Saad Mohseni – The Power of Pop Culture

Good morning. About 15 years ago, myself and my brother living in suburban Melbourne, Australia decided to do something quite crazy and unexpected. We decided to go back to our home country, to check things out, to see if we can contribute to the rebuilding of our nation which had been mired in conflict for almost two decades. For those of you who can’t remember: the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. And what ensued was a civil war, and then the Taliban emerged as a major force. And then of course the Americans got involved after 9/11 and everything changed. So in 2002 we had quite an opportunity to do something interesting to contribute the way we wanted to contribute. So we thought, well why don’t we open up a radio station, as one does in a situation like that. And we launched a station called Arman FM in 2003. Of course since then, we’ve established other businesses. We have operations in eight countries. We employ a thousand people. We produce six and a half hours of content. We are a regional company with a presence in South Central Asia as well as in the Middle East. But let’s get back to the radio station. So we went there with no experience. We bought some equipment. We hired a bunch of people. We thought we should do what everyone else does. We should put a male and a female DJ in a studio to talk about things, to discuss things, to joke and to play some music. Within days, the radio station was the most popular station in the country, in Kabul at least initially. And with that success and that momentum came criticism from the most conservative elements in the country. They were calling for our blood, they were asking for our radio station to get shut down. Why? Because it was imaginable to have a male and a female in a studio. But we persisted. And within two or three months, it became the norm. Other radio stations copied the format. I mean, we were heartened by the fact that we had a lot of listeners of course, so we persisted for that reason. But what this highlights is that the media can actually facilitate social change. Now, we always point out that were are not didactic, we are not preaching. We just give people a glimpse of what’s possible. And the notion of a male and a female male and a female DJ in a studio, which was unacceptable weeks before then all of a sudden becomes acceptable. In 2004, we established our first television station. And we launched a program called Afghan style. Not unlike many other television programs that you see in Europe and beyond, it’s a singing contest. Contestants come forward. They want to become superstars. And it’s a great opportunity. The stage is a great equalizer. People can vote via their mobile phones. In 2005, we had a young women from Herat, Western province in Afghanistan – a conservative province. She was on stage, she got carried away, she got a bit emotional. She started to shuffle on stage like that – no more than this. It was interpreted as dancing. And then, all of a sudden, again the religious establishment was up in arms. They asked for her to be indicted. She was in hiding. We were summoned before parliament. We were almost charged. Again, we survived. You fast forward 10 years to today 2015. We have hundreds of women now. They sing, they comment on television they play sports, they run for office. We have our Christiane Amanpour, we have our Shakira’s, we have our Oprah’s. So the change has been dramatic. And women today play an exceptionally important role in our country. We have something like 35% of our voters who are women, this was in the last elections. A third of our parliament is made up of female parliamentarians. So times are changing, the country has changed. Now of course, a lot of you read about Afghanistan in the newspapers or watch on your news bulletins. You hear a complete different story. You hear about conflict, war, a country that hasn’t changed and the changes that we talk about as mere illusions. You see the headlines. Well, I am here to tell you something different. We have condensed probably a century’s change within 10 years. And this has only been possible because of media because of telecommunications, because of the Internet. And we have essentially fast-tracked change that the country would have inevitably reached at some stage but that we’ve just managed to put it on steroids. But of course, there is that willingness from the population itself to change which is very important. So, I want to talk to you today about the extraordinary impact that a soap opera could have or 22 players running on a field chasing a football could have on a society. Only 15 years ago, they were using those football fields to execute people. And, of course, media allows civil society to flourish and challenge the establishment. Soap operas are huge. We have a lot of Turkish soap operas. In these soap operas- you know Turkey is a Muslim country. They are acceptable in Afghanistan. We have a female role model. We have a female character, who works, looks after the kids. All of a sudden, that character becomes an endearing figure in the household. The young girl watching television wants to be like that character. The parents watching that character accept that character. That’s when a society can change because they understand that this sort of character can exist: a working women and a mother. So, the power of the media as a force, in a place like Afghanistan has been accomplished mostly because we had support. We had support from the government, as much as we had issues with them. We have support from the international community and we had support from civil society. Now, people watch lots of television in Afghanistan. What’s extraordinary is the change that we’ve seen since 2001. We had less than 10,000 fixed phone lines, 0 televisions, 1 radio station. Again, fast forward to 2015, we have over 100 TV channels 200 odd radio stations, hundreds of newspapers and magazines. 22 million mobile phone users, which is two-thirds of the country. 95% of the population listens to a radio program regularly and 65% of the population watches television. It’s an extraordinary change. And this has allowed people like us to play a positive role in the country. The process, the democratic process we talk about has been very important for Afghanistan. We had a smooth transition of power from the last president to the new president. And again the media has played a very important role. We held the government to account to ensure the elections took place. We had debating programs. We discussed issues. We force the politicians to come up with their own policies in order to win the votes. And as a result, we have this very vibrant environment in Afghanistan when it comes to politics. And of course, last April, something like 60% of the eligible voters turned out to vote, which is an extraordinary number. Long queues, lots of threats, lots of violence from the Taliban. Nonetheless, people persistently came out to vote. Now, what does the media do generally in any country? We inform, we entertain like we do here. But in a place like Afghanistan, we also, given the judiciary, given that there is no prosecution we also allow society to let off steam because we hold people accountable. So when people have an issue, they rarely go to the police, they come to the media, and we do exposés. And that in itself has been very important for the country. As I mentioned before, we facilitate social change but more important than all of that, we create role models. We create heroes, especially for this predominantly young population in Afghanistan. Four years ago, we came up with this idea. We thought “well there is a vacuum, there is no sports in this country.” So with some prominent stakeholders, we established the Afghan Premier League football. We had a reality show that introduced the players to the public. We chose some of the players on television and then we had this league. And it’s been one of the most extraordinary successes in the country. Soldiers and politicians have failed. Perhaps sports teams will have a better chance. Afghanistan has launched a new project to bring the country together: a National Football League. Afghanistan recently launched its first ever nationwide league in a bid to strengthen sports in the war torn country. And also showed the healing power of football. In 2013, Afghanistan won the South Asian football championships by beating India and Nepal. A million people showed up to welcome to team back home. It had an extraordinary impact as you can see from the pictures on the mood of the nation and on the sport itself. Afghanistan has moved up 50 places in the FIFA rankings. So, we are very proud of that particular achievement probably more than anything else because it had mobilized our entire nation. We talked about the media being an agent of change. And it’s a force for reminding us and protecting our freedoms. Whether it is to vote or to speak out or to say no to marrying someone who is 50 years older than you. We need to protect these rights and we need to persist that they stay in place. I mean, these are very difficult times for all of us. And these rights could be lost very, very quickly. It’s important that you understand also that media alone cannot achieve these changes. We need the support of government. We need the support of civil society. We need the international community to continue to press for our rights. Last but not least, we need time. Thank you.


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