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

Rising TV Station Stirs Controversy

Ground-breaking television channel attracts both praise and threats.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

A storm is raging around the small two-storey building on 12th Street, in central Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan district. This is the home of Tolo Television, which in its short existence has become both loved and loathed for its independent programming.


Anxiety is apparent among its 200 staff, about a third of whom are women - an unusually high figure in an Afghan enterprise. Many of the young employees working at the computers on programme production refuse to be interviewed, waving away the IWPR reporter.


The nervousness is hardly surprising. One young female presenter was murdered several months ago, although the station boss believes her slaying was unrelated to her work at Tolo. Another staff member was forced to flee to Sweden and a third has stopped working for the station because of threats. Even Saad Mohseni, who heads the station which he and his brothers own, says he has been threatened.


Tolo - which means “dawn” in Dari - began broadcasting in October 2004 and has rapidly expanded ever since. It now operates around the clock and recently began broadcasting via satellite so it can viewed in more remote - and more conservative - parts of the country as well as Kabul. It has quickly become the most popular locally-produced television channel in the capital.


At the heart of the controversy are programmes featuring female singers and dancers - immodestly-clad by Afghan standards - and Bollywood films whose scenes of passionate love are even more problematic, although they seem tame by western standards.


One employee who was prepared to speak out, 21-year-old Mariam, said she was proud of the station. The programme she works on, however, is hardly controversial.


"I work for the sports news; I collect reports from the Olympic committee and Internet sites. I like the programme very much. But some people, when they see someone or some organisation developing and growing, start criticising it wrongly out of spite," she said.


There is little neutral ground with Tolo. People either love or hate its broadcasts, which also reach neighbouring countries like Pakistan and conservative Iran by satellite.


Since the station started a year ago, its innovative news broadcasts have become among the most popular programmes in Afghanistan. The groundbreaking talk shows, which feature all-male panels, have also attracted little criticism. But the scenes of TV station staff of young men and women working, laughing and joking together which are shown as fill-in spots have drawn fire from critics who say they are un-Islamic and against Afghan tradition.


Qiamuddin Kashaf, a member of the Shura-ye-Ulama, or Islamic Scholars' Council, acknowledges that some of the TV programmes are educational and provide information. But others, he says, go against Islamic law and Afghan culture and have already been criticised by his council and by Afghanistan's Supreme Court.


"The Islamic scholars' council just wants changes to some of the material broadcast by Tolo TV. It is not against the television station itself," he said. He singled out for criticism "foreign movies, and [scenes of] singing in which women appear semi-naked, or women dancing".


TV chief Mohseni rejects the charges. He argues that most of the station’s programming is modelled on, and in some cases acquired from, other Islamic nations.


"We broadcast things that have already been shown in Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and even then we censor and edit them by about 30 per cent," he said. He suggests that Afghan religious leaders who find those programmes inappropriate should question the Islamic scholars in those countries.


"We censor Indian moves and cut out at least an hour [of potentially offensive material] before we broadcast them," he said.


Entertainment on television is a relatively new concept here. During the mujahedin era after the 1989 ousting of the Soviet forces, most television programmes consisted of news or patriotic songs. The fundamentalist Taleban regime which followed banned television completely.


Since the Taleban were ousted in 2001, television has made a dramatic comeback.


One former mujahedin leader, Sheikh Mohammad Asef Mohseni, said all of Afghanistan's TV broadcasters now had both good and bad programmes, some of which could lead people to immoral ways.


“We are under attack from foreign tradition and cultures. We must not lose our Islamic identity to these … otherwise we will lose our liberty,” he said.


Broadcasting "naked movies" had a bad influence on young boys, encouraging them to immorality, said Sheikh Mohseni. “Instead of feeding our starving young people, we will drive them to the grave and feed them to the dragon of AIDS. Then we will call it liberty.”


The controversy has drawn in the government. Sayed Agha Hussain Fazel Sancharaki, the deputy minister for media affairs, said people misuse the word liberty in the same way as many have misused the word jihad, or holy war.


"We defend democracy within the framework of Islam and Afghan tradition … but achieving democracy does not take one day, one month or one year. It is a long path with many highs and lows, so we need to be careful and patient," he said.


"Tolo TV took advantage of the current freedom and has done some useful things. But beside the positive things, it has some programmes that provoke religious anger, which always puts us [the government] under pressure."


Saad Mohseni defends his station’s programmes, “Tolo’s broadcasts are the result of innovation by its staff and the demands of the people.”


Reaction on the street to the station’s programming is equally divided.


Jan Mohammad, a 40-year-old shopkeeper, said he is sometimes embarrassed when watching the station with his family.


"One day in an Indian movie, a girl who was semi-naked was kissing the hero on the lips, and my four-year-old daughter asked 'What are they doing?' I had no answer for her," he said, describing the channel as a "forum for preaching foreign cultures".


However, government employee Salma, 28, says Tolo is her favourite television station, which breaks down the "walls of old, bad culture, turning a page of history". She particularly enjoys the fashion-show programmes.


Mamnoon Maqsoodi, one of Afghanistan's most renowned actors, said Tolo's programmes were useful but that technical production was weak. He also said some of the staff appeared to lack professionalism, seeming more concerned about they way they looked on television than the content of the programming.


"I like the 'hot talk' programme [on controversial topics] and the one devoted to teaching computer skills," he said.


TV chief Mohseni praises his staff for their dedication, "All Tolo staff accept the dangers [of their work], especially the young men working in the provinces. I myself have faced threats, but these cannot stop Tolo or slow it down."


He denies that the presenter who was killed died because of her job. "Shaima Rezayee worked with Tolo for two or three months and then left. I think her case was a personal one and did not relate to Tolo," he said.


But there are cases which appear directly related to the channel.


Shekib Isaar, who also worked for Tolo, fled the country and went to Sweden. According to Mohseni, "Shekib was a hard worker and had lots of energy. Some of the street gangs threatened him, and he was once attacked and wounded with a knife. Finally he lost his morale, but maybe he will come back after a few months."


Talking about one of Tolo's best presenters, Mohseni said, "Sayyed Sulaiman Ashna was threatened like the others, and he has preferred not to work for some time."


The programmes have polarised people and provoked more debate than any other television station - government-run National TV, and the four other independents, Afghan, Aina, Ariana and the Herat-based Saqee.


The controversy does not deter advertisers. "When we launched Tolo TV, USAID gave us some equipment but now we are self-sufficient and we cover all our costs through advertisements on the television and [sister company] Arman Radio," said Mohseni.


For fans like Ahmad Jawed, "Tolo is like the salt in food…. All the others are without salt".


But the television station also has many critics, including Kabul schoolteacher Zarmina, who sees it as an enemy of the country's culture and Islamic law.


Mohammad Eshaq, aged 37 who has a television repairshop, said some Tolo programmes, like the news and round table discussions, are good.


But others run contrary to Islam, he thinks, "Tolo gives poison to the people, covering it with honey."


Hafizullah Gardesh is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.


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