut down the media sector, then Afghanistan becomes a North Korea, which many in the Taliban don’t want to see. Even within the Taliban, there are faction vying for power and they are using the media to amplify their narratives.

For example, there are many Taliban leaders, including some in the religious establishment, who were totally against the ban on women’s education. They are holding press conferences, they’re giving out statements and who do they go to? They come to people like us, because internally it’s important for their voices to get heard. They understand that the state broadcaster may not cover their press conferences. It’s people like us who are going to cover the debate that’s going on within the Taliban itself.

BG: Do you think this will last, or do you have to have a contingency plan that involves taking all your operations outside the country?

SM: The technology exists to do most things from outside. Everything’s on the cloud. We can upload and broadcast from any part of the world. We have a small studio in the UK. We have people and resources in Turkey and central Asia. Much of what a media company does, we can outsource.

But it’s important for us to be inside the country — to have access to people, to be able to influence things from within. Today, we have live political shows, where a representative from the Taliban is in the studio, debating a woman who’s sitting one meter away, arguing why it’s important for women to be engaged in society. And sometimes there’s a third person, in London, say, making the same point. The optics are very important for the Afghan public, to have a domestic network that’s championing these discussions and debates.

And credit to some of these Taliban guys: they’re being very brave in speaking out against major decisions by their religious leaders. It’s too early to say that the Taliban government has changed much, because their policies are not that different from the ones they have in the mid-1990s. But certainly, some of the Taliban leaders have changed. Whether their views will be accommodated by the leadership, we’ll find out.

BG: You’ve said that to be a businessman is to be an optimist. Can you be optimistic about what the future holds for Afghanistan?

SM: Afghanistan is a changed country. The median age is 18. It’s the youngest country outside of sub-Saharan Africa. The population, 40 million, has doubled in size since 2001. The majority of Afghans do not recall the previous Taliban regime, they weren’t born then. The majority of Taliban fighters have never experienced a Taliban regime. They’re used to their Facebooks and Instagrams and Telegram and WhatsApp messaging and all of that. And so there’s pushback — not on the battlefield, but in the streets. People are challenging the Taliban in government offices and on our channels, saying, “You can’t rule this country in this manner.”

The Taliban will not be able to create another North Korea in Afghanistan, like they did in the mid-1990s. The pushback will be serious, and it will also come from within the Taliban establishment, from the dissenters. If they’re smart, if they’re wise, they will understand that the country has changed and they will change their policies to reflect the realities on the ground. If they don’t, I think something will give.