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Saad Mohseni Is Afghanistan's First Media Mogul

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Saad Mohseni Is Afghanistan's First Media Mogul

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Saad Mohseni Is Afghanistan's First Media Mogul

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Saad Mohseni is a media mogul who's created a broadcasting empire in a country that is mostly illiterate. His media company, the Moby Group, includes the hugely popular Tolo TV and the Arman Radio Network. Ken Auletta profiles Saad Mohseni in this week's New Yorker magazine.

KEN AULETTA: In Afghanistan, new media is old media - television and radio. And in that world, Saad Mohseni and his Moby media group is dominant.

MONTAGNE: And it's both news and entertainment. And one of his most popular shows is sort of the Afghan equivalent of "American Idol" - "Afghan Star" - that has a huge impact.

AULETTA: And if you see a woman in a program talking to a man, which had been forbidden under the Taliban, that has a more profound impact than a newscast about a story in Kandahar.

MONTAGNE: Sure, that might be the case, and the powers that be know it there, from clerics to the government. I mean, he's had run-ins with the government over those very soap operas, the idea being they're too racy for Afghanistan. Yet they're really popular.

AULETTA: One of the things that's fascinating about this character, Saad Mohseni, is that he dares to put these programs on the air which defy traditional customs, and it excites a wave of criticism of him, and in fact security threats. I mean, 10 percent of his budget goes to security. He's picked up at the airport in three SUVs with AK-47 men riding shotgun. There are many people who feel that what he's doing is anti-Islam.

MONTAGNE: Which has led to showdowns with the government and even occasionally a night in jail for his people.

AULETTA: And he was threatened with arrest.

MONTAGNE: But what's interesting about this is he fights this. He fights this based on the constitution of Afghanistan and the courts. And so far he's won.

AULETTA: The definition of what is an Islamic state allows many people - fundamentalists particularly - to claim that what he is doing is un-Islamic. And that's the tension between his claim that he has free speech and the people enjoy it, and the claim that more fundamentalist parts of the society say you are violating the constitution.

MONTAGNE: Let's step back for a moment and talk about how Saad Mohseni managed to build this media empire.

AULETTA: Without United States support, Saad Mohseni could not have succeeded at what he did. He needed that infrastructure, that capital expense that the government supported. It used to be, in the Cold War, that the CIA would secretly fund some of these things. Now the United States is very open. They understand that sometimes media images have more impact than guns.

MONTAGNE: There's one thing that comes through in your description of Tolo TV, and that is the fact that it's staffed by people who are very youthful.

AULETTA: It's not only that they're young, but 40 percent of their employees are women. That's unheard of in a fundamentalist society. You watch the former foreign minister of the Taliban, he's doing interviews on Tolo and he's sitting there being interviewed by a woman. That's extraordinary. He wouldn't have done that 10 years ago.

MONTAGNE: The former foreign minister, and I don't want to say one and future, but here we go, you know - is this a situation, though, where this could all end if the Taliban do end up in some kind of power sharing deal, or is it beyond their control at this point?

AULETTA: There is no question that the public likes Tolo TV and Arman and they like the democratizing effects. On the other hand, if in fact, there's a coalition agreement with forces from the Taliban, who by the way, didn't allow television or music when they were in power, it is not inconceivable that you might have a situation where they say one of the terms of this coalition agreement is you get rid of Saad Mohseni and this television that's so corrupting to our youth.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

AULETTA: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Ken Auletta writes for the New Yorker. This week he profiles Afghanistan media mogul Saad Mohseni.

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