Anuj CHOPRA - Once a deadpan radio announcer under the Taliban, Masood Sanjer has gained renown for being a thorn in the side of accountability-dodging Afghan officials, exemplifying hard-won media freedoms that are at stake in a pivotal year.

His radio talk show “Safai Shahar” (cleaning the city) is something of a cross between a public helpline and a kangaroo court, enabling callers around Afghanistan to vent their civic grievances over the airwaves - from broken sewage drains to crime and corruption.

Sanjer, 36, plays troubleshooter live on air, phoning up relevant authorities to seek redress, often skewering them for answers and sometimes chivvying them into action.

“Does anyone know where the mayor of Kabul is this morning?” he purred into the microphone during a recent hour-long show broadcast live at 7am from a spartan Kabul studio.

A woman producer sat nearby, fingers skittering over a cellphone as she attempted in vain to get hold of the mayor after an angry caller accused the municipality of dumping raw sewage in his neighbourhood.

“If you see the mayor anywhere could you please convey that Arman FM radio is trying to contact him? He isn’t answering his phone,” Sanjer said, pouting mockingly. “Is he still asleep?”

Sanjer was once a mealy-mouthed announcer at Voice of Sharia, the Taliban’s official mouthpiece during their oppressive 1996-2001 rule, cautiously vetting every word before it fell off his tongue. His life depended on it.

“One mistake, one wrong word and you could get locked up in a container by the Taliban,” he told AFP, revealing his sepia-toned photograph from the time sporting the mandatory beard and turban.

“And now look at me - I just switch on the mic and say whatever comes out of my mouth,” said Sanjer, now clean-shaven.

Feisty watchdog

In many ways, Sanjer’s dramatic career trajectory mirrors the evolution of the media in post-Taliban Afghanistan into a feisty - and largely free - watchdog despite funding pressures and the ever-growing threat of violence.

From virtually no free media in the Taliban era, Afghanistan today boasts of hundreds of television broadcasters, radio stations and print publications - many seemingly unafraid of riling authorities with hard-nosed reporting about corruption and nepotism that is synonymous with Afghan officialdom.

“The sentence you often hear about the Afghan media being the only success story in Afghanistan is not a cliche or an exaggeration,” Massoumeh Torfeh, an expert on the Afghan press, told AFP.

“The media... (has) become an instrument of political power. All politicians know they cannot survive without being heard on the media. Equally no politician, including the president, can escape being scrutinised by the media,” said Torfeh, a research associate at the London School of Economics.

But several media organisations face the serious risk of collapse, observers warn, as Afghanistan faces a precipitous economic downturn amid cynicism about the country’s future.

The United States plans to pull out the bulk of its troops from Afghanistan by December after 13 years of war, despite an ascendant Taliban, and the nation is in the midst of a rancorous power struggle after presidential elections marred by allegations of fraud.

International funding and advertising dollars that kept many media organisations afloat all these years are rapidly dwindling as foreign troops, contractors and NGOs depart.

But Saad Mohseni, chairman of his family-run Moby Group which owns five broadcast networks in the country including the popular Tolo TV and Arman FM, remains ebulliently optimistic about the future.

‘Afghanistan’s Murdoch’

Despite the downturn, he said his media group had attracted more advertising clients this year though revenue has largely remained flat.

Mohseni, labelled the ‘Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan’ (a comparison he is uncomfortable with even though Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox is a minority shareholder in his company), is lionised widely as a taboo-busting mogul pushing the limits of media freedoms.

Moby has stood up to withering government criticism and threats of arrest for aggressive reporting on official incompetence.

It has also drawn the ire of traditionalists for airing Turkish soap operas with characters oozing sexual tension and glitzy singing talent shows where unveiled women participate alongside men.

“There is a huge difference between the Afghanistan of 2001 and the Afghanistan of today,” Mohseni, sporting curly hair and rectangular-rimmed glasses, told AFP in his Kabul office featuring 15 small televisions tacked on the wall.

Citing Afghanistan’s “youth bulge” - 65 percent of the population is under 25 - he said the new generation is hungry for a progressive media. “It gives them hope, a sense of escapism,” he said. “There are however plenty of people still trying to take Afghanistan in the opposite direction.”

A Taliban rocket landed right on top of Sanjer’s studio, located near Mohseni’s office, during a 19-hour gun battle in 2011 targeting the nearby US embassy and NATO headquarters.

Nobody was hurt but the risk of being targeted is a constant. The entire compound is manned by brawny guards wielding AK47s.

Back in the studio, Kabul’s mayor remained stubbornly elusive but Sanjer and his team were inundated with other complaints. One distressed caller from Ghazni demanded to know why officials were going around forcing local shopkeepers to each pony up 50 Afghani ($1). Was the collection legally authorised?

The mayor of Ghazni agreed to come on air, but sought to wriggle out of responsibility, claiming it was private individuals and not his officials who were extorting the cash.

“You really could learn a thing or two from the Kabul mayor,” Sanjer’s co-host, Humayun Danishyar, retorted with a dash of sarcasm. “Last week he promised he would come on the show... but chickened out. He really knows how to defend himself.”–AFP