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An Afghan Media Mogul, Pushing Boundaries
By GRAHAM BOWLEY, July 27, 2013
Afghan premier soccer league
Saad Mohseni (born 1966) has brought a modicum of normalcy to Afghanistan. His new commercial soccer league (its inaugural championship was held in Kabul in October 2013; the soccer final was televised) is part of a broader Afghan media empire — the holding company is called the Moby Group — that he and his family have built after their return to Kabul from Australia in 2002. As a private company, Moby does not state its earnings publicly, but people familiar with its performance say it is likely to post revenue of more than $60 million in its current fiscal year.
In a country where the Taliban once banned television, where a television set costs about one-fourth of an average Afghan’s annual income and where the electricity supply is uneven, Mr. Mohseni has built a business in the bubble of security and prosperity afforded by the international presence in the country. He has done this with the start-up help of United States government money and with a cash injection last year from News Corporation, led by his friend Rupert Murdoch, with whom he shares an Australian background, a love of gossip and an obvious industriousness.
Now, like his native country, Mr. Mohseni stands on the cusp of the next phase of development. In the coming year, Afghanistan is facing both the withdrawal of most international troops and a tense political transition after presidential elections. Outside the stadium, beyond the police guards poised on nearby towers, the reality is that Afghanistan remains a poor, turbulent, chaotic nation that, some fear, may plunge into something even worse as its army confronts the Taliban alone without international support, as outside aid money dwindles and as warlords jostle for supremacy.
The coming years could leave Mr. Mohseni and his family empire perilously vulnerable to the Taliban and other political groups with whom he has clashed over the past decade. Moby employees have already endured death threats and detentions because of their breaking of conservative taboos like showing women on television and their criticisms of the government and insurgent groups.
Any return of the Taliban to power or the rise of a more conservative government — or even just an unpredictable breakdown in security — could make life painfully uncomfortable for those, like Mr. Mohseni, who are associated with pro-Western development. Their accomplishments, their wealth, even their lives could be at risk.
As the involvement of the United States winds down, the big question is what the American legacy will be. A flourishing independent media industry is an important pillar of the American strategy for rebuilding the country, and Moby has become an important part of that media landscape. But after creating three of the most-watched television channels in the country, two radio networks, a production company, an advertising agency, a music label, a mobile phone broadcast service and a magazine, Mr. Mohseni is focused on expanding beyond Afghanistan.
A multi-national headquartered in Dubai
His company employs about 1,000 people, most of them in Kabul, but it will soon have about 20 offices in six countries. Its headquarters is in Dubai, and its strategy is to continue to grow in Afghanistan but to diversify into other countries in the region — like Iran, Iraq and Libya.
He explains the new direction as a natural progression: to set up operations in large, underserved and often under-stress countries with the potential to grow.
“The business model now is a diversified media group that is active around the region,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “The strategy is to go into high-risk countries with growth of 20 to 30 percent. It is like a portfolio of junk bonds.”
THE journey of this Afghan Rupert Murdoch has been long and convoluted. The son of an Afghan diplomat, Mr. Mohseni keeps his father’s photograph above his desk in a small office in central Kabul that is tightly guarded by his own gun-toting security guards — in case insurgents decide to target another symbol of modern progress and money.
He was born in London and grew up in Melbourne, where his father moved in the 1980s after the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan. He made a career in banking, in commodities and in equity capital markets.
After the American-led invasion in 2001, he returned to the war-racked wastelands of Afghanistan with his two brothers and his sister. He had lived there for two stretches, once from the ages of 3 to 7 and again from 9 to 12.
“We felt we could go back and see if we could do anything,” he said. “Initially, it was just to go back just to smell the place.”
They considered creating a venture capital firm that would invest in industries like the almond business in the north of the country. Then they won a broadcast license and started a radio station, Arman FM — hiring a news announcer who had worked on the Taliban’s Radio Sharia — and when that took off they moved into television.
They now own Tolo TV, the country’s most-watched station — Tolo means “dawn” in Dari, a language similar to Farsi and one of the main languages spoken in Afghanistan — along with Tolonews, a 24-hour news channel, and Lemar TV, a Pashto-language station.
Throughout Kabul and many other cities, Tolo is now all but ubiquitous: television use stretches to about half of Afghanistan’s roughly 31 million people. According to a 2010 report by Altai Consulting, Moby’s channels reach about 50 percent of the television audience, and, according to some estimates, the share could now be more than 60 percent. Not everyone approves of the material he broadcasts. For some critics, the trashy reality shows and dramas, even the televised soccer league, are an empty distraction in an impoverished country still lacking basic health care, education and other needs. For others, however, an independent media sector is important, and Moby’s programs are part of it. Moby’s stations and many of the more than 70 television stations that have sprung up nationwide have empowered a generation to dream of something other than war. And they have provided entertainment to a people tired of proselytizing.
Imported content—and then indigenisation
Initially, Mr. Mohseni, who is chairman and chief executive of the Moby Group, relied on broadcasts of Indian soap operas, Turkish serials and reruns of American programs like “24.” He also created his own Afghan fare: one of the country’s first soap operas, as well as an Afghan version of “The Office,” set in a fictional government ministry; a daytime phone-in program for women; children’s programming; and perhaps the biggest success, “Afghan Star,” a singing contest in which Afghans vote for the best acts by texting on their cellphones. One of its newest shows, “The Voice of Afghanistan,” is Tolo’s latest singing talent contest, but it has been the subject of withering criticism from conservative critics because it features a woman among its coaches, and what the critics say is its corrupting moral influence. Mr. Mohseni is clear about what his programs offer Afghans: “We enable people to escape,” he said. “They go somewhere else. Their lives become less, I don’t know — people underestimate the importance of entertainment.”
Mr. Mohseni has had help in building the company. It received $2.2 million from the United States Agency for International Development to help with start-up costs, he said, on top of which the Mohsenis invested $10 million of their own money. In addition, the company received financial support from the United States government to produce a small number of local-content programs. United States officials would not comment on aid to individual companies, though in total the State Department and USAid have spent about $166 million to support media development in Afghanistan.
The goal has been to promote access to reliable information in a newly democratic country. Electronic media were especially important, given Afghanistan’s high illiteracy rates. And media independence was crucial in a polarized country at war, where the government is an uneasy alliance, where some stations are said to be influenced by warlords and where neighbors like Iran and Pakistan are said to seek influence.
A confrontational stance, pressures, compromise
Mr. Mohseni’s news programs have criticized the government of President Hamid Karzai as well as opposition groups. “I don’t think Tolo takes sides,” said Fahim Dashti, president of Afghanistan’s National Journalists’ Union.
Still, Mr. Mohseni’s relationship with President Karzai has been confrontational. Mr. Mohseni says that there have been times when he has sat in the presidential palace, showering angry criticism on the president and wondering whether he would be allowed to leave. Some TV shows have also met resistance from religious leaders and officials. There is a broad-based unease, particularly among the conservative rural population, with a Western liberal cultural influence shown on some television programs, analysts and journalists say. And because the Mohsenis’ programs have been the most ambitious, some of the fiercest criticism has been directed at them.
Employees have been arrested, and there were death threats, Mr. Mohseni said. His brother Zaid was detained by the national intelligence agency after one of their programs broadcast a report containing criticism of government corruption. And there was a nasty standoff in 2007 with the attorney general at the time, who thought he had been quoted out of context. He sent police officers to Tolo’s headquarters. Three staff members were arrested, and later released. Mr. Mohseni had to go into hiding for a few weeks.
Mr. Mohseni has had to compromise, but he says he doesn’t give in on everything. “We do censor,” he said. “We cut a lot of flesh. We pixelate things. We change story lines. But we still push the boundaries.”
A network outside Afghanistan
ON a recent Tuesday in New York, Mr. Mohseni was wearing jeans and an untucked shirt as we met in the Upper East Side town house of his friend, Tom Freston, a former MTV and Viacom chief. Mr. Freston was away traveling, but Mr. Mohseni sat back on his sofa, looking relaxed amid the books and paintings in a gilded home that once belonged to Andy Warhol. He had just made a social call on Richard Plepler of HBO and would soon go to the Aspen Ideas Festival — having breakfast with Rupert Murdoch in Los Angeles on the way. Recently, Mr. Mohseni has taken a higher public profile, speaking out about the progress made in Afghanistan and making clear what is at stake if a fiercer war returns.
As he has maneuvered within the maelstrom of Afghan politics, Mr. Mohseni has deftly built a network outside Afghanistan, an impressive fan club of global supporters now helping his expansion. Tina Brown, editor in chief of The Daily Beast, is another friend, and in April he spoke at the Women in the World Summit, discussing how much Afghanistan had changed. He met Mr. Freston, then the chief operating officer of Viacom, in 2005. Mr. Freston, who often visited Afghanistan in the 1970s and grew passionate about the country, was intrigued by the Mohsenis’ efforts to establish a radio and television industry there. Mr. Freston says he believes that his friend has played a crucial role in changing Afghanistan — as both a member of a new group of modern, outward-looking Afghans and as a media entrepreneur who has helped forge the identity of a generation of young Afghans who will stand as a bulwark against collapse.
Farsi1 TV for Iran
“To them, the idea of the Taliban taking over seems impossible,” Mr. Freston said. It was Mr. Freston, who left Viacom in 2006 and now has a career advising and investing in media companies, who introduced Mr. Mohseni to Mr. Murdoch. Over lunch in New York in 2007, Mr. Mohseni mentioned to Mr. Murdoch an idea for a Persian-language satellite television channel that could be beamed from Dubai into Iran, bypassing Iran’s state censors.
The day after the lunch, Mr. Murdoch called to say he wanted in, and a few weeks later they struck the deal for a 50-50 joint venture called Farsi1. It was to be Mr. Mohseni’s first big step beyond Afghanistan, and it soon became one of Iran’s most popular channels.
“One of the things that dawned on us was there was no proper entertainment going into Iran,” Mr. Mohseni said. “They have seven state channels, Islamic stations. We thought there was a huge opportunity.” He added: “It was there for the taking.”
It was the beginning of the junk-bond business model. Showing mostly foreign offerings, including “How I Met Your Mother,” “Oprah” and Latin American and South Korean soap operas whose melodramatic stories of love and infidelity seemed to resonate with an audience used to the duller programs on Iranian state television, the station brought a backlash from the state channels and the clerics. They said it undermined traditional Iranian values, and they objected to the Murdoch connection, especially given his support of Israel.
The station’s Web site was hacked and its signal jammed, and its advertisers were threatened, but it is getting a new infusion of shows, including “Arrested Development” and an Iranian version of “The Daily Show.” It may break even this year, Mr. Mohseni said.
Since starting Farsi1, the relationship with Mr. Murdoch has deepened. By all accounts, the two men get along well. They share a Melbourne background, and insiders say Mr. Murdoch enjoys few people more than a young Australian having a go.
On Time’s world’s 100 most influential people, 2011
When Time magazine published its list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2011, Mr. Murdoch wrote the entry for Mr. Mohseni. He commended Mr. Mohseni for breaking conventions by showing men and women together on television and called him “the best-informed person in the world about Afghanistan, which is why we’re in business together.” Now, Mr. Murdoch says he has “full confidence in his ability to transform television viewing in Central Asia and beyond.”
News Corporation and Moby
In 2012, News Corporation strengthened its ties with Mr. Mohseni, swapping its Farsi1 investment for a 33 percent share in Moby and injecting an undisclosed amount of cash. That means Mr. Mohseni has fuller access to Murdoch money and skill. Since News Corporation’s split last month into two publicly traded companies, separating its publishing and entertainment activities, the Moby joint venture falls under the larger of the two, the 21st Century Fox entertainment company.
Three Murdoch executives serve on Moby’s board, and there are other benefits. For example, Mr. Mohseni sent his Afghan news chief to two Murdoch-related properties, The Times of London and British Sky Broadcasting, to study how they do things. And when the Iranians jam his signal, Mr. Mohseni calls Fox for help. For a small company, he said, “there is a lot to learn from a $60 billion to $70 billion business.”
Options outside Afghanistan kept open
The focus on growth around the region means that Afghanistan is taking less and less of Mr. Mohseni’s time, and more than half of Moby’s revenue now comes from outside the country. But Moby’s Afghan ventures will in many ways determine the success of international efforts to build a vibrant, sustainable independent media industry in Afghanistan. American officials say they are cutting financing for media, but in a gradual way that will try to ensure the industry’s survival.
Mr. Mohseni hopes that his TV shows play a role in getting Afghanistan through the next few years, bringing together politicians to air their views and to connect ordinary Afghans to the political process. He said he believes that the Taliban, despite recently opening a political office in Qatar and declaring a new readiness to talk peace, has no real interest in negotiating and will continue to fight for as much territory and power as it can until most international forces leave at the end of 2014.
More worrisome than the Taliban, he said, are the elections next year. If there is corruption on the scale of the last vote and the results are not credible, he said he could imagine regional governors refusing to bow to the new president or even armed conflict breaking out between rival warlords. “It could all fall apart,” he said in New York last month. “I don’t take anything for granted.
“Will I physically stay if things get bad?” he continued. “Probably not. I have the luxury of leaving, unlike most other Afghans. But as a brand we will be in the country for a long time.”
THESE days, his brother Zaid runs the Afghan business, spending five days a week in Kabul overseeing their young and enthusiastic posse of reporters, editors and producers. Mr. Mohseni works mostly from Dubai, where he lives with his wife, Sarah Takesh, and their two young children.
Egypt and Libya are among the tough, possibly fast-growing but clearly high-risk places where he is considering transplanting the Moby model. But the first new market where Moby expects to begin is Iraq. It has a relatively large population and an advertising market that is small compared with its gross domestic product, he said — and thus it has tantalizing potential.
The Mohsenis have already appointed a chief executive for the Iraqi business, and broadcasting could begin early next year. Like the operation in Afghanistan, it will probably combine foreign programming with local-content reality shows and dramas, along with coverage of news, opinion and current affairs. But Mr. Mohseni said he would steer away from “very overt types of political programming” in recognition of Iraq’s political vicissitudes.
It will be the next big test of the Mohseni business model — imported-bodice rippers and homegrown dramas combined with serious news and an ability to operate in dangerous places.
“These countries have opened up in terms of democracy,” he said with relish, “and media is also opening up, and there lies the opportunity.”