Each month in My Working Life, Monocle introduces you to a key figure in the world’s arts or media. First up is the host of Afghanistan’s most popular breakfast show. Massood Sanjer, 28, mocks ministers and makes fun of heavily armed and touchy people. From 1996 to 2001, he was a newsreader on the Taliban’s Radio Shariat, at a time when dancing was punishable with execution – he announced such killings. Today, he lives with his family in a bullet-pocked apartment in Kabul’s middle-class Macroryan area. He was interviewed during breaks on his show and on a drive around Kabul.
I was the first employee here at Arman FM when it started in April 2003. I was the production manager in the afternoon and a DJ in the morning; I’ve been doing that since the beginning. Over 15 million people listen to my show, which is half the country. You can go to Jalalabad, Kunar, Khost, Gardez, Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan or Mazar and everywhere – on every street, in every taxi, at every market stall – people will be listening to it.
We play all kinds of music: Afghan, Indian, western, Shakira, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez. But Afghan music is very popular again – people like Ahmad Zahir, Mawj, Daoud Sarkhosh are very big. It wasn’t like that in the beginning because for five or six years, under the Taliban, no Afghan music was permitted. Now, because we’re playing it again, the musicians are coming back from where they had fled to abroad.
I was the English newsreader for the Taliban. It saved me from being sent to the front line. Everything was controlled. They sent us the text and we just translated it and read it out. One night we got the news that the Bamyan Buddhas were going to be destroyed. We announced it on the radio and then they blew them up – boom! [The 38m and 55m monolithic Buddhas dated from the 3rd century and were demolished under a Taliban edict banning non-Islamic images]. I was lucky that I didn’t make any mistakes. In the newsroom yesterday someone said, “Condoleezza Rice, the Foreign Minister of Iran”. I warned him that under the Taliban a friend of mine reported on the death of a big Talib, and instead of reading “with much sorrow” said “with much happiness”. My poor friend was locked in a freight container for three days.
The Taliban were paying me $10 (€8) a month, but now I get over $1,000 (€800). When the United States bombed the Taliban’s radio in October 2001 there was nothing to do, so I went and worked with foreign media – The Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian, Fox – mainly as a translator and fixer, then I came here.
It’s hard in a country like Afghanistan to be in a free media and talk about the government so we are cautious and self-censoring. There are always security problems. Everywhere I go I have to drive because everybody, both fans and terrorists, recognises me and we have this tight security around the building for our employees’ safety. One of our journalists was hit in parliament by one of the members; another was beaten up in my home town of Paghman. I can’t go there now because of threats from insurgent groups such as Hezbi Islami. We had a DJ here called Shakib who spoke out and was threatened, so he escaped and went to Sweden.
Under our constitution we are supposed to have freedom of expression and journalists can only be taken to court for very serious matters. At the moment things are in theory very free – you can talk about ministers; you can even talk about our president. It’s legal but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. We knew what free media should mean – we’d watched the BBC and CNN – but we hadn’t done it before. But last summer restrictive regulations were announced that will make it very hard for journalists.
I get up at 05.00 and come to the office from my house; it’s just five minutes away in a safe area right near the US embassy. I come directly to the studio and just sit in front of the mic here for my four-hour shift. We start at 06.30 with a poem because Afghan people love poems. Then there’s news and we start talking. We talk about the city: the dust, the lack of electricity, corruption, security problems – anything.
This morning was the killing of five Taliban by Nato forces. No, that was yesterday… Today was the killing of four women teachers in Kunar. We have unconfirmed reports that there was heavy fighting in eastern Kabul last night, just past Macroryan where I live. It was at about 20.30 – you could hear the firing. The Taliban have gathered strength now. Maybe the south will be bad like this forever but in Kabul people don’t like them.
We share a newsroom with our sister company, Tolo TV, with 40 journalists, editors, producers and so on, but listeners call and tell me the real news all the time. My last call was some hajjis [pilgrims to Mecca] in Saudi Arabia. They had 40 people sharing one bathroom and six people sharing a room – I’ll talk about it tomorrow on the show. I get other calls saying, “We don’t have power and the electricity has gone.” Once somebody called to say there was a suicide bomber in Bagrami: “Everyone’s gathering and the traffic’s terrible!” That was live – everybody knew. We have 15 million reporters because our listeners call in.
We have a phone that rings around 2,000 times a day. It’s a very Afghan system involving a mobile phone wired up to a speaker and a mic. Because we air ordinary people’s views, we struggle to book guests to answer these questions. The Minister of the Interior won’t talk to us any more – Tolo TV broadcast MPs sleeping in Parliament and they didn’t like that.
Most of the show is prepared by Sima; she filters everything for me. We are a young company and we have a 50/50 split between men and women, which is very rare in Afghanistan. My real work as station manager starts at 10.00, after the show. It’s high pressure – telling the other DJs what’s good and what’s not, having meetings and stuff. Sometimes I just go home, switch on the radio, have a nice cup of tea and listen to what they are doing.
Driving round here you have to be very careful. Look, they’re blocking the streets by sweeping; they put mud in the potholes in the road, which just creates dust. See that car – it’s on the pavement. We’re always talking about this on the show but they still do it. Sometimes I just drive around the city to find subjects for myself, and there are plenty of them!I live with my mother, two brothers, sister, my wife and my son. I didn’t meet my wife until the day we married. Our house was built by the Russians and is very secure; it has five rooms. We had to move from our old house 15 years ago because it was on the front line of the fighting.
We still have our old house but now I just use it to keep my pigeons. Pigeon-fighting is an old pastime in Afghanistan. These pigeons were from my father, a chemistry professor, who passed away during the Taliban regime. I have 120 and I love them – I have to make time for entertainment otherwise work will kill me. I don’t know what time I go home – sometimes not before 02.00 or 03.00. I usually have dinner with my family. They really miss me and say “you are engaged to your job”. I really love my job.
In Afghanistan all media is a luxury. Many people cannot afford to buy newspapers or a TV, and in a country with 80-per-cent illiteracy, newspapers are low in reach and circulation. They come in three main categories: nominally independent, those affiliated to political parties, and state-run. Radio rules for its immediacy and relative cheapness to produce, while TV is growing quickly, especially among young people.
The two most popular radio and TV stations, Arman FM and Tolo TV, are owned by Saad Mohseni, the only Afghani who comes close to media mogul status. Mohseni, formerly a stockbroker in Sydney, set them up with Usaid (United States Agency for International Development) funding in 2004. Tolo broadcasts western fare mixed with Afghan news and chat. Its big hit is Afghan Star, a talent show in the vein of Pop Idol. The show is sponsored by Roshan, the largest mobile-phone provider in the country and the biggest advertiser. Coca-Cola is one of the very few global brands to advertise; many adverts are for Indian-made cosmetics and mopeds. The total Afghan industry-wide ad-spend does not exceed $10m (€7.7m) and budgets are relatively tiny.
Free or not too free?
Afghanistan has a three-year-old constitution but it is feared that new media regulations will chip away at the freedoms it guaranteed. The supreme court would like to ban satellite TV, in part to stop the rise of Bollywood movies. This backlash is in some extent due to the creeping resurgence of the Taliban, whose stronghold in southern Afghanistan is not served by the more liberal media of the north.