KABUL From something resembling a small armed camp in a closed-off Kabul street, Afghanistan has just begun receiving its first look at home-grown, 24-hour news courtesy of Saad Mohseni, the country's biggest media mogul.
The politically connected Moby Media Group chairman last week launched a CNN-style news feed to what he expects to be about 1 million viewers shaping Afghanistan's future, from government to foreigners and even the resurgent Taliban.
"For me, 24-hour news was a no brainer," Mohseni told Reuters in an interview.
"In Afghanistan, you need to know what's going on. If there's a bomb blast in Karte-Seh and you've got your kids going to school there, you need to know which roads are closed, if security forces are in control of the area."
A strong critic of President Hamid Karzai, Mohseni and his brother Jahid control a modest but growing media empire based out of a cluster of dilapidated houses at the end of a barricaded cul-de-sac, guarded by a dozen men armed with AK-47s.
From a small upstairs office walled with flatscreens and curtained off from the street, the fast-talking ex-banker has in 5 years gone from owning a single Kabul FM radio station to cutting deals with News Corp's Rupert Murdoch to beam-in Persian-language programmes to 120 million people in Iran and central Asia.
But with a diet of Indian soap operas showing unveiled women and pixilated cleavage, American Idol-style "Afghan Star" talent shows and uncompromising exposure of government corruption, including election vote-rigging, Mohseni has also built a formidable array of political and religious critics.
"It's a tough neighborhood. There are times when relations with individual institutions and our organization is tense and it can even lead to violence. We've had people arrested and beaten," he said.
Mohseni's Tolo (Dawn) 24 began broadcasting at a vital time in Afghanistan, with new U.S. and NATO forces commander General David Petraeus arriving to take command of the fight against a Taliban at their strongest since their 2001 overthrow.
At the same time, Karzai is under pressure to match a U.S. troop surge meant to turn the tide of the war with improved governance and development, including a crackdown on the entrenched corruption driving support away from his government.
Mohseni, once on close terms with Karzai before a falling out over coverage of government graft and ineptitude, said he had lost faith in the president's ability to deliver on the reforms needed for Afghanistan to find stability.
"It doesn't look good right now. We have to see signs that the government is going to take on these challenges and to tackle these problems, and at the moment we are not very optimistic," he said.
"It's all about beginning the momentum. Ultimately people would like to see change, positive change, so if the government takes the right steps, you'd be amazed how quickly they could regain the momentum. It's still ours to lose."
Mohseni, raised largely in Australia and a strong supporter of the American presence in the country, said the new channel aimed to inform Afghans and allow debate, providing the public with different policy alternatives and possibilities.
Afghanistan's 30 million population is on track to reach 100 million by 2050, with 60 percent under the age of 20 and rapidly urbanizing. The capital is set to grow from 5 million people to 8 million by 2014, bringing new opportunities for Mohseni's Tolo.
"We are going to be grappling with a very young nation, much bigger than it is now, and we have to move forward," he said.
"Corruption is a major issue, but we all have a role to play in that. We have all made mistakes. People bribe on a daily basis. Ultimately I'm optimistic, or I wouldn't be investing all this money here."
(Editing by David Fox)