The Reluctant Propagandist

Massood Sanjer, Afghanistan’s most famous radio host, had an unlikely start to his career as a beacon of free speech. Under the Taliban rule, his voice used to carry Taliban propaganda all over the world.

Maija Liuhto | Longreads | August 2019 | 15 minutes (4149 words)

 

It’s 7 a.m. in Kabul. As usual, hundreds of thousands of cars are stuck in traffic jams around the city, where police checkpoints, Humvees, and blast walls congest the perilous streets. Taxi drivers in faded yellow Corollas roll up their windows and try to shoo off street children blowing heady incense — meant to ward off evil spirits — inside their cars. Policemen yell “boro, boro” (move) through the loudspeakers of their dark-green pickups. Fruit sellers calmly navigate the madness, pushing heavy carts laden with dark-red pomegranates, juicy grapes, and Pakistani mangoes while dust lingers in the air behind them.

Here, nothing is ever certain: Any minute, a bomb could go off, destroying families, livelihoods, and hopes.

But in this chaos, one thing is a constant: the energetic voice of Massood Sanjer, one of the hosts of a popular morning show called Safay Shaher (or “Cleaning Up the City”) on Arman FM, the country’s first private radio channel. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, his show is undoubtedly one of the most widely listened-to in Afghanistan.

“If you walk on the street between seven to eight, you just open a car’s door and you can listen to it,” Sanjer says.

Almost everyone tunes in while commuting to work, getting through their morning chores, or standing in line in front of a bakery.

Over the past decade, Sanjer has become a celebrity in Afghan media. His ability to find humor in serious matters brings relief to Afghans who have suffered from war for four long decades now — starting with the Soviet invasion in the late ’70s, civil war and Taliban rule in the ’90s, and the past 18 years of increasingly worsening conflict between terrorist groups and Western-supported Afghan government forces. But more importantly, the fact that the show holds the country’s leaders to account for their incompetencies and apathy has given a sense of power to regular people in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Every day, people from all over the country call in with their complaints about the security situation, lack of electricity, or any other issue they might be facing. Sanjer then calls the responsible authorities and questions them live on-air.

Every day, people from all over the country call in with their complaints about the security situation, lack of electricity, or any other issue they might be facing. Sanjer then calls the responsible authorities and questions them live on-air.

He is not even afraid to make fun of the Taliban:

“The Taliban had blown up the electricity [line] that brings it to Kabul. So we said, ‘Who paid you? Was it someone from outside of the border?’ Stuff like this. It’s very sensitive for Afghans if you make fun of them,” Sanjer says, sitting in his office.

The callers also join the fun, but sometimes they can get a bit carried away, which is why there is a 40-second delay in place. “Someone called a spokesperson a shit-talker,” he laughs.

This didn’t make it on-air.

In Afghanistan, radio is still widely listened to, and especially in rural areas it is the main source of news. Arman FM, whose name is Persian for “hope,” was launched in 2003, two years after the end of Taliban rule, and it is now one of the most popular stations, particularly in the country’s cities.

“We are the last door that people can knock,” Sanjer says with a relaxed smile on his face.

He is a voice for the powerless who would otherwise have little hope in getting their complaints across to the authorities.

But as famous as he is today, not everyone is aware of Sanjer’s past, of a time when he used to lend his voice to none other than the most deadly enemies of freedom of speech in Afghanistan today: the Taliban.


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Only 18 years ago, Sanjer’s voice delivered the official English-language news of the Taliban regime to the rest of the world through radio waves.

Like Afghanistan’s history, Sanjer’s life has been full of peculiar twists that have mirrored the development of free media in the country — counted among Afghanistan’s key successes in the years following the end of the Taliban regime.

Sanjer never left the country during its decades of conflict. Now in his mid 30s, he has never seen a peaceful Afghanistan.

Today, Sanjer sits with his co-host, Homayun Daneshyar, in the studio, dressed in Western clothes, taking calls from his listeners. Today, one of them is a policeman from the southern province of Kandahar, complaining that he and his colleagues haven’t been paid their salaries for more than two months.

During breaks, music and announcements persuading the Taliban to give up their arms play.

Only 18 years ago, Sanjer’s voice delivered the official English-language news of the Taliban regime to the rest of the world through radio waves.

The program itself is all about name and shame. In a culture obsessed with personal honor, becoming the laughingstock of the entire nation is something politicians and government officials want to avoid at all costs.

And that is why they always pick up Sanjer’s calls.

“[We are dealing with] very serious issues, but we have fun,” Sanjer remarks during a break.

One time, Sanjer’s team was questioning the president’s spokesperson about how teachers hadn’t been paid their salaries. The spokesperson refused to talk about the issue and claimed the information was not accurate. The next day, the entire show was about the spokesperson. Embarrassed and annoyed, he was forced to admit the teachers, indeed, had not been paid.

“Every day is a success story,” Sanjer laughs, leaning back in his office chair.

In 2014, for example, a gang rape that took place on the outskirts of Kabul was first reported on Sanjer’s show. According to Sanjer, then-president Hamid Karzai’s office tried to hush them up, but the subsequent media coverage and public outrage compelled him to sign a decree to execute the culprits. (Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the European Union all raised concerns about due process in the trial.)

But journalism in Afghanistan can come with a heavy price, especially for someone like Sanjer who is now also director of all television and radio channels for the country’s largest media company, Moby Group, of which Arman FM is a part.

“You are facing people, you are facing the warlords, you are facing the Taliban, you are facing the government, you are facing everyone,” he says. “It can be really dangerous.”

This is why every morning Sanjer starts his journey through the sleeping city with a personal bodyguard.

But an armed guard cannot stop bomb blasts.

The program itself is all about name and shame. In a culture obsessed with personal honor, becoming the laughingstock of the entire nation is something politicians and government officials want to avoid at all costs.

The building complex that houses both Arman FM and Moby Group’s main channels, ToloNews and ToloTV, is only a couple hundred meters away from the site of a May 2017 tanker bombing that killed more than 150 people and completely destroyed the German embassy building. Its collapsed walls remain standing amid rubble to this day.

For decades a dangerous country, Afghanistan has become increasingly insecure in the years following the drawdown of international troops in 2014. Now it’s not only the Taliban that targets the government and civilians — ISIS has also expanded to Afghanistan since 2015. In 2018 alone, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported 10,993 civilian casualties resulting from the conflict and 3,804 deaths, making it the deadliest year since U.N. record keeping started in 2009. Kabul often gets hit the hardest as it houses important government institutions and Western embassies. A two-week lull in the attacks only creates an uneasy sense of foreboding for people. Bombs are a fact of life here, and one atrocity is always followed by another.

In the midst of growing casualty counts, journalists have also started to bear the brunt of the conflict. With many TV stations and publications now on the Taliban hit list, Moby Group is a prime target.

Sitting behind blast walls and security checks, Sanjer’s otherwise jocular demeanor turns somber.

“It’s the ideology,” he says. “You would never ask a Talib to accept ToloTV and accept me with a T-shirt and a pair of jeans with a nice haircut and all that.”

But only 18 years ago Sanjer himself was still wearing a turban and grew a beard to read propaganda news for his current enemies in a studio just a couple of blocks from here.

Like most regular people at the time, Sanjer and his family had no choice but to conform to the brutal rule of the Taliban, which had taken over most of the country in 1996 following a bloody civil war that had all but destroyed Kabul.

When the Taliban came to power, for a moment it seemed all memories of a more liberal Afghanistan would be wiped out.

For Sanjer, the gap between his own upbringing and the Taliban’s rigid views was impossible to bridge.

“My dad studied in India, he had a Ph.D., so we are from a very modern Afghanistan, a modern family. So with the, I would say, 18th-century Taliban, we would never match up,” he says.

But not too long after the extremist movement had taken over, Sanjer was invited to visit the Taliban’s radio station, the Voice of Sharia, by relatives of his who were working there. Jobs were hard to come by under Taliban rule, with most people left to starve, so Sanjer jumped at the chance.

The radio station, previously called Radio Kabul, was the official state broadcaster that had up until then been airing, among other things, music transmissions by the most famous Afghan musicians. All of this could now be forgotten under the extremist regime that banned movies, TV, and music with instruments.

The Taliban was determined to destroy anything they deemed against its values, be it historical artifacts depicting human figures or music recordings — including the archives of the radio station. And on the first day, most of the old employees of the station were too scared to show up for work, not knowing what awaited them. But despite threats, many continued to uphold the values they had grown up with — one employee managed to hide and protect many taped speeches, drama productions, and music from the Taliban.

As an 11th-grade student, 17-year-old Sanjer had an exceptionally good command of English, which he had learned from watching Western movies and taking private courses in the early ’90s.

Now, his skills were about to be put to use by the extremist regime. While being given a tour around the station, Sanjer happened to see a friend of his reading the English news.

“I said I can do better than him,” he remembers. “They gave me a piece of a newspaper and said, ‘Go on, read.’ I went and read it and I was much better than the guy. I got the job.”

Sanjer ended up working for the Voice of Sharia for five years — more or less for the entire duration of the Taliban rule, which lasted from 1996 to 2001.

During Taliban rule, all men had to grow a beard and wear a turban along with the traditional peran tomban outfit. Women, on the other hand, were practically banned from public life and could only venture outside wearing a full burka.

Sanjer remembers being asked to bring a photo of himself to the ministry when he was to sign a contract with the Voice of Sharia. But because he wasn’t wearing a turban in the picture, the minister disapprovingly sent him to take another one — the only photo Sanjer still has of those times.

The Voice of Sharia was the only radio channel available and it broadcast mainly statements by Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the movement, and other important Taliban figures. Any deviation from the original would have landed Sanjer in deep trouble — the group ascribed to an interpretation of the Sharia law where maiming and public executions were frequently used as forms of punishment.

There was no room for free speech under the extremist regime.

“[Everything was] controlled by the Taliban, censored heavily. Actually they were giving us everything to read and to translate it to English,” Sanjer says.

And so his voice carried the propaganda of the Taliban to the far corners of the world through radio waves.

The idea behind broadcasting Taliban propaganda in English was to target Western audiences. Sometimes, Sanjer remembers, the station even got letters from its listeners in Europe.

“They were like, ‘We are listening to your news and it’s not good, you have to do this: Put on some music,’” he recalls. “It’s not your country, it’s the Taliban!” Sanjer laughs.

At the radio station, Sanjer encountered some of the most important officials of the Taliban regime.

And so his voice carried the propaganda of the Taliban to the far corners of the world through radio waves.

“The head of the station was [Mullah Mohammad Is’haq] Nizami who was a big Talib, very close to the high-ranking Taliban officials,” he says.

Nizami, who also acted as the spokesman for Mullah Omar, fled to neighboring Pakistan following 9/11 but came back to Afghanistan in 2007 as part of a reconciliation deal. He appears to still live in Kabul, according to Sanjer.

Another senior figure Sanjer came in contact with was Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s minister of information and culture. According to most reports, Muttaqi is still alive and runs the Taliban’s media cell. Late last year, he also appears to have attended the Taliban-U.S. negotiations in the United Arab Emirates.

Despite these close encounters, Sanjer never became cozy with the Taliban.

“I was just a student, I was studying architecture. I needed a job; I got the job — a part-time job, not a full-time job. I was never friends with them because we were thinking not the same,” he says.

Sanjer was lucky never to have run into any problems with the Taliban, in private or at work. But some of his colleagues did.

“One of my friends for example edited some bad words of the information and culture minister,” he says.

Late one night, Sanjer remembers, he started hearing raised voices from one of the offices on his corridor.

“There was Muttaqi, the minister of information and culture. And he was like, ‘Who did this report?’ This poor guy came and said, ‘I did it’.”

The Taliban minister started cursing him until he finally ordered the young man to get in his car.

Sanjer was shocked — this could surely only mean one thing.

“He took him to the Aryana Square,” Sanjer says. This is where the Taliban had put the mutilated body of the former communist president of Afghanistan, Najibullah, on public display after being executed and dragged around the city behind a truck in 1996.

But instead, Muttaqi simply decided to give Sanjer’s colleague a good scare. He dropped the terrified man at the square and told him to walk back to the station.

“Never edit what I say!” the minister had bellowed.

Sanjer bursts out laughing when remembering the irony of incident. The Taliban, known for their strict stance on morality, had wanted to punish someone for editing vulgar words from their statement.

Near the end of the regime, the Taliban decided to destroy two huge 6th-century Buddha statues carved into the side of a cliff in the province of Bamyan, causing international outrage. Delegations from all over the world tried to stop them, but to no avail.

“When the Buddha statues were going to be blown up, the minister of information and culture of Taliban came to the studios and he himself was like, ‘Read this, because this is the decree of Mullah Omar.”

‘Never edit what I say!’ the minister had bellowed.
Sanjer bursts out laughing when remembering the irony of incident. The Taliban, known for their strict stance on morality, had wanted to punish someone for editing vulgar words from their statement.

Sanjer and his colleagues had the task of translating the decree into English. Refusing to believe what he had just read, Sanjer asked the minister (at the time Qudratullah Jamal who had replaced Muttaqi) if they were really going to go ahead with it.

The minister took out his satellite phone and went off to the side of the room. After speaking with someone in Pashto for a while, he came back to Sanjer.

“I remember the word. He said, ‘Unfortunately, yes,’” Sanjer recalls. “And the next morning, the Buddhas were blown up. And so I read it.”

Sanjer’s voice carried the depressing news to the rest of the world, like so many times before. The destruction of the statues, declared idols by the Taliban, took several days using several different explosives and techniques. A cloud of smoke from the final blast covered the sand-colored cliffs for a while. Once the dust settled, only two massive holes remained where the statues had stood for more than 1,000 years.

But none of this could compare to the gruesomeness of daily life under the Taliban.

Sanjer remembers how he once went to watch a football match and suddenly a mullah’s voice came over the speaker, announcing that they would now be implementing Sharia law.

“I was like, what will they do? They brought this poor woman onto the stadium. They stopped the match and someone just came out and [shot her] in the head,” he says.

A shadow seems to momentarily flit over Sanjer’s face when he remembers the incident. But this is only one of the many traumatizing memories the years of the Taliban regime left him to deal with.

One night, he remembers how he was riding his bike home from the radio station and he passed a roundabout in Kabul.

”I looked up and I was like, what’s that?” The sight was so horrifying that he has not been able to forget it to this day. There, hanging from a traffic pole, were the amputated hands and feet of people punished for theft. “And on the other side of the roundabout there were four people hanged. I couldn’t eat [for] three days, I couldn’t talk.”

Whenever Sanjer now passes by these places in Kabul, the memories come rushing back.

“I don’t want to remember, actually. It’s all those bad memories of those times,” he says and looks away.

Luckily for Sanjer, happier times lay ahead — at least for a while. After 9/11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and the rule of the Taliban was over.

Aerial bombings targeted the antennas of the radio station outside the city and the Voice of Sharia was finally silenced.

“That’s when I left [the station] and never went back,” Sanjer says. “I said to an American friend, I’m sure 11th of September was the worst day of your history. It was the best story for Afghanistan. Because if that didn’t happen, we would have still been under the Taliban.”

In the early years after the Taliban era, Kabul was a shambles. Before the Taliban had taken over, the mujahideen, Islamist guerilla groups originally formed to fight Soviet occupation, had turned against one another mainly on ethnic grounds, resulting in a violent civil war that lasted from 1992 until 1996.

I said to an American friend, I’m sure 11th of September was the worst day of your history. It was the best story for Afghanistan. Because if that didn’t happen, we would have still been under the Taliban.

Almost nothing had been rebuilt and Kabul was as if stuck in another century. Children played in the midst of rubble, women begged in blue burkas, and war-wounded men lined up for artificial limbs.

“[It] was a destroyed city,” Sanjer says. “You just saw people who didn’t know anything [or] what to do because there were no jobs. People were just coming out of a dark era. There was no music and there was almost no sign of progress.”

But for someone like Sanjer who had an excellent command of English, opportunities mounted.

As Afghanistan was the number one story in the early years of the war on terror, journalists, TV reporters, and news agencies flocked to the capital with dollars padding their pockets. Soon, the digital revolution, mobile phones, and the internet followed — and all of this brought Afghanistan into the new millennium and connected a previously isolated country with the world.

Sanjer began working as a fixer with the Sunday Telegraph, the Guardian, and then, ironically, Fox News.

In a matter of months, Sanjer had moved from the Taliban’s Voice of Sharia to a right-wing American channel. “To the other Taliban,” he laughs.

Along with other development, private media mushroomed in the country. The first person to start setting up a private TV and radio station was Saad Mohseni, an Afghan-Australian, today a well-known media mogul in the region.

Sanjer decided to apply, and soon he was invited for an interview.

And so Sanjer became the first employee of Arman FM and started working as the station’s production manager.

Within eight months, Sanjer climbed the ladder to become station manager. Today, he not only has his own radio show but he is also the head of channels of Moby Group.

But despite swift progress (today Afghanistan has more than 200 TV channels and more than 300 radio stations), the development of Afghanistan’s media scene has run hand in hand with an increasingly emboldened enemy.

The Taliban had not been entirely wiped out — it had been gathering it strength and slowly started attacking civilian and military targets again. Now, the situation is worse than ever with the group holding more territory than at any point since 2001.

Voice of Sharia has also reemerged in some of the areas that are under Taliban control.

And now, Sanjer has become the Taliban’s target.

“It really got worse when the military commission of Taliban in Quetta announced us as a military target, after the Kunduz incident,” Sanjer says.

And now, Sanjer has become the Taliban’s target.

ToloNews had extensively covered what took place after the Taliban managed to briefly take control of the northern city of Kunduz in 2015. This included reporting a story about how members of the Taliban had raped girls at a dormitory. The Taliban was enraged: They claimed the stories were inaccurate.

A few months later in 2016, a bus carrying employees of the channel was targeted in a bombing in broad daylight. Seven were killed and 24 injured. The Taliban took responsibility.

“It was the worst incident of my life,” Sanjer says, shaking his head.

A local media organization had never before been targeted by terrorists in Afghanistan. Since then, it has almost become routine.

“Afghanistan is seeing a lot of death right now, from soldiers to civilians to journalists. But for the journalists it has been such a tough year. Eighteen people [killed] in 2018 and five now in 2019 since the beginning,” Sanjer says.

In September 2018, a ToloNews journalist, Samim Faramarz, and his cameraman, Ramiz Ahmadi, died while doing live coverage of an earlier attack. A second blast, clearly planned to target media and first responders who had rushed to the scene, killed them both.

Sanjer had been with them that same day. “That morning I went to the news meeting and they were there. We talked in the morning and they were talking about different stories,” he recalls.

Later, he got to hear the depressing news.

“At 6 p.m. they are not there anymore.”

The loss of fellow journalists’ lives weighs heavily on Sanjer, who like other Afghans must brave bomb blasts, threats, and kidnappings every day on his commute through the city.

Blast walls have been made higher and security increased. Most of Sanjer’s colleagues now use armored cars to travel around the city. Sanjer himself refuses, for the fear that it would draw too much attention. “If there is a very heavy threat against us, I use the armored car as well,” he says.

Sanjer has sent his wife and children to Turkey, where he visits them regularly.

But now, as the U.S. and the Taliban negotiate a possible peace deal, the end of war might well be closer in Afghanistan than it ever has been in the past four decades. This, however, does not mean that everyone would be eagerly anticipating a deal with the Taliban. And if anyone knows the Taliban’s approach to free speech, that is Sanjer.

The loss of fellow journalists’ lives weighs heavily on Sanjer, who like other Afghans must brave bomb blasts, threats, and kidnappings every day on his commute through the city.

“I hope that history doesn’t repeat,” he says. “I think if the Taliban come, we wouldn’t have what we have right now, especially with the freedom of speech. … They are the Taliban, we have seen their rules here during their era in Afghanistan and I think nothing has changed.”

But Sanjer is not prepared to fall into despair.

“I think we have to fight for what we have done in the past 17 years,” he says. We have to keep the values that we have been fighting for, for a long time. So I think yes, I will definitely continue, if they let us continue.”

And so every Friday, the Afghan Sunday, Sanjer still goes on a stroll through the busy streets of Kabul’s Mandawi market. There, between the tailor shops and dried fruit vendors he stops and talks to people about the issues they face in their daily lives — the rising food prices, government corruption, and the worsening security situation. And now, also, the possible return of the Taliban.

But at least for the foreseeable future, once the weekend is over, it is again time for another live transmission of Cleaning Up the City on Arman FM. Just like any other day, people will slowly wade through Kabul’s traffic and listen to Sanjer joke about corrupt politicians. For a little while, a smile will spread across their faces, before their attention is again diverted by another atrocity.

No matter what the future holds, Sanjer hopes the voice of the people will always trump the Voice of Sharia.

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Maija Liuhto is an independent journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. Before Pakistan, she spent three years working in Afghanistan. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and the Los Angeles Times.

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Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Fact-checker: Jason Stavers