NIMBLE AND QUICK. Saad Mohseni is co-founder and Chairman of MOBY Group, which has brought top tier news and media content to emerging and frontier markets over the past two decades.
Mohseni also serves on the Advisory Board of the International Crisis Group, an independent organization working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world, and is a member of the International Advisor Council for the Washington-based Middle East Institute. He spent two years on the board of the International Center for Journalists, a non-profit that supports the truth-tellers.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Saad Mohseni, your business the MOBY Group created the commercial TV station TOLO in Afghanistan in 2004. Did it become one of the most important TV networks in Afghanistan?
Yes, we had three television networks and two radio networks in Afghanistan. TOLONews was always smaller than the entertainment networks, but it was important in terms of people accessing news.
How long did you live in Afghanistan?
20 years. My base now is Dubai. In the last 10 years, as we were expanding the business internationally, I would go back to Afghanistan every couple of weeks.
Was it hard to expand your business into countries like Pakistan and Ethiopia?
We have become specialists in difficult markets. We have patience and capacity for pain and difficulty, and we persist. These markets are not easy, but we see them providing us with the opportunity to establish a viable business.
What are the main difficulties?
To navigate the regulatory environment, to hire the right people, and to convince people to advertise. Sometimes members of the public protest outside your building because they are not happy with what you’ve transmitted.
How were you able to operate in Iran, a country controlled by a religious government whose attitudes often conflict with America and the West?
We transmitted via satellite into Iran. We had no physical presence there, we did it from Dubai. When we launched the channel, essentially the whole country was watching these telenovelas dubbed into Farsi. There were no political programmes, but the regime was very suspicious and aggressive. They attempted to interfere with our satellite signal. They arrested some of our employees who went to Iran on holidays. That network stopped transmissions about six years ago. While it was transmitting it was hugely controversial, but it was also very popular.
What about Iraq?
Unfortunately for us, we launched Iraq as ISIS was about to capture Mosul. The political environment changed very quickly as Mosul fell. We’re nimble businesspeople so we decided to cut our losses and shut down.
You shut down Iran and Iraq, but have you sold others?
You take your profits where you can. We sold Pakistan and Ethiopia, and we sold our Middle East joint venture to Vice Media. Over the last five or six years we’ve exited many of our media positions, simply because the media market has become very unpredictable.
“The Taliban come to our TV station and sit and discuss political issues of the day with our female journalists”
Saad Mohseni, you are still in Afghanistan. How do you cope with the Taliban?
With great difficulty. We have 500 employees inside Afghanistan, and only two weeks ago, three of our people were arrested by the Taliban and two were held overnight at the intelligence agency. We have problems with the Taliban on a weekly basis. We’ve had to tone down a lot of our entertainment programmes. We’ve stopped transmitting music and some of the risqué soap operas and telenovelas, but the one thing we’ve continued, same as before, is our news transmission.
The work your news and television networks have done in Afghanistan to empower civil society and defend women’s rights earned you a place in the BBC’s 2015 ranking of the “10 Men Globally Championing Gender Equality”. Can you employ women journalists in Afghanistan?
In August 2021 we had 8 or 9 women working for our news operations. Today we have 22, so we have actually hired more women since the arrival of the Taliban.
How is that possible?
They’re in front of the camera, they’re behind the camera, they produce, and they are journalists. Sometimes they go to interview ministers and the ministers refuse to meet with them, but we have persisted. Women are very important for us as journalists. The Taliban come to our TV station and sit and discuss political issues of the day with our female journalists, and that continues. It defies what you hear, but it’s happening, today, as we speak.
What is your strategy?
The arrival of platforms like Netflix and others have made the entire media sector very unpredictable. Our strategic decision to start to exit our positions is not that different to a lot of other big media companies which have done the same thing. In Afghanistan it’s a little different because it’s our home country, and there was always a sense of duty to remain engaged. At the moment, from a commercial perspective, the businesses there are struggling and we’re burning cash, but our Afghan business was always profitable, and we made a commitment in September of last year to continue for as long as we could.
Afghanistan is a changed country since 2001. Every metric you look at has improved. Literacy rates and life expectancy have gone up dramatically. People have become urbanized. It’s a very young population. The average age of an Afghan is 18, and 60 percent of the population is under 21. We’re not losing hope in the younger generation of Afghans, no matter who’s in charge, even if it’s the Taliban, because in a lot of ways the Taliban and their regime and their ideology doesn’t reflect what the average Afghan feels.
Will the Taliban need to compromise to stay in power?
Realistically, I don’t think they can survive, because you can’t starve people to death, deprive them of a robust and bustling economy, deprive them of their rights – especially if you’re a woman or a minority. You can’t deprive the younger people of their education and of hope and expect to remain in power. In three months or six months or eight months or nine months, people are going to say enough’s enough.
“The West needs to do a lot more in terms of its outreach to convince citizens outside the western hemisphere to buy into their narrative”
Saad Mohseni, what parallels do you see with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and of Ukraine?
The ruthlessness we’re witnessing today in the Ukraine is all too familiar to most Afghans who experienced the Soviets in the 1980s. We understand the brutality that the Ukrainians are facing today. In Afghanistan a million individuals were killed, another million handicapped, seven million forced to flee. This scorched earth policy is very familiar. The Soviets used to throw down what looked like toys, but they were actually mines. The intention was to traumatize families and to maim and handicap their children.
What is the reaction to Ukraine in the Middle East and in Africa?
In Africa, South America, most of Asia, people are not exactly on board. They may criticize what the Russians are doing, but they’re not necessarily pro the West with the Ukraine. It has a lot to do with the behaviour of America over the last 25 or 30 years, including the first two weeks of the Iraq War when something like 7000 civilians were killed. People see the hypocrisy of it all. Ultimately people will side with the West on this issue, but it’s going to take time. The West needs to do a lot more in terms of its outreach to convince citizens outside the western hemisphere to buy into their narrative. This is really, really important.
Why has India’s response to this war been so ambiguous?
India was seen as a non-aligned nation and had a lot of credibility with the developing world, but has lost that mantle because this regime is so belligerently nationalistic. India relies on Russia a lot less than it used to, but it still buys a lot of weapons from the Russians. The more Russian atrocities come to light, the more pressure there will be on the Indians to distance themselves from the Russians. The pressure will also increase from the US, because “You’re either with us or against us”, as George W. Bush said. Leaders have to make decisions.
Why did China recently vote with America at the United Nations to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council?
People want to be on the side of the winners. Putin failed to win quickly. The narrative was that he is going to go and capture Kyiv in two days and install his own puppet and then the West will be forced to deal with a fait accompli. Now the Chinese have to reassess and their longer term interest is not to be backing a loser.
Is it now less easy for them to attack Taiwan?
NATO has shown resolve in supporting the Ukrainians with weapons and other forms of assistance, but on Taiwan the Americans have made it very clear that they would actually step in. A well-known general said to me, “If there’s conflict between the Chinese and the Americans, the Americans will hit the Chinese very hard.” Remember, you are dealing with a nation of one child policy – which means that if you kill 40,000 Chinese soldiers – which the Americans could in a very short space of time – you’re depriving 40,000 families of heirs. The impact would be dramatic.
Why are more than 80 percent of Russians said to be with Putin?
An initial reaction to war is that you rally behind your leader and your troops and you support them. They haven’t yet felt the pain from the economic sanctions that will really hit hard in the months to come, and Russian casualties are already somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand men. In two months that’s more men than they lost in Afghanistan in 10 years of fighting.
Women are very important for TOLO.
You can’t deprive the younger people of their education and of hope and expect to remain in power.
Afghanistan has the youngest population outside of sub-Saharan Africa.
A woman behind the camera for a TOLO interview.
Afghanis enjoying making traditional music in the snow.
Now there’s a great deal of goodwill to Ukrainian refugees, but that’s going to last about 25 seconds.Where is there to go for these Afghani refugees?
“It’s a very uncertain media market we’re facing”
Saad Mohseni, what about the situation of Europe and the UK after Brexit?
Maybe a new Europe can emerge from the ashes of the EU, with all its issues and problems. They have to give the Brits the opportunity to come back in to something new, there is this need now for coming together. This is an opportunity, both for the EU (or whatever shape it takes) and NATO as well. It requires vision, and strong leadership is going to be so important for the Europeans.
Unfortunately politics often seems to be reduced to nationalism and economic survival?
All politics is local, as they say, but the war will impact the price of fuel and the number of refugees that you’ll see in your cities, and other things which the locals care about. What happens in Afghanistan doesn’t stay in Afghanistan, because if you look at the number of refugees into Europe, with the exception of this year, every year the Afghans are in the top two. The Ukrainian and Afghanistan conflicts impact domestic issues in Europe and other parts of the world as more and more refugees come into your countries. Now there’s a great deal of goodwill to Ukrainian refugees, but that’s going to last about 25 seconds.
Do politicians need to pay more attention to these concerns?
It’s common to hear a left leaning politician being dismissive of people’s concerns, but these concerns are real. It’s not just about jobs, it’s also about identity and cultural dilution. Obama not addressing people’s concerns allowed someone like Trump to emerge. Right-Wing politicians will continue to emerge, because people’s concerns are very genuine and in particular outside the major cities. The issue of identity in the 21st century, not just in Europe and in the U.S., but also in Asia as well as Africa, is going to be the defining thing for many politicians, who are going to continue to ride this issue for as long as they can because it resonates with local voters.
You are known as “the Murdoch of Afghanistan”. Is the media business still interesting?
People feel comfortable going into their own bubbles and having their views reinforced. People are unable to listen to the other side and there’s a great deal of anger. You could be on Facebook and have 50 people follow you and you’re able to create your own echo chamber. This sort of fragmented media market is going to become more and more difficult to manage. On one hand the big players like Netflix, and others with billions of dollars, produce content and monopolize viewers. On the other hand the social media platforms are also monopolizing viewers.
How do you cope?
We produce about five or six thousand hours of content annually and we’re agnostic when it comes to which platform we use. We put things on YouTube, we put shorter versions on Facebook and on Instagram, but we also continue to have over-the-top platforms – like a Netflix type – and we’re on satellite and terrestrial. The two things which remain interesting are news and sports, where you can generate mass viewership, but a lot of people are not even watching the news networks any more, they’re getting their news through their friends on Facebook. It’s a very uncertain media market we’re facing. In some countries it’s changed quickly, in others it’s changing slowly, but change is definitely coming.
Even to Afghanistan, which has one of the youngest populations, as you said earlier?
Afghanistan is the youngest country outside of sub-Saharan Africa, with a median age of 18.
And you believe that the Western world should pay more attention to the rest of the world?
Yes, in order to win them over. Because ultimately that’s what they need to do.
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