At Tolo and other Afghan media, pressure from all sides

With elections due on August 20, pressure is mounting on Afghan journalists, and it’s coming from all sides. The International Federation of Journalists helped organize a meeting in Kabul last week to draw the fractious journalists’ community together; there are four or five competing organizations, all vying for recognition, dominance, and funding. In March, the donor organizations to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called on the groups to sort themselves out before they’ll start sending money. In a release yesterday, the IFJ addressed both problems: attacks and abuse aimed at journalists as the elections approach and military activity increases; and the inability, so far, of journalists to organize themselves into a cohesive unit. 

I spent this morning at one of the front-running media organizations in Afghanistan, Tolo TV, which says that, yes, while the pressure is mounting, they’re running with it. I spoke for an hour with Jahid Mohseni, CEO of the Moby Group, run by the Mohseni family that operates a large array of media operations, Tolo TV being the most prominent. I was supposed to meet with Mujahid Kakar, Tolo’s director of news and current affairs, but he could only pop in and out a few times. Tolo is giving its best shot at airing a presidential debate tomorrow and it’s his job to make it work, including a new set built specially for the debate.

They think the three leading candidates will show up, although Mohseni said he’s not sure all of them will make it. His newsroom was buzzing with the electricity only an election can create: “Two months ago everyone was saying the incumbent [Hamid Karzai] is going to romp, that there’s going to be a 90 percent first round win for him. Suddenly this thing is going the other way around and people are scratching their heads asking why is this happening,” he told me. Of course, the newsroom was running hard to keep up with the increase in violence in recent days, too.

Tolo has 10 reporter-cameraman crews in Kabul and 21 one-man bands spread around the country. Most are expected to turn in two stories a day; Mohseni says he reckons the average age of his staff to be about 23 so they can usually meet their daily double deadlines.

What about threats and violence directed at his news crews?

“There is increased sophistication in the ways they do intimidation. All the blunt instruments of harassment CPJ knows of. There are continuing problems with the insurgents, but a lot of our problems end up being with government. They use different ways of coming at us: We have a number of court cases about broadcasting Indian drama serials or retransmitting Al-Jazeera, and we expect more when they are unhappy with us. It’s difficult when the judiciary is selected by the president’ s office. They’ve charged us under the national security legislation for airing India serials–that sort of law is designed to go after the guys trying to blow up the country. The bottom line is the government feels it can do whatever it wants without real accountability.”

“You’re saying the pressure comes more from the government than anywhere else?” I asked. “What happens to crews in the countryside when they run tough stories? Is it just the government that complains?”

“Generally, but, sure, we have complaints from the other side as well. That pressure seems to be easier to manage. In some ways they seem to be much more media savvy. They seem to be more concerned about their relationship with the media than the government does,” Mohseni told me.

The other side being?

“Well it depends, because there are the Taliban and other groups within the Taliban. There’s no single group opposing the government in an armed fashion. There are clear cases of intimidation, and it’s not all hunk-dory. … There have been plenty of incidents of intimidation, people being shot at, but the intimidation isn’t the same as it is with the government. I think it’s largely because they understand they need media and they’re very careful about how they go about treating us, whereas the government sees it otherwise.

They need media because they’re the underdogs?

“Effectively, yes. They are careful about their PR, about what information they are releasing, and they are careful about how harshly the media will come down on them if they do something wrong. But they’re trying to convey a message about being part of the people, so it becomes hypocritical if they start attacking media. It undermines their core message.”

Your greatest fear?

“For our reporters, it’s a tough environment. For reporters, there are personal security issues. … They’re doing hard stories about corruption, hard stories about things people don’t want us to broadcast. The only thing that’s protecting them is their name and their fame with the general public.”

(Reporting from Kabul)

UPDATED: We condensed the original entry’s third-to-final paragraph to clarify Jahid Mohseni’s point.