A draft media bill, soon to be signed into law, may extend government influence over Afghan media sources. As tensions between the central government and political and regional groupings spill over, the spotlight will remain on leading independent media sources owned by Australian-Afghan media group Moby Capital Partners: Tolo TV and, to a lesser degree, Lemar TV and Arman FM.
Moby Capital Partners media programme content has proved to be the most controversial of all Afghan media, sparking a hail of reaction that has resulted in debate on the role of the media and national culture, identity and the use and misuse of freedom.
Launched in 2004, Kabul-based Tolo (Dawn) TV is the most popular TV channel in Afghanistan. Tolo TV is viewed by 81 per cent of the population of Kabul and 32 per cent nationally via relays in some 19 Afghan provinces and by cable and satellite.
Launched in 2006, Lemar (Sun) TV is a Pashto-language version of Tolo, repeating much of Tolo's programmes, and is viewed by 15 per cent of Afghans via relays in some six southern and eastern Afghan provinces and by cable and satellite.
The main competitors to Tolo and Lemar TV are state-owned Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) with its network of provincial TV stations, viewed by 30 per cent of Afghans, and privately owned Ariana TV, viewed by 28 per cent of Afghans via relays in some 28 provinces and by cable and satellite.
Moby Capital media - controversy from the start
Launched in 2003, Kabul-based Arman FM's format of Western, Afghan and Indian music, attracted large audiences. Relayed in Kabul and four other cities, Arman FM's reach in 2007 is some 70 per cent of local audiences.
However, the format and presenters' informal approach and use of colloquial Dari attracted criticism from some Afghan conservative and political figures.
Saad Mohseni, leading spokesman for the family that founded Moby Capital Partners, said: "We have to let the [Afghan] masses decide whether they like Britney Spears. We think the masses have spoken, and we will give them what they are after", the UK-based newspaper The Independent reported in 2004.
Tolo TV - content, news values
Television has replaced radio as the arena for conflict between Western-influenced technocrat-modernizers and conservative elements.
While considered normal to Western eyes, to an Afghan audience the ground-breaking and innovative programming by Tolo TV resulted in a backlash against Western and other cultural influences appearing on television; on the grounds that they violate Islamic morality and Afghan culture. Social factors also impinge; The Kabul Times reported a controversy involving TV content "revolved around what the youth want most and what the elders resent most".
Former US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, speaking at an international conference in April 2007, described Tolo TV as Afghanistan's "only really viable independent television station".
An extreme example of state-owned media news values is Helmand Local FM radio, which repeated the news bulletin broadcast from 31 May 2007 to 1 June, reportedly because of a lack of news.
Tolo's news and discussion programmes have been generally acclaimed for the nature of their aggressive investigative reporting.
Staff at Tolo are renowned for their pioneering campaigns for social change.
Imported programme formats and "soaps" have proved highly popular with Afghan audiences.
Media observers see Moby Capital Partners trying to test the boundaries of what is politically and socially acceptable in Afghanistan.
Mohseni raises the stakes
As the Afghan government and coalition allies struggle to bring stability to Afghanistan, the Afghan government has become concerned about criticism in the media over issues such as corruption, power struggles between central government groups and power struggles between Kabul and regional political-military figures, against the backdrop of a growing insurgency.
Even in relatively peaceful provinces, frustration over perceived government ineptitude is mounting, the AsiaTimes Online website reported in July 2007.
Media observers acknowledge that most Kabul-based radio and television stations have "toned down" broadcast content since the appointment in 2006 of Minister of Information, Culture and Youth Affairs Karim Khorram.
Ariana TV has "toned down" content. Programmes observe a language and content "balance" to avoid problems with religious and regulatory bodies, according to media observers. On occasion, Ariana has tilted towards a moderately pro-government editorial line.
This editorial line could have been one of the underlying reasons why rioters, taking to the streets after a road crash involving coalition troops, attacked Ariana TV's compound in Kabul in May 2007.
As Tolo's reporters dig deeper into the insurgency, it faces increasing challenges from the central government, Tolo reporters and analysts say.
Covering the Taleban, they explain, means delving into the reasons driving the rebels, and that often requires investigating allegations of corruption and abuse within the central government, The Christian Science Monitor reported in May 2006.
The Blog "And So It Goes" highlighted Tolo's "The Daily Show" - calling it "one of the most popular programmes on Afghan television" that mocks Afghan politicians and international organizations. Quoting Saad Mohseni, "talking about corruption is very important, part of the frustration people have is that no one has been held accountable for anything", "And So It Goes" reported in an unattributed article.
Corruption is seriously undermining NATO's effort to win Afghan "hearts and minds", AsiaTimes Online reported in July 2007.
In January 2007, both Lemar and Tolo TV broadcast an interview with former director-general of RTA, Najib Roshan. This allowed Roshan a platform to discuss his clashes with Minister Khorram - and describe factionalism within the Afghan government. "... I believe that apart from a few exceptions President Karzai's team, in general, is not fully loyal to the president. Everyone in this team has a particular financial and political affiliation", Roshan said.
However, broadcasting ratings do not influence Afghanistan's politicians.
"In this country there's been a climate of control of media, because the media have been government-owned. So the government has an expectation that the media will do what they tell them to" said Mohseni, cited by The LA Times in May 2007.
The backlash was televised
In response to a complaint by Attorney-General Abdol Sabet, police raided Tolo's offices on 17 April 2007.
The raid, later broadcast by Tolo TV, was in response to Sabet's claim that a news item was inaccurate and misrepresented his comments at an earlier press conference.
The raid was followed by a week-long stand-off between state-owned and Moby Capital Partners media and their supporters.
This event says a lot about the difficult relationship between Afghanistan's government and media over a relatively minor incident, and is an indication of the extent of the hostility facing Tolo TV from certain circles.
The legal adviser of Tolo TV, Mohammad Abdollah, and Ehsanollah Aryanzai, the director of Ariana TV were summoned to the pro-government Senate's Complaints Commission.
"The Senate's Complaints Commission had a meeting with officials of Tolo and Ariana TV stations and said that the stations' programmes were against constitutional law and Islamic values," reported state-run newspaper Anis on 24 April, quoting the official Bakhtar news agency.
"The legal adviser of Tolo TV said the station would make [unspecified] changes to its programmes as part of an understanding with parliament and the Ministry of Culture and Information," the report added.
The dispute between the attorney-general and Tolo TV was an "...imperious stance by the Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs and the opposition of the attorney-general to the media, [and] demonstrate that the government has been trying to tighten control over the independent media", Kabul Weekly reported in May 2007.
Attorney-General Sabet has cultivated a reputation as a crusader against corruption and vice. But critics say that he sometimes applies the law selectively and can be unpredictable, according to UK-based Guardian Unlimited in April 2007.
A government commission adjudicating on the Tolo dispute ordered the station to apologise to the attorney-general. Tolo's management refused to back down. "We come under illegal attack and they demand we apologise - how ridiculous is that?" said its director Saad Mohseni, Guardian Unlimited reported. A compromise was later reached after a meeting between the attorney-general and Mohseni who "apologised" to Sabet, UNAMA reported in May 2007.
Funding - TV is not cheap
Interviewed by IWPR (Institute of War and Peace Reporting) in 2005, Saad Mohseni claimed Tolo TV was "self-sufficient."
Independent newspaper Arman-e Melli reported on 24 April 2007 that senior figures in the government were looking to "impose restrictions" on Tolo TV.
In an article, Razaq Mamun claimed threatened restrictions were in response to allegations by President Karzai that Tolo TV had been financially and politically supported by former defence minister Marshall Fahim, a senior member of the United National Front. However, the newspaper added that Fahim had always rejected these claims.
In June 2007, the pro-government newspaper Weesa alleged Lemar TV had "received millions from Al-Jazeera" - reporting that, "with low-cost production...Lemar TV is a costless TV and its revenues are spent in other ways". However, the publication did not speculate further.
Media observers speculate that the philanthropic Agha Khan Foundation could be behind Tolo TV's funding.
During an interview with CNN, Mohseni said the country's advertising spending would run to 10m US dollars in 2006, of which Moby Capital Partners will earn "about half". However, CNN speculated the "big prize for Mohseni" might be across the border as Tolo's programming is mostly in Dari, a dialect close to the languages used in Iran and the former Soviet republics. As Tolo TV is beamed via satellite across Central Asia and if Mohseni can get a piece of the region's 800m US dollar advertising market his gamble might really pay off, as CNN concluded in January 2006.
Mohseni family - media flag bearers
There are concerns over a number of prohibitions within the draft media bill that, observers say, are open to wide interpretation.
Saad Mohseni, by defending the rights of independent media and highlighting the negative or opaquely written amendments to the proposed media law, has become one of Afghanistan's most outspoken figures.
In an interview with US-based National Public Radio in May 2007, Mohseni said "...there is little doubt in our mind that they [prohibitions] will be used at some stage by a minister or prosecution that wants to take on the media."
BBC News reported in June 2007 that the draft media bill took control of RTA from the Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs to a seemingly independent commission.
The draft bill has been cautiously welcomed by Afghan journalists, but they are unsure about any increase in influence upon Afghanistan's media by government or other Afghan groups.
President Karzai has made encouraging noises about the continuing need for, and his support of, a pluralistic media voicing support for freedom of speech, and saying private and free media should always act as a bridge between the people and the government, Iranian Mashad radio reported on 19 June 2007.
In a June 2007 press release, Amnesty International warned that the ongoing failure of the Afghan government to uphold the rule of law and effectively guarantee fair and transparent justice is impeding Afghanistan's progress. In a vicious cycle, these factors in turn serve to undermine further the administration of justice and the rule of law, the press release emphasized.
However, despite the channel's popularity Tolo TV remains vulnerable.
To their disadvantage the Mohsenis, mostly raised outside Afghanistan, have no known affiliations to major Afghan political groups.
According to Afghan observers, the Mohseni family is linked to the Ismaili faith. In Afghanistan's ethnically divided society, this small minority group has few natural allies.
It remains to be seen how the new media law impinges upon programme content from Moby Capital Partners media against the framework of Afghanistan's other regulatory bodies, legislature and judiciary and the background of deep-seated ethnic and linguistic tensions.