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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Explained: Who is Saad Mohseni, owner of Afghanistan’s leading TV news channel TOLO News?

Saad Mohseni has been credited with modernising the media landscape in Afghanistan, a country plagued with a long history of press censorship and repression.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Margao |
Updated: August 29, 2021 10:07:39 pm
Afghan Australian businessman Saad Mohseni, the chairman and CEO of the MOBY Group, the media company that owns TOLO News. (Twitter/Saddlebacks Mohseni)

As the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan deepens following the Taliban’s return to power, the country’s top 24-hour television news network TOLO News is faced with an uncertain future. At the forefront of the news outlet’s struggle to stay afloat is Afghan Australian businessman Saad Mohseni, the chairman and CEO of the MOBY Group, the media company that owns TOLO News.

Mohseni has been credited with modernising the media landscape in Afghanistan, a country plagued with a long history of press censorship and repression.

Just two years after the United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban government, Mohseni and his siblings were able to lay the foundation for the country’s biggest media empire — which, over the last two decades, has consistently amplified Afghan voices and drawn worldwide attention towards what has been transpiring across the war-torn nation.

To put things in perspective, during the previous Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001, the media was controlled by the militant group and independent journalism was next to impossible. Television, films and other forms of entertainment were deemed un-Islamic, and hence banned.

Now, with the US’ August 31 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan fast approaching, the fate of Mohseni’s Tolo News and its 450-strong work force is hanging by a thread.

Who is Saad Mohseni?

Over the years Saad Mohseni has earned himself the moniker ‘Afghan’s Rupert Murdoch’ — not only because the American media tycoon invested in MOBY in 2012, but also due to the sheer impact Mohseni has been able to make with his business in Afghanistan.

The son of an Afghan diplomat, he spent his early years in the UK, Kabul, Tokyo and Islamabad before finally moving to Melbourne in Australia. He began his career at an Australian investment bank, where he rose to lead the equities and corporate finance division.

His first foray into Afghanistan’s then-severely lacking media landscape was in 2003, two years after the US invaded, when he launched the country’s first privately owned radio station, Arman FM, along with his siblings. His station primarily played Afghan and western popular music, which was banned under the Taliban regime in the late 90s.

In the years that followed, he was able to expand his business beyond Afghanistan to Iran, Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and even India. The Mohseni family was able to sow the seeds of their business and then expand it using family wealth, funding from the US government as well as an investment by Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, which became a minority shareholder in the company in 2012.

Since he started TOLO News in 2010, the channel’s staff has been targeted by the Taliban. Several reporters have been attacked and some have even lost their lives in bombings over the last decade.

But despite the clampdown, TOLO News under Mohseni has consistently pushed the boundaries of journalism in the country and challenged the status quo, most notably employing female reporters in a country that historically has not permitted women to work.

Days after the Taliban swiftly seized control of Afghanistan, an unprecedented scene played out on a popular local news channel — a top representative from the militant group sat down for an interview with a woman news anchor, Beheshta Arghand, to discuss the situation on the ground in Kabul. This is believed to be the first time an Afghan woman conducted an interview with a senior Taliban representative inside the country’s borders.

What does the return of the Taliban mean for TOLO News?

This time around, the Taliban has promised that things will be different. Putting up a more moderate front, they said they were open to a free media in the country. But the situation on ground tells a whole different story. Scores of journalists are among the tens of thousands attempting to escape the nation.

In recent weeks, several TV channels and radio stations have paused broadcast and some were seized by the Taliban, AFP reported. Days after seizing Kabul, Taliban militants raided several offices of government officials and media outlets, including TOLO News.

TOLO News reporter Ziar Khan Yaad was beaten up by the Taliban while covering a story at an intersection in the capital city.

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