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Afghanistan Media Mogul On His Concern For Future Freedoms Of Journalists, Citizens

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To the extent that we know the broad outlines of what's happening in Afghanistan today, it is largely thanks to social media and to news reports, to journalists, both Afghan and international, who are reporting from there at great risk and under pressure, in some cases from the Taliban, to cease. Well, joining me now is Saad Mohseni, CEO of Moby Media Group, which oversees Tolo News. That is a highly respected local news organization and Afghanistan's first 24-hour television network.

Mr. Mohseni, welcome.

SAAD MOHSENI: Thank you.

KELLY: So I want to start because I'm following your Twitter feed avidly, and I see that the Taliban entered Tolo News in Kabul today. They checked weapons belonging to some of your security staff. Can you just tell us more about what's going on?

MOHSENI: Well, I mean, obviously, the president decided to cut and run. And...

KELLY: President Ghani. Yeah.

MOHSENI: President Ghani. And then his departure - abrupt secret departure triggered the collapse of the system. So as soon as the news was out - ironically, we broke the news. Then basically, it was game over for the government. Ministers abandoned their posts. Police officers abandoned their posts. So the system completely collapsed. And the Taliban had also mentioned that they would like to keep, you know, the security in the area. And they offered to protect the compound from within. We said thanks, but no thanks. And in sort of a bizarre way, it was a relief.

KELLY: A relief because at least there's no shooting. It's quiet.

MOHSENI: Well, anarchy is something we all fear and most Afghans fear. Right now we're somewhere in between. And there is a Taliban presence of sorts in some places, but we're not sure. I mean, just - I mean, you've seen the scenes at the airport. There are no police officers, no immigration officers, no military, with thousands of people on the tarmac. And we don't want the same situation on the streets of Kabul.

KELLY: Now, is your newsroom up and running full steam ahead? Have you been pressured to stop reporting or...

MOHSENI: No.

KELLY: ...Change your reporting in any way?

MOHSENI: No, that's not - that will come but not now. But, you know, I will not be surprised if they introduce restrictions fairly quickly.

KELLY: It sounds like you don't have much confidence that this current situation will last in terms of your reporters being able to move about, being able to report freely. And I wonder how you're thinking about that. How are you thinking about guidance to the newsroom of, you know, how an independent Afghan journalist trained to ask tough questions is going to be able to cover the Taliban in a way that is fair, that is rigorous but does not get them killed?

MOHSENI: Yeah. I mean, we have 450 employees. And we, you know - obviously it's important to stand your ground just because we have no idea in terms of how they would react. And we do a story on a particular individual who may get angry, may come into your office. He may have a totally different reaction to another individual from another section of the Taliban. It's like being confronted by an alien army. We're not sure exactly how they're going to react to things.

KELLY: What happens to women journalists? The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, there weren't any. They didn't allow it.

MOHSENI: Well, there was no media 20 years ago. But now we have social media. We have proper media. We have satellite television. People have been exposed to so much more since 2001, including members of the Taliban. I think the tragedy is that for most Afghans, the majority of which are under the age of 20, 65% have never experienced Taliban rule. So I think it's going to be a jarring experience for them, having grown accustomed to freedom, going to university, you know, sitting in a classroom next to a female student, being on Facebook, just being free. And I think that's going to be taken away from them.

KELLY: Taken away how? You're anticipating social media will be reined in as well.

MOHSENI: Absolutely. I mean, the Taliban - I mean, we underestimate them. They are pretty sophisticated. Even if you go to a village in the middle of nowhere and there's a checkpoint, the Taliban would stop your vehicle. They would ask you to open your iPhone, and they would look at your social media posts. They would look at your WhatsApp messaging - messages. And then sometimes, apparently, they do have fairly basic software that allows them to monitor phones. So once they're in charge of the state, I'm sure they're going to acquire more sophisticated software where they can monitor things. And, you know, they've been very clear. I mean, you know, they've been very transparent in terms of what sort of Afghanistan they wish to see. It's going to be far more restrictive. It's going to be far more conservative.

KELLY: So what are the biggest questions on your mind as you're trying to think through how your networks continue to operate with the Taliban now apparently in command?

MOHSENI: They are in command, and for us, two concerns. The safety of our people - that's one. And continuity - how do we continue our work? I mean, we have become this beacon of hope for so many Afghans. People go to our networks to find out what's going on. And how do we continue that work, whether we do it from Afghanistan or we do it from outside? And also, how do we get our journalists on? And a clear majority are still inside of Afghanistan.

KELLY: And last thing - I asked you about women journalists, and I'm thinking about how you will operate going forward. How do you think through a decision - like, the Taliban might say, we don't want to see any female anchors on air. We don't want to see any women correspondents. Do you have any recourse, or do you just have to do it?

MOHSENI: Listen. You operate in an environment where they set the rules. You know, even in the U.S., you have to abide by American laws in relation to media. So we have to be, you know, obviously cognizant of Taliban rules and abide by them. But what's interesting is that our female correspondents do want to work. They're insisting on it. We've actually told them to sort of, you know, stay home for a couple of days until things become a little bit more clear. But, you know, the key thing also is, who's going to prevail within the Taliban? They have different factions. They have more moderate factions, more pragmatic. And they have the hardcore ideologues. In the next two or three months, things will become clear in terms of who's going to win that tug of war.

KELLY: Saad Mohseni, CEO of Afghanistan's Moby Media Group, thank you very much for speaking with us.

MOHSENI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER'S "IMAGINING BUFFALO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.