Satellite TV Craze

Bored with turgid domestic television, Afghans rig up once-banned satellite dishes for some light relief.

Satellite TV Craze

Bored with turgid domestic television, Afghans rig up once-banned satellite dishes for some light relief.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

When the Taleban came to power they were horrified to find satellite dishes sprouting like mushrooms across the city.

Fearful the transmission of hated western culture would undermine their attempts to establish a puritanical Muslim state, they launched a war against the antennas.

But some Afghans outwitted the authorities by concealing the dishes or bribing officials, desperate for an alternative to the hopelessly stilted news broadcasts on Afghan state TV.

No that the alternative - a mixture of Arabic 24/7 news and Polish soft porn - was particularly edifying.

Engineer Mohammad Daud says he installed thousands of satellite antennas for people, from Kabul to Badarkashan in the far north-east, throughout the Taleban era.

On one trip from Kabul to the neighbouring province of Logar, student militiamen stopped his car with the four-foot dish strapped to the roof."I told them it was a solar cooker and they let us go," he said. "That's one advantage of censorship. They banned dishes but didn't know what they were banning."

With the overthrow of the Taleban, there are now no restrictions on dish sales and Afghans are eagerly buying them up. "I know people who have sold their wives' jewellery to buy antennas," said electrical goods wholesaler Mohammad Nasratullah.

The sex channels, unsurprisingly, have proved to be particularly popular amongst young men. But while many of their elders worry about this trend, they oppose censorship, believing they would watch more domestic television if only its quality improved. "If state TV keeps running nothing but politics and discussions, no one will be able to stop the spread of the dishes, let alone ban them," said another dish salesman Nazar Mohammad Ragheb.

Sediq Barmak, the director of the newly re-launched cinema production group Afghan Film, agrees. "The sexy channels are damaging our youth - and there is no effective way to educate them out of the habit of watching them. But rather than impose restrictions we should find better things for them to watch on the other channels."

And anyway, he doubted whether censorship would work any better under the new government than it did under the Taleban. "The Iranians have also put bans on dishes but everyone is still watching satellite TV out there. The technology is beyond control," he said.

Barmak had been a student in Russia when former president Mikhail Gorbachev tried to ban vodka. "When I went to the market, sure there was no Kolyna vodka for sale. But only because they were all sold out! So we have to take our lessons from others' experience," he continued.

At present, the biggest deterrent to the spread of the dish is the parlous state of the country's electricity system. The overwhelming majority of Afghans have no direct supply and rely on generators. "Where I live the people get electricity for just three hours a day," said Mohammad Afzal from Logar. "That's why only three people have dish antennas in my area."

This fact is not lost on the authorities. The deputy minister for information and culture, Abdul Hameed Mubariz, said there wasn't much point even debating censorship at present because the unpredictable power supply meant that few people actually get to use their dishes. He did, however, suggest that some form of regulation would be introduced in the future for both satellite and local broadcasts.

Abdul Rahman Oman Niazi is a freelance journalist in Kabul.

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