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Afghanistan Is a Better Place—and the Taliban Hate It

Now the militants are targeting the Afghan media that helped modernize attitudes.

‘Were the countless sacrifices made by Afghans and international partners since 2001 worth it?” That’s not an unusual question for me to receive about Afghanistan, where my family invested our savings back into the country in 2002.

In answering, I point to the enormous strides Afghanistan has taken since the fall of the Taliban. Close to nine million children are now in school, compared with fewer than a million before 2001; almost half of Afghan girls are nowenrolled and women make up 20% of students in higher education. Advances in health care have reduced the infant mortality rate by half. The economy has witnessed a fivefold increase in GDP, spurred by advances in technology and workforce development. In 2014 we held our third national democratic elections, and people were able to cast votes in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

With each passing democratic milestone, we are seeing a better-informed electorate, thanks 

in great part to improved levels of journalism, independent reporting and election debates on television. No wonder the enemies of democracy are now increasing their efforts to silence the Afghans who work to bring such information to their fellow citizens.

In October the Taliban designated Afghanistan’s leading media outlets, TOLO—which my family’s company owns—and 1 TV, as “military objectives” to be “directly eliminated” by assaults on their employees, news teams and facilities. The open threat came after Afghan media reported on allegations that the Taliban had attacked a hostel for women and raped students. This followed harrowing reports by Amnesty International of alleged mass murder, gang rapes and house-to-house searches by Taliban death squads.

There is inherent risk in everything we all do in Afghanistan, where my brothers, my sister and I established the country’s first independent radio station, Arman FM, in 2003, and later expanded our operations to include a second radio station, two entertainment TV channels, multiple digital platforms and the country’s leading 24/7 news network. However, the Taliban threat was the first time that the media, from its people to its infrastructure, had been so publicly targeted.

There is much to lose. Under Taliban rule, television was banned, and all but one radio station silenced. Only the religious radio station, Voice of Shariah, was allowed, operating under strict guidelines. An Afghan today has access to more than 70 TV stations, 175 radio channels, hundreds of print publications and local online platforms.

While Afghans like news and entertainment from around the world, they are just as passionate about locally produced programs, which have helped promote a unified vision of the country. Programs like the reality singing competition “Afghan Star” and the soccer games of the Roshan Afghan Premier League have drawn people together across many fault lines.

Drama, comedy, soap opera and children’s programming have changed behavior and shifted attitudes about issues such as gender equality, the Afghan National Security Forces, and the value of education and skills. Our work to bring “Sesame Street” to Afghanistan has improved literacy among children, with the unexpected additional benefit of increasing adult literacy, particularly among mothers, who often watch the show with their children.

Perhaps the single greatest inhibitor of long-term progress—corruption—still blights every aspect of our culture. Afghanistan’s media regularly investigate such cases, holding government and officials accountable and promoting transparency within the system. Our coverage of the fatal stoning and beating of the female student Farkhunda Malikzada in Kabul earlier this year was instrumental in turning public opinion against the murderers.

Such media independence comes at great risk in all fledgling democracies. Incidents of violence against journalists in Afghanistan spiked in 2014 with 125 recorded cases. That’s almost double the number seen two years earlier, before the coalition forces began their withdrawal.

Yet what I saw after the Taliban threat of Oct. 12 pointed not to fear but to solidarity and steadfastness—and not just among Afghanistan’s media organizations, but among the populace and the government too.

In a joint statement on Oct. 13, journalists representing nearly all of the major media outlets stated their resolve: “Any attack against TOLO or 1 TV would be considered an attack against Afghanistan’s media family,” and on “the country’s press freedom—which is one of the key achievements of the past 14 years.” Similar condemnations came from the National Unity Government. President Ashraf Ghani has mobilized security forces to protect media outlets and their personnel.

So, yes, there is no doubt Afghanistan is in a better place than it was 14 years ago. In a country where there is apparently more that separates us than unites us, journalists are prepared to stand up and stand together on behalf of the people. Afghans of all kinds are beginning to unite around the idea of a future that marches away from a violent and divisive past.

Mr. Mohseni is the chairman and CEO of MOBY Group, a privately owned Dubai-based media company.

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Afghanistan Is a Better Place—and the Taliban Hate It
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