Afghan media mogul laments ban on programming

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

Representatives of Afghanistan’s Tolo TV station spoke last week in the U.S. about laws being imposed on Afghanistan’s media by the country’s Ministry of Information and Culture, calling the restrictions “steps backward” for a country that has come “leaps and bounds” since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

In April the Ministry ordered private Afghan TV channels, including Tolo TV, to stop airing a number of Indian television soap operas, known as “serials,” after officials criticized the programs’ content as not in keeping with “Afghan religion and culture.”

The banned soap operas are “among Afghanistan’s most popular” programs, said Saad Mohseni, CEO of Afghanistan’s Moby Media Group, which owns Tolo TV. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last week, Mohseni said the ban could be “very damaging” commercially.

Mohseni, whose media empire owns two television networks, an FM radio station, a video production house, an ad agency, a music label and a small magazine in Afghanistan, said there is no reason why the programs should be cut. “Our programs are consistently sensitive to social norms,” he said.

Jahid Mohseni, Saad’s brother and business partner, conceded that Moby’s programs are bold and often controversial in the quest to facilitate social change. “We’ve upset everyone,” he said – a reaction which he said was a “good litmus test.”

Tolo TV shows 14 hours of locally produced content per day. Shows such as “Afghan Star,” a singing-contest show much like American Idol; “Laugh Bazaar,” a stand-up comedy show; and episodes of the American thriller “24” in Pashto and Dari are especially popular and appeal to the country’s young population; 60% of the population is under age 20.

Afghans can also watch a travel series, a variety of news and current affairs programs, and a business program called “Dream and Achieve” that encourages entrepreneurship.

The high viewership of such programming is a clear sign of transformation in the conservative country in the past seven years, Saad said.

In 2000, almost no Afghans had TVs, and 6,000 people had telephones. Today, he said, in the country of nearly 33 million, there are 4.5 million mobile phone users; 15 million people watch TV; and 97% of households have radios.

The “media allows the public to blow off steam,” Saad said.

Despite the significant growth, there is clearly still a long road ahead, Saad said. Government action such as the ban on Indian serials and recent protests in Parliament over a televised awards ceremony that showed Afghan men and women dancing together, he said, are “danger signs” of the “re-Talibanization” of the country.

“When the ministry can demand that a show be canned, signs are ominous for all media,” he said.

The case over the Indian serials has been referred to the Attorney General’s office, and Tolo and the other broadcasters are awaiting summons.

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