Afghanistan: Media mogul makes his mark in a troubled land

Melbourne-raised Saad Mohseni is forging an empire in his homeland of Afghanistan

SAAD Mohseni is the Australian media mogul you’ve probably never heard of. His writ runs wide and influentially in a country at the crossroads. At 44, his authority is sought by some of the world’s most powerful people: Hillary Clinton, US military chief David Petraeus and Rupert Murdoch, with whom Mohseni has a joint venture, and to whom he’s often likened.

And yet, says this alumnus of Melbourne’s Brighton High, he’s rarely consulted by Australian authorities. Indeed, he’s not convinced many in Canberra know he exists, an agent of change in a much-misunderstood country our troops are dying to defend.

As the founder-chairman of Afghanistan’s first and biggest commercial media group, Mohseni spans all Afghan divides: cultural, geographic, corporate and political.

It’s been a quite a journey for Mohseni. His Afghan father exiled his family of six in 1982 to Melbourne from Tokyo, where he was a diplomat when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. After high school and Taylor’s College, Mohseni worked the dealing screens on six-figure salaries at securities houses Bell Potter in Melbourne and then at the former Tricom in Sydney, where he developed a passion for the Sydney Swans. In the late 1990s, he married an Uzbek woman and commuted between Melbourne and her home town of Tashkent, where he’d hooked into an Afghan community exiled from the Taliban’s harsh Islamism.

Then came Osama bin Laden, September 11 and the US ousting of the Taliban in late 2001.

The Mohsenis spoke Dari around their Australian kitchen table, and Mohseni hadn’t forgotten his ancestral home. “The yearning was in the DNA,” he says. “And out of 9/11 came the opportunity.” The Afghan diaspora flocked home to rebuild the supposed ”New Afghanistan” and Mohseni joined them, founding the Moby Media Group in Dubai and Kabul with $500,000 of his money and backing from the US agency USAID.

Media is one of the rare success stories in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Despite no previous experience in the industry, Mohseni now commands a central Asian media and advertising empire notionally valued at about $50 million.

Moby employs about 1000 people, including 850 in Kabul, many of whom didn’t have jobs before he hired them.

Group revenue is about $25 million, and growing at around 40 per cent. But more than business, in ever-fractious Afghanistan Mohseni is an arch-networker – part impresario, part gadfly corruption monitor, part adviser and, hardest of all, a believer his homeland will make it – though his ever-present bodyguards and armed vehicle suggest otherwise.

Australia infuses Moby’s media output. Arman FM, his first media venture, began in 2003 when Mohseni applied the funky FM commercial format of the EONs and Triple Ms he grew up with in Melbourne to Afghanistan.

“I was raised on the D-Generation and all that and we thought that an FM radio station would have a significant impact,” he says. Arman – ”hope”, in Dari – was a spicy mix of news, Bollywood and attitude, and an instant hit after years of Taliban asceticism. “We did a test broadcast for a launch down the track,” recalls Mohseni. “But literally within minutes, word got around that a new radio station was playing and we haven’t stopped since.”

Shockingly – but excitingly for Afghans – Arman didn’t break five times a day for prayer, and it had female DJs, too. “After 30 years, people were war-weary and wanted to release,” he says.

The mullahs weren’t happy but Arman prospered and Mohseni manoeuvred Arman’s first-mover advantage to launch Tolo TV in late 2004. Operating on hand-me-down equipment out of a converted villa in Kabul’s suburbs, in what has now become part of the city’s green exclusion zone a la Baghdad, Tolo – Dari, for ”dawn” – is watched on about 70 per cent of Afghanistan’s 10 million TV sets.

With its format of news, chat shows, documentaries and dramas, Tolo is a must-see for Afghans. Australian viewers would recognise versions of shows such as Australian Idol and Question Time. On Hot Talk, a Tony Jones equivalent grills officials from the US military, Karzai’s government, warlords and the Taliban alike. An Oprah-like show dispenses light variety and gossip but has also tackled forced marriages, female abuse and paedophilia.

Last year, Mohseni and Murdoch hooked up after being introduced via the former MTV CEO Tom Freston, who ran a textile business in the hippie-esque Afghanistan of the 1970s and whose wife Kathy is a close friend of Wendi Deng Murdoch. The News and Moby joint venture, Farsi1, is produced out of Dubai and beams light-entertainment offerings by satellite across neighbouring Iran, often programming from Murdoch’s Fox dubbed into Iran’s official Farsi. A departure from the dreary religious-oriented official fare, Farsi1 has been an instant hit but has prompted fierce condemnation in the Iranian state media. Last week it was hacked by a group believed linked to Iran’s hardline Revolutionary Guards.

Tolo and sister channel Lemar have also been big supporters of the fast-rising Afghan cricket team, and there has even been talk that the Australian crime series Underbelly might be shown in Kabul on Tolo. Mohseni jokes that if any country will ”get” a crime show like Underbelly it would be Afghanistan, a country rife with notorious warlords.