Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Media Criticised for Frivolous Content

Broadcasters warned against undermining Afghan values.
By Shakoor Kamran

Khabir, a Muslim preacher living in the eastern province of Paktia, has a warning for fellow Afghans who choose to watch television soaps and tune in to frivolous radio shows.

Such un-Islamic popular culture was causing them to turn from the path of righteousness, he claims, and he and his fellow scholars have had enough.

“All day long, radio stations play songs, interview girls, and discuss useless, unnecessary issues,” he said. “The media risks misleading society and their programmes damage their reputation. If I had a say I’d forbid some of these shows from being broadcast and I’d stop a number of media outlets from operating.”

The growth of a diverse and lively media scene has been one of Afghanistan’s most notable successes since the fall of the Taleban in 2001. But critics continue to claim that broadcasters are undermining traditional Afghan values with content some listeners or viewers find offensive.

Media networks in Paktia are being urged to tone down some of their output, with dozens of people interviewed by IWPR warning they risked upsetting cultural sensitivities.

A number of interviewees suggested standards in broadcasting were slipping, and that audiences wanted better-informed, more educational programming that was suitable for everyone.

Aisha, a resident of Zazi district, said, “I enjoy reading newspapers and I’m very interested in watching scientific and educational programmes on TV.

“But there doesn’t seem to be any really important coverage by the radio stations here. We’re only played songs which can have unsuitable lyrics that embarrass us.”

Paktia lies in the south east of Afghanistan and is home to just under half a million people, most of whom are ethnic Pashtuns.

The province hosts seven private and state-run radio stations as well as more than a dozen print media outlets. The National Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), the country’s public-broadcasting organisation, also airs programming.

However, these outlets have to contend with sometimes extremely conservative attitudes. Religious leaders often complain that music shows and films show women in an “immodest” manner, and that soap operas and political programmes far outnumber Islamic broadcasts.

Niazullah Aseel Zazi, head of ZHwand Radio station, explained the concerns.

He told IWPR, “During the Taleban’s rule music was forbidden but soon after the regime collapsed a number of radio stations sprang up.

“They began to broadcast songs which some listeners believed were inappropriate given Afghanistan’s conservative values.

“Some continue to do this today and this is unprofessional. There’s no doubt that the media has a role to play in the development and reform of society, but they have to take their responsibilities seriously and ensure their output is sensitive to social values.”

One problem, according to local resident Qayam-u-din, said that radio stations often broadcast music at the same time as prayers, an act deeply frowned upon in some Muslim countries.

“I know young people who have no idea about journalism ethics but who still work in radio,” he said. “They don’t have the training to produce appropriate broadcasts.

“I’ve also heard of instances where elders have become angry when people continue to listen to music during prayer time. In one instance an elder threatened to break the culprit’s radio.”

Ahmadullah Ahmadi, a spokesman for Awoshtoon Radio, said that his network did take communal sensitivities into account when deciding its programming.  

“Our station understands that sensitivities around religion or social etiquette must be taken seriously,” he said, adding “The media has to operate in accordance with what society deems acceptable.”

Mohammad Shafa Mushfiq, director of Paktia’s department of information and culture, also agreed that public discussion over media standards was needed.

He said his officials were working hard to address the issue of what he described as “unprofessional media outlets”.

“We’ve been holding meetings with a number of media organisations to point out issues over standards,” he told IWPR. “We hope what’s been discussed has been taken on board and solutions will be found.”

Speaking at a meeting of media networks last month, Paktia governor Shamim Khan Katawazai urged outlets to ensure their broadcasts focused on cultural and educational programming.

He said that responsible media could have a huge impact on the development of the region, especially in terms of learning.

“Media networks can play a vital role in the development of this province,” he said. “They can strengthen our culture and understanding through educational programming, but they have to take their responsibility to their audiences seriously.”

A commonly held view is that exposure to foreign soap operas has given young Afghan women unrealistic expectations of life and contributed to the number of girls running away from home or arranged marriages.

Muska Mangal, head of the provincial department for women’s affairs, said that some of the content aired in the province was “morally weak” and unsuitable for family consumption.

“There are foreign TV shows being aired here which just aren’t in keeping with our cultural values,” she said. “We hear language which is unacceptable and conversations between men and women which religious scholars are quick to criticise.

“Such unethical programming merely helps those wanting to make the case that media is damaging. It allows them to further their arguments, so we have to be careful.”

Haqmal Massoudzai, head of Paktia’s press club, acknowledged that many reporters or presenters had no formal training and simply saw their job as fun.

“Instead of broadcasting 20 hours of inappropriate and misleading programming, radio networks need to focus on running quality shows that conform to the standards of good journalism,” he argued. “In this way audiences can actually benefit from the output and perhaps learn something useful.”

This report was produced under IWPR’s Supporting Investigative Reporting in Local Media and Strengthening Civil Society across Afghanistan initiative, funded by the British Embassy Kabul.

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