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

Transmitting Progress

Powerful new broadcasting equipment will bring the power of television to areas that have never experienced it.
By Mohammad Shafiq

Television may dominate 21st century culture across the world, but in many rural areas of Afghanistan there are people who've yet to set eyes on a TV set.

While the situation is slowly changing, thanks to larger transmitters and cable television, many Afghans have a long way to go before they feel comfortable about the small screen. "Last year I had a woman guest who covered her face while watching TV at my house," Kabul student Naqibul-Allah told IWPR. "She said, 'the man [on TV] is a stranger to me'!"

Many religious women still cover their faces when in the presence of men outside the family. "Such is the condition of Afghan people at the beginning of the third millennium," Naquib-Allah went on, adding that this situation would only change when the country had nationwide television coverage.

A first step in that direction may be the United States government's donation of a new million-dollar television transmitter, which is currently under construction in Kabul.

TV Kabul's deputy director Mohammad Alam Ezidyar says the new 500-watt transmitter will increase the signal to five times its present strength, reaching an estimated 4,500 inhabitants within a 100 km radius. Broadcasts will reach provinces such as Maidan-Wardak for the first time.

However, the new transmitter won't resolve the problems of providing nationwide television coverage - an issue information and culture ministry official Abdul Hameed Mubarez admits will be hard to resolve. "We can't broadcast easily across the nation because it's so mountainous - we can do so only with the aid of foreign nations, who can help us to install satellite communications," he said.

Then there's the problem of frequent power failures. As Abdul Rahman of the Kabul suburb of Karte-Say explained, "We don't have electrical power all the time and so cannot watch TV even if we have a television set. And many of us can't afford to buy generators."

The authorities blame the power shortages on years of drought, which have left hydroelectric dams idle. They anticipate that increased snowfall this year and more foreign assistance will help solve that problem.

Once the technical difficulties have been resolved, another problem awaits - what kind of programming to broadcast.

The strict religious rule of the Taleban may be over, and people are now free to watch previously banned televised images, but the issue of "appropriate content" has not gone away.

Afghanistan's domestic TV output is deemed to be so boring that hundreds are turning to foreign cable and satellite stations, which show movies, popular music shows and even pornography. In an attempt to address this problem, the government issued a temporary ban on cable television.

There have been some calls for a greater female presence on TV, more entertainment programmes and an end to film censorship.

Deputy minister Mubarez agrees that much of TV Kabul's programming is dull, "I, too, am in favor of having women and music programmes on television. Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia and Syria are also Islamic countries whose television stations broadcast women singing. We live in the 21st

century and should act accordingly."

Meanwhile, Afghans now gather in cafes and homes to view foreign channels. "The shows I watch in my neighbour's house are educational and scientific," said Ahmad Safeer, a human rights worker in Kabul. "I don't care to watch those sexy Indian movies. I would like to see more about the rebuilding of Afghanistan, human rights issues and even anti-war programmes."

Amhad's friend, Zabihulla, believes that while state television needs to be improved, it should not carry programmes considered contrary to the principles of Islam, "People would then become so angry they would protest to the government. The television output should be both interesting and Islamic."

Mohammad Shafiq Haqpal is a Kabul-based journalist.

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