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Former Viacom Chief: Media ‘One of the Only Success Stories’ in Afghanistan

Tom Freston, who also ran MTV and lived in Afghanistan in the ’70s, says television has opened up the country

The former co-president of Viacom says that television — “which he describes as one of the great eye-openers in the world” — is changing Afghanistan for the better.

Speaking at a Paley Center for Media International Council Forum Thursday, Tom Freston, a one-time Kabul resident, and former head of the MTV networks, said that “media is one of the only success stories in that country right now.”

Freston, a board member and adviser to Moby Media, an Afghan media company, said that media “is the only part of the country that really works,” and that “people hold it in higher esteem” than the government.

Freston and Moby Media CEO Saad Mohseni told the audience that under the Taliban, the country’s 30 million people were almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world.

“The Taliban forbade television,” he said. “Closed it down.”

Now, there are 75 television stations and 175 radio stations.

“Media can play a very powerful role, especially if you empower the public,” Mohseni said.

He started his company with a $400,000 loan from the United States Agency for International Development.

Now, the company owns three networks and broadcasts shows into Iran — much to that government’s consternation, especially since some of the programming is Western-style, which is enormously popular.

Shows like Afghanistan's version of "Idol" and "The Ministry," a mocumentary about a corrupt government official, draw large audiences.

Mohseni explained that under the Taliban, music was banned.

In 2005, he launched the country’s version of “American Idol,” and contestants “just lined up. Everyone wanted to perform.”

He noted that Afghanistan has a surprisingly young population.

“The median age is 17,” he said. “And these young people, they’re no different than kids in the United States. They want to … become superstars.”

The two also said that mobile telephones have ushered in a new era in the country.

During the Taliban rule, Freston said, there were fewer than 10,000 telephone lines in the whole country.

“Now, 60 percent of the country has cell phones.”

All those cell phones mean cell phone makers. And cell phone makers mean advertisers.

“People are spending,” Mohseni said, explaining that banks and companies like Unilever and Colgate Palmolive are advertising in the country.

Freston lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the 1970s.

He returned in 2005, while still at Viacom, and met Mohseni.