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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

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

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

One of the most influential figures in Afghanistan is not in the government or the military, yet he has the attention of millions of Afghans and shapes perceptions on everything from government corruption to the role of women.

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.

Mr. KEN AULETTA (Journalist): 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.

MR. AULETTA: About a third of the people of Afghanistan, roughly 30 million people, watch�"Afghan Star," or the finals. It's very popular. But you can make the argument that more impactful than the news that Saad Mohseni's networks do - and they have great impact in exposing, say, corruption in the last presidential election - I think you can make an argument that the more impactful thing is the entertainment program like "Afghan Star," like the Indian soap operas, like the reality makeover shows, like "24," American version of "24" - it's the actual real thing dubbed in. These are huge hits there.

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.

MR. 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.

MR. 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.

MR. AULETTA: That is absolutely correct. One of the things that's fascinating about Afghanistan, there's this built in tension between a constitution that declares you will have a free press and at the same time that same constitution declares that you will have an Islamic state.

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.

MR. AULETTA: He supported Northern Alliance and the forces that opposed the Taliban. His father had been a diplomat. They fled after the Soviet invasion in 1979. And they came back in 2002. And they found out that radio licenses were available. They could put up $300,000 of all of their family resources, but they needed another 200,000, which they got from the USAID.

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.

MR. 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?

MR. 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, didnt 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.

Mr. AULETTA: My pleasure.

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

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