Since 2001, independent media outlets have flourished in Afghanistan. But now the Afghan parliament is considering legislation that could severely curb press freedom. Saad Mohseni, founder of Afghanistan's most popular TV network, says Afghan media outlets will not fold under government pressure.
BOB GARFIELD: Another part of Tony Blair's legacy, the 2001 war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. After more than five years, freedom has yet to take root, except perhaps in Afghanistan's thriving independent media.
Now, however, legislation is making its way through the nation's Parliament that could turn the clock all the way back. An ominous portent, last month's police raid on Afghanistan's most popular TV network, Tolo TV, after it made the mistake of offending the attorney general.
But Tolo TV did not back down. Instead, it broadcast footage of what appeared to be an illegal raid. [SHORT FILM CLIP – AFGHANI] BOB GARFIELD: No faces are visible, but we hear what seems to be a Tolo TV staff member asking if they are being forced to obey the police. If the police officer said yes, he would be more or less admitting to illegal entry under current law. But if the new media laws are passed, there likely will be many more incidents like it and much less recourse for the media outlets.
Tolo TV founder Saad Mohseni, on the line from Kabul, says it would be difficult to know how to abide by the new legislation. SAAD MOHSENI: It could be interpreted in so many different ways that it just puts, you know, fear into anyone who operates a media.
BOB GARFIELD: There are a number of eye-opening provisions in the legislation, including one that mandates that the media follow the precepts of Islam, which is a pretty broad provision, and another that prohibits the media from insulting individuals or corporations. SAAD MOHSENI: Well, that's right. I mean, you could say the minister has not done a good job. I mean, that could be interpreted as insulting the minister. You could say that the minister arrived late to his meeting. That could be insulting the minister.
This is the scary thing is that all these articles of provisions in the media law are subject to so many interpretations that there's little doubt in our mind that they will be used at some stage by a minister or prosecution that wants to take on the media. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you have some very [LAUGHS] real experience with that, because your question embarrassed the attorney general. And he didn't just invoke the media law. He barged into your headquarters. Tell me about that incident. SAAD MOHSENI: The attorney general was summoned before a commission in Parliament, and a number of interesting questions were asked of him. One of the questions related to people being prosecuted and then taken to court, found guilty. The question was, what happened to these people? And I think the attorney general was referring to their death sentences and saying that they will be executed soon.
Now, of course, we played the clip. I mean, we didn't actually quote him. He was very upset. He was claiming he'd never said that, but, of course, we had footage of him and we played it. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
SAAD MOHSENI: And in this instance, we were in the right, so we refused to pull the story, and he threatened our journalist. Our journalist is a young man. He's only 26, 27 - rushed back to the office. And within minutes, we had the local district police, the local police who had received verbal instructions from the attorney general to arrest the reporter and the news reader, because the news reader was reading the news.
We asked for a warrant. Afghan law is actually quite specific in terms of what the prosecution can do, and if they have to enter someone's premises, they have to get a court order. He ignored all of those things. He went straight to the district police, and the police chief came to our offices and instructed these people to be arrested. Then they were held, and they were also beaten. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you filmed this episode as it was happening, and actually aired it. What's been the response? SAAD MOHSENI: Well, we got a lot of support. I mean, a lot of people came to our offices and supported the television station, people from civil society and the media. And it was, you know, overwhelming. Some people were supportive of us as a media organization. Some people were just upset with the attorney general because they missed out on their favorite soap opera. BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one final thing. At stake here is your media empire and also the future of Afghanistan and democracy. How optimistic are you at this moment that you'll survive this media law and slide into authoritarianism? That could be the next shoe to drop. SAAD MOHSENI: I think that any move to turn this place into a police state will be resisted by the public. I mean, they have had two bad experiences, one during the Taliban time and another, of course, during the Communist time.
We want to make a success of this country. This is the light at the end of the tunnel for Afghanistan. I mean, I think everything else is pretty much going wrong, but the media has allowed Afghans to feel connected to the rest of the world. They have been informed. They have been entertained. To a large extent, the media has allowed them to let off steam. This is where we confront corrupt individuals. This is where we inform the public of the government's mistakes. I think media is here to stay. BOB GARFIELD: Saad, thanks so much. SAAD MOHSENI: Thanks, man. BOB GARFIELD: Saad Mohseni is the founder of Tolo TV. He spoke to us from Kabul. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, how to spin a massacre, and why we keep dissing our neighbor to the north. BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.