Afghan Media Defied Government Edict

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The Afghan government issued an edict the night before voters went to the polls last week forbidding the media from covering election-related violence. Police even beat back journalists arriving at the scene of an attack on a Kabul bank. Saad Mohseni, co-founder of the Afghan network Tolo TV, talks with Renee Montagne about how the Afghan media covered the elections.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's turn now to how the Afghan media covered its own election. In the last few years, the local media has grown dramatically. And during this election, there wasn't a press conference or a political event that wasn't packed with Afghan journalists, mostly young men and some women often asking tough questions of the candidates. Saad Mohseni is co-founder of one of Afghanistan's most prominent TV networks, Tolo TV, and he's been keeping an eye on the media in his country. Hello.

Mr. SAAD MOHSENI (Co-founder, Tolo TV): Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we begin with how your network covered the elections?

Mr. MOHSENI: Well, we have three networks. We have two television networks and we have one radio network, so the coverage was comprehensive. We obviously covered day-to-day events through our news. We have current affairs programs. And then we held the first ever debate between the presidential candidates. President Karzai did not attend, but the other two candidates did, so that was very interesting as well.

MONTAGNE: So - and then that was pretty typical. There was an awful lot of coverage in all other media there. You though - Tolo TV also airs satirical program, which, I mean, Afghans have a pretty arch attitude towards their elected officials.

Mr. MOHSENI: Yes. This is a comedy panel program. It's been described as the Jon Stewart Show of Afghanistan, but they cover the week's events. And what they also do is they do sketches. But they created this character, this fictitious character who was supposed to be running for office.

And basically, I mean he would go around the streets and he would, you know, hold rallies and he'd give speeches - money for me, poverty for you. I mean it was quite funny, but after a few weeks he had a big following regardless. But of course people knew who he was.

And just the day before the elections he endorsed another candidate, like any other real candidate. It's captivated the entire nation from the news current affairs as well as the comedy programs in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: You know, the night before voters went to the polls, the government issued an edict forbidding the media from covering election-related violence, arguing that that would stop some people from going to the polls out of fear. Police even beat back journalists arriving at the scene of an attack on Kabul last week, but the media pretty much defied this order.

Does that suggest that it will - there's a new feistiness in Afghanistan's media corps that may be a willingness to challenge the powers that be even though for them it can be quite dangerous?

Mr. MOHSENI: You know, the last week has been quite challenging for all of us. We had two reporters apprehended two days before the elections and two reporters beaten up on the day of the elections. But the one thing that's important is that we're here to serve the Afghan nation, not the Afghan government, and people need to know.

I mean it's not like you cannot report on violence because people just simply will switch off and listen to the BBC or the VOA or one of the other international channels.

So, although we were very mindful of the fact that, you know, obviously as Afghans we would like people to participate, you know, we would like to be responsible in terms of reporting. We actually don't want to panic people, but at the same time, the government could not - I mean it's a ridiculous demand to make of the media.

And the defiance is not so much us being stubborn or anything like that. We just thought that if we, you know, abide by these sorts of edicts, then of course it sets a very bad placement for all of us. It's not the first time when we've been defying these sorts of orders for a long time now.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. MOHSENI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking with Saad Mohseni in Kabul. He's the co-founder of the Afghan media group that includes Tolo TV.

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