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

Crackdown on Cable TV

The government’s move to limit the type of programmes that can be shown may simply drive viewers to watch unregulated satellite TV.
By Abdul Baseer

Since the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001, small cable television companies have sprung up in major cities all across Afghanistan, providing a wide variety of programming once unavailable in the country. But since the outset, they have come under attack from critics who have argued that their content is either un-Islamic or threatens traditional Afghan values.

The most recent incident occurred on November 8, when the government issued a blanket decree in effect banning all programming on cable television. The cabinet argued that it needed to review what the companies were offering their subscribers.

While most of the cable companies are now operating again, albeit with a much more limited selection of channels, critics of the government’s actions worry it may drive frustrated viewers away from strictly controlled cable systems toward unregulated satellite systems or to pirate videos.

Gul Ahmad, 45, a government employee, recalled how Afghans watched satellite television secretly in their homes during the Taleban era. At the time, he was concerned some of the programming available on the satellite channels was too violent for children to watch.

He said he prefers to subscribe to a cable provider because programming can be regulated by the government.

"Compared with satellite television, cable has better programmes," he said. "Cable is regulated, but who controls a dish antenna?"

Habibullah Rafih, a member of Afghanistan's academy of sciences and political analyst, agreed. “A dish antenna has wider reception and you can pick up a satellite signal anywhere," he said. "Blocking cable TV is not the solution, and in fact will pave the way for new problems."

Still, it is cable television that has come under the most government scrutiny. Reacting to complaints from members of the public, the government appointed a joint commission to investigate cable television content. The commission’s three members represented the presidential administration, the ministry of information and culture, and Afghanistan's supreme court.

Hamid Elmi, a member of the commission, said it "found programmes broadcast on the cable network that were one hundred per cent against Shariat [Islamic law] and the traditions of the Afghan people".

In addition, some cable providers were showing home movies of private parties, including some filmed surreptitiously, plus DVDs and other videos unsuitable for the public, Elmi said.

"Some 250 channels were available, but 25 are enough for Afghans, including news, Arabic, sports and cartoons," he said.

All this has led cable providers to feel that they are being unfairly targeted. They insisted that their networks never broadcasted anything against Islamic law or contrary to traditional Afghan values.

Mohammad Yusuf Naziri, the owner of Galaxy Cable Network, complained that the government crackdown had cost him 2,500 US dollars in lost revenue in November.

"There is no channel on our network that broadcasts anything contrary to the culture of Afghanistan," he said.

Naziri said that the new government restrictions have even forced him to eliminate some educational programming.

"We are forbidden from broadcasting music videos, even though music is shown in cinemas and on public television," he said. "I brought an educational video from Germany for children and teenagers to learn something from, but the government banned it."

Imal Yusufzai, owner of the Wais Cable Network in the Khair Khana district of Kabul, said he suspects it was concern among members of the supreme court, rather than complaints from the general public, that led to the latest investigation and restrictions.

"The problem was with the supreme court; the people have not complained," said Yusufzai.

He also said that his network regularly included religious programming.

"On the Spin Ghar channel, we broadcast the entire Koranic recitation during the month of Ramadan," he said. "We have also shown films on Afghan culture."

Fazal Ahmad Manawi, deputy chairman of the supreme court, said foreign channels carried by cable networks have had a particularly corrosive effect on morals, particularly for younger viewers. Manawi said he was especially concerned by sports programmes that featured scantily clad athletes.

"We are not against good, educational channels like sports and news, and we support those channels," he said. "But if the athletes are naked, it will certainly create moral and religious problems in our society."

Many ordinary Afghans also worry about the effects of imported broadcasts.

Sher Mohammad, a resident of Kabul, said: "We are against any film showing men and woman dancing together, because it is possible it will arouse boys and the girls, and cause immorality in our society."

Abdul Hamid Mubariz, deputy minister for information and culture, stressed that he was "not pro-censorship". But he said Afghanistan needed a better system for regulating broadcasts.

"Afghanistan is an Islamic country with thousands of years of tradition," he said. "We should accept other cultures' positive viewpoints, but the other cultures should do the same thing. We can not separate cultures by borders."

Rafih, the political analyst, argued that it was a mistake to target cable television.

"Is cable good or bad?" he said. "Cable itself - like a radio, a telephone or some other means of communication - cannot by itself harm anyone. If we use a knife to cut a watermelon, it is good, but if we use it for the purpose of killing a person, then it is dangerous.

“Cable usage is the same. If we broadcast nice, educational, informative programmes and films, cable is good, but if we broadcast bad and misleading programmes, then it is bad.”

Rafih said the Afghanistan should encourage domestic television productions that reflect Afghan and Islamic values.

"We should defend against cultural imperialism through logical means," he said. "We should make programmes based on national and Islamic values to counter misleading ones. There should be an emphasis on programmes with a progressive and educational focus so that cable is constructive for people and society."

Still, some ordinary Afghans questioned the government's priorities.

Ahmad Zia, a Kabul taxi driver, said, "There are immoral activities worse than cable TV in Kabul city, and nobody takes care of that."

Abdul Baseer Saeed is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.